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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.