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25 April 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 4:00am

The imaginary education secretary

Michael Gove is taken in by his own vacuous erudition.

By Jonathan Webber

Molière didn’t think much of the doctors of his day. “All the excellency of their art consists in pompous gibberish, in a specious babbling,”, he writes in The Imaginary Invalid, “which gives you words instead of reasons, and promises instead of results”. The play closes with a burlesque take on medical exams. Asked why opium causes sleep, the candidate replies that it possesses by nature a “virtus dormitiva” (sleep-inducing power). Asked why rhubarb is a purgative, he cites its “virtus purgativa“. The examiners are so impressed by his Latin that they award the degree that allows him to practise medicine.

Michael Gove wants us to be impressed by Latin. He is promoting it across the primary and secondary school curriculum. His latest scheme to encourage GCSE students to aspire to high grades has the Latin name “Dux” (leader, champion). Each school is to nominate one student about to enter their GCSE years. This student will visit a Russell Group university, get enthused, then spread that enthusiasm among their classmates. Because, clearly, a teenager dubbed “dux” by their teachers will command the respect of their peers.

Why does the education secretary see Latin as emblematic of academic excellence? It is just one area of academic study among many. It is not fundamental to academic work across the disciplines. It had ceased to be that by the time Molière mocked his doctors over 300 years ago. By then, as now, the essence of the academic enterprise had become sensitivity to empirical evidence and responsiveness to reasoned argument.

Is it perhaps because Gove’s approach to policy lacks this genuine academic credibility? Take his flagship project, for example: a massive increase in the number of academies. The total number of academies is now eight times the number that the coalition government inherited. Gove proclaims that this is progress, because academies perform better than schools under local authority control. He backs this claim up with reports of two very successful academies.

But a couple of anecdotes do not amount to respectable evidence. School exam results across the country clearly indicate that academies do not perform better than other schools. Newly built academies have so far achieved GCSE results below those of existing state schools. Schools that converted to academies saw a rise in their GCSE results that was no greater than the rise achieved by schools that had not converted. Despite the evidence, Gove is now attempting to force two hundred primary schools to become academies on the same pretext that this will raise educational achievement. In one case, he is doing this against opposition from all of the teachers and 90 per cent of the parents.

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His scheme to hand control of A-levels to universities is similarly lacking in reasoned motivation. A recent report has found that many academics want A-levels to have more advanced content and to stimulate a more independent and critical approach to learning. But this would need to be integrated with analysis of the experience of A-level teachers and with consideration of the constraints imposed on A-level teaching by the school league tables. There would also need to be good reason to prioritise the preferences of university academics over other stakeholders and strong evidence that university academics are likely to design courses appropriate to A-level students.

Why does education policy float so free of the facts? The drive to raise attainment by changing management structures does seem to overlook something we are all aware of. The less wealthy the students’ background, the more difficult it is for them to achieve high grades at school. This obvious fact is so well ignored that it is deemed newsworthy when someone does say it out loud. It is a lot easier to blame teachers and “failing schools”, to prescribe academy status and Latin lessons, to change the way exams are set, than it is to address this problem with a strategy that might actually solve it.

Molière is quite clear that only some of his doctors knowingly and cynically ignore the rational scientific approach to knowledge. The others are so taken in by their own vacuous erudition that they even inflict their imaginary medicine on themselves and their loved ones. But whether cynical or deluded all imaginary doctors are supported in their position by the witting or unwitting collusion of their patients, who then suffer the disastrous consequences. The tragedy is the farce.

If the education secretary is like Molière’s imaginary doctors, then the rest of us are in the position of their patients. We should ask ourselves why our education system is not in the hands of someone with due respect for reason and evidence. Is it because we are badly informed about the evidence? Is it because we ourselves do not want to face the real issues? Either way, how are we to ensure that future education policy is driven by intelligent solutions to these difficult problems, rather than merely imaginary prescriptions out of touch with reality?

Jonathan Webber teaches philosophy at Cardiff University