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5 October 2010

Gove favours headlines over real reform

The education secretary's conference speech contained many gimmicks, but little that will actually i

By Duncan Robinson

The education secretary, Michael Gove, today gave his speech to the Tory party faithful and outlined his plans for England’s education system.

Before the election, Gove made a name for himself as one of the most effective members of the opposition. Since the election, however, the department of education and Gove himself have produced little but a steady stream of incompetence and bluster. First there was the Building Schools for the Future farce.

Then Gove released his ill-thought out and pointless gimmick, the “English baccalaureate”. Last week, however, Gove got to the crux of the problems in England’s education system: there was not enough hugging in schools…

Gove’s speech today was a chance to put all this behind him and lay out his vision for the future of England’s schools – and he fluffed it. Aside from a policy that would allow headmasters to discipline pupils for unruly behaviour on the way to or from school, nothing was said that would bring a cheer from teachers or parents.

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Gove’s announcement on how he will improve history teaching in schools was little more than a “boilerplate conference applause generator“, according to one government minister. It went down well in the hall, but history teachers across the land will have groaned.

History in English schools will apparently be saved because Prof. Simon Schama – who has never worked in a secondary school in his life – will help rewrite the history curriculum, along an “our island’s story” format(£). Schama has spent his career teaching undergraduates at elite universities, not trying to give 12-year-olds an understanding of the English Civil War. He brings nothing more than a name to the curriculum.

Likewise, Gove’s attempts to improve the literacy of students showed a remarkable lack of lateral thinking. To improve spelling and grammar, marks will once again be awarded for correct spelling and grammar in exams. It may well encourage (or nudge – the preferred term of Cameronites) teachers to focus more on basic grammar. But Gove ignored a more fundamental reason why kids from the UK have such a poor grasp of grammar: the reduction in the number of students studying foreign languages.

Ironically, Gove boasted how “newly-liberated heads and teachers [who] are using academy freedoms [to] improve the take-up of modern languages”. If languages are such a Good Thing, then why aren’t they mandatory until at least 16, like they are in every other major European country?

Gove might argue that such a diktat goes against his liberalising philosophy. Sometimes, however, nudging won’t work – sometimes people need a good, hard shove. Until then, the foreign language skills desired by universities and employers will remain the preserve of public school kids and the students of schools prepared to risk a child taking Spanish and Mandarin at GCSE rather than a double award in ICT.

England’s broken exam system was almost completely ignored. Gove made vague reference to how English exams would be “every bit as tough as those they sit in Massachussetts, South Korea or Singapore”, but made no mention of how he would do this. Will he scrap GCSEs and A levels altogether, and introduce a comprehensive, coherent post-14 education? Will he create a single examination body, removing at a stroke the current games played by teachers, sniffing out the simplest papers for their students to sit?

Until he lays out a coherent policy for England’s schools, Gove will bounce from gimmick to gimmick while the rot in England’s education system spreads. English students will continue to fall behind their fellow students abroad until someone does something.

Gove recognises the chronic need to reform England’s education system. But he has persistently failed to come up with any suggestions with substance. Rolling out Simon Schama might make headlines, but it won’t improve England’s schools.

3/10, Michael. Must do better.

Duncan Robinson also blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.