Michael Gove must stop fighting "The Blob" and listen to the education experts

The Education Secretary has fallen for his own hype.

As the old saying goes, there is only one thing more useful in politics than having the right friends. That’s having the right enemies.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, has been highly skilled in defining his school reforms against what he calls The Blob – an amorphous, bloated education establishment opposing him at every turn; a mass of bureaucrats, unions and academics who eschew rigour for a left-wing, child-centred, progressive agenda.

But there is another truism in politics – don’t believe your own hype. Whitehall has a habit of isolating ministers. The day-to-day grind of policy battles, firefighting and political ding-dong can start to cut you off from outside ideas and thinking. The row over Ofsted’s leadership shows the importance of retaining, and being seen to retain, independent voices near the top – not simply “yes men”. The danger is that while The Blob is a useful political tool in the short-term, it simply might not be as deep-rooted as the education secretary believes.

Yes, the main teaching unions' leaderships have played right into the government’s hands over the past four years. Their barrage of industrial action and knee-jerk opposition to any change, has allowed the Education Secretary and his supporters to characterise them as cartoon-like bogeymen. The unions’ political naivety has been astonishing.

But there is a far wider group of non-Blobberati voices across the schools sector, higher education, industry and the voluntary sector, who offer an intelligent critique of where we are now.

These people have been broadly supportive of successive governments' education reforms and, as a result, are not so easily dismissed. They believe in improving our education system but they also advocate sensible debate. They should be listened to by politicians of all parties.

A-levels do not go far enough

A good example of bringing together a range of voices was seen last week with the publication of Making Education Work. This was an independent review, strongly influenced by an advisory group, of which I was a member, consisting of senior business leaders, eminent scientists and leading academics. That’s a powerful alliance whose views deserve a hearing.

We noted that the UK’s economy and society had changed out of all recognition in the last 60 years. Yet we are still wedded to a system where sixth formers specialise in three or four gold-standard A-level subjects.

Indeed, it could be argued that this has been entrenched further by a return to “pass or fail” final exams after two years of study, alongside the introduction of more vocationally orientated Tech-Levels.

For me, it is not being Blob-like at all to ask if that is good enough in the long-term.

I’m not one to join in the national self-flagellation around England’s position in the OECD’s PISA rankings – they are one measure but not the only measure.

But it’s clear that globalised trade, communications, technology and employment means our young people now compete directly with their peers across the world. And everywhere, governments, employers and teachers are asking the same question: how do we ensure that they are highly educated, well-equipped to be good citizens and able to contribute to productive economic growth?

The benefit of long-term thinking

That’s why our review has made clear a secondary curriculum must be much more clearly linked to the UK’s economic and social strategy. And it puts forward a number of important recommendations to do this.

First, a permanent, independent strategic advisory body on curriculum, delivery and assessment. It’s time to end education policy being at the behest of five-year electoral cycles and three decades of changing policy priorities. If national infrastructure projects in areas such as energy and transport deserve long-term thinking, surely the same applies to education?

Second, widening the existing narrow choice of A-level subjects with a broader baccalaureate-style system – based on a core of English, mathematics, science and extended project work.

This won’t happen overnight. We stress it will require better specialist teaching and facilities; that it won’t be appropriate for all; and that top-class science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) degrees will still require early specialisation. But given the demands of employers and society, the case for students to study as broadly as possible is a no-brainer.

Third, a much greater emphasis on non-cognitive, so-called “softer skills” is called for. These include clear communication in English and maths, STEM and digital competence, team working, personal and interpersonal skills. Such skills will help to embed codes of conduct, ethics, emotional maturity, and initiative and entrepreneurship, creativity and cultural awareness. This does not undermine rigour – it enhances it.

New decade, same argument

It seems particularly appropriate to be considering these ideas now. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Tomlinson Report into 14-19 education.

It recommended radical reform, including phasing out GCSEs, A and AS-levels and vocational qualifications and replacing them with a new diploma. Too radical as it turned out, when the then-Labour government feared being seen as soft on standards in the run-in to the 2005 election. Tomlinson was ignored and in its place came a watered-down alternative vocational diploma – now discarded.

Yet, a decade later we’re still having the same argument. And without a mature consensus on education reform, we’ll be in the same position in a another decade’s time. I doubt the latest changes to A-levels are the answer on their own. Worse than that, the history of vocational reform suggests Tech-Levels risk being seen as second-rate, however unfairly.

Our report challenges all politicians to demonstrate long-term leadership. Forget fighting The Blob. Building consensus on the future direction of education in this country is a sign of strength, not weakness. Now who is up for the challenge?

Sir David Bell is on the advisory board for the Making Education Better review. He is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading and former Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Michael Gove speaks at the Conservative conference in Birmingham in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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