Michael Gove wants longer school days because . . . reasons

Teachers must wish Michael Gove worked shorter days and took longer holidays - then his department might stop coming up with so many ill-considered changes to the education system.


Here’s an idea for a competition: Find a random statistic relating to a country with a highly-ranked schooling system, then present it to Michael Gove as evidence of where England’s going wrong.

Perhaps too few of our dinner ladies wear blue socks on a Wednesday. Or maybe more of our head teachers need gerbils. Whatever it is, chuck it Michael’s way.

You never know, it might be useful. Even if it’s not, he may act on it all the same (that’s assuming, for instance, that Gove once had a blue-socked dinner lady who only worked mid-week, or a favourite headmaster whose gerbil, Sir Nibbles, inspired him to become the baffling creature he is today).

First prize in this competition is an EBC (after all, who’d want to see an unworkable concept go to waste?).

Gove’s latest madcap “someone else is doing it, so why aren’t we?” proposal is to make school holidays shorter and school days longer. My partner, a primary school teacher, notes that if nothing else, Gove now has the rare achievement of being a hate figure among the kids of Key Stage Two (and yet he considers these youngsters out of step with British culture and values!).

As ever, the education minister doesn’t seem to care; as ever, change is deemed necessary because we’re just not a competitive country any more. He says:

“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”

Argh! Not the global race again! Hand me the economic Lucozade! To tell the truth, I’ve never quite grasped this global race idea and how it relates to education. If that’s how it is – if we’re all competing so openly – then sod compulsory foreign languages at KS2 and terminal exams at 16. That’s just fiddling while Rome burns (an insufficiently British event which I suspect is now excluded from the history curriculum, but which may now be covered in Year Six Latin classes).

None of that will help us win the race. What Britain needs are military invasions leading to the physical and cultural enslavement of entire continents. Failing that – let’s say we’re not quite up to getting off the sofa these days – we might as well scrap employment regulation and become a nation of sweatshops. I mean, that is what we’re probably doing, bit by bit. But does it have to take so long?

I suppose the longer school day/shorter holiday model is a step in the right direction. It is, Gove claims, “family-friendly” and “consistent with the pressures of a modern society”. That is to say it is employer-friendly and consistent with the panic faced by a government with no idea how to rescue the economy. And yes, it may mean that some parents – at least those parents fortunate enough to work “normal” hours – find it easier to fit childcare around their work (since we’re now being invited to blur the boundary between education and childcare).

It wouldn’t make much difference to me personally; my son’s school already has a fantastic breakfast and after-school club which accepts childcare vouchers. And no, I don’t mean that in a smug, I’m-alright-Jack way. I mean to point out that there’s already a very workable solution to this issue – one that simply involves childcare and not more lessons – that could do with being extended to other schools and communities where needed. It means children get to play. Is that so bad? Let’s face it, we won’t “win the race” by force-feeding them more reading schemes. Let them be happy now. We all know how grim things will be by the time they’re our age.

As far as long holidays go, I have to admit I can see the attraction of dispensing with them. They’re not that much fun for kids, at least as far as I can recall, otherwise why would I have spent so much time watching badly-dubbed re-runs of runaway circus boy saga Silas while waiting for September to come? While teachers do make good use of the holidays for preparation, many of the ones I’ve spoken to say that children do forget things and/or lose confidence over a six-week break. So perhaps there is something in that part of the proposal (unnatural as sort-of agreeing with Michael Gove might feel). 

But as for the longer day? Where will this extra teaching come from? What does Michael Gove think teachers do with their time? (Yes, they pin up posters of him in the corner of the staff room and throw darts. But that takes mere minutes. I mean the planning, progress tracking and marking, all the stuff that’s so boring we’d rather pretend that no one actually does it. And the more contact time teachers have, the more prep there will be.)

The truth is, Michael Gove doesn’t half mess about and some of what he proposes seems unlikely to happen. As Suzanne Moore writes, Gove’s Mastermind specialist subject would be “looking busy”. Perhaps none of this will come to pass. And yet, it’s the randomness of the thing that rankles. I wince every time the phrase “high performing jurisdiction” is mentioned. It reminds me of study only insofar as I recall bodging together late-night essays, plucking quotations out of books I hadn’t read to back up arguments I’d decided on in advance. “High performing jurisdictions” have become the sources you treat with no respect; I wonder if there’s now some kind of database where you simply enter the policy you want and it spits out Finland, Singapore or wherever as your retrospective justification. It’s meaningless.

Plus it’s irrelevant whenever Gove’s own jurisdiction - here - is doing okay because the rule that something must be tweaked still applies. The UK might be ranked 28th in the world for secondary maths, but when you look at the figures for primary in England, for instance, the picture’s far from bleak. Doesn’t matter, though, does it? It it ain’t broke then smashing it to pieces might allow you to work off some nervous tension.

And so the tinkering and tweaking continues. And yet education, even if it won’t win us global races, still has the power to enrich lives. Whatever else I think of Gove, I suspect that deep down, he believes this, too. Something’s got lost in translation. For all the Latin and Greek, we’re losing a grip on the basics, no longer vouching for the power and joy of knowledge. Two extra hours in the classroom each day won’t ever be able to make up for that loss.


Quick! Those children look like they're enjoying themselves! Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage