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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era