It might seem, from my blogposts, that I have a minor obsession with our Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. I don’t, no really, I don’t. But you have to admit: he’s a fascinating, complex, and often contradictory, character.
But 2011 hasn’t started well for the Govemeister. First, he published an article in the Telegraph, calling for a ‘cultural revolution’ in education following a visit to China. The trigger for his conversion to the thoughts of Chairman Mao, was a visit to a school in Beijing:
In one Beijing school I was handed a thick book with screeds of Chinese characters and the odd paragraph in English. “Is this a textbook,” I asked? No, I was told, it was a compendium of research papers published in academic journals by people at the school. “Gosh,” I replied. “Your teachers must be well qualified if they are regularly publishing new work in university journals.The papers were not, I was told, the professional work of the teachers. They were the homework of the pupils.”
Well, the immediate, and obvious, response to this revelation is, how did he know what he was looking at? I mean, it’s not like the Chinese authorities like to put on a show, is it? Unless Mr Gove can read screeds of Chinese characters, he could have been handed a vanity press version of ‘what I did on my holidays’. But, even if he did stumble upon an extraordinary school, is this sufficient evidence to say we are falling behind the Chinese?
In a recent Wall St Journal article Mr. Jiang Xueqin, Deputy Principal of Peking University High School, was bemoaning the rote-memorisation which dominates Chinese high schools (yets propels them up the PISA rankings) as not developing the sort of independent learners that the future demands:
China has no problem producing mid-level accountants, computer programmers and technocrats. But what about the entrepreneurs and innovators needed to run a 21st century global economy? China’s most promising students still must go abroad to develop their managerial drive and creativity, and there they have to unlearn the test-centric approach to knowledge that was drilled into them.
The failings of a rote-memorization system are well-known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning. Chinese students burn themselves out testing into university, where many of them spend their time playing World of Warcraft.
But the most personally embarrassing rebuke came to Mr Gove over his invocation of a cultural revolution. As one Chinese blogger wrote:
In the Cultural Revolution, learning was a crime. The crackdown on teachers, professors and intellectuals was particularly nasty. In secondary schools students humiliated and denounced their teachers. In high schools, teachers wore dunce caps and spent the whole day reciting “I am a demon” in front of classrooms filled with mocking students.Is this what Gove is advocating?
Oh dear, let’s move on, shall we?
Shortly after, Mr Gove decided that the loose wraparound of existing GCSEs which forms the new English Baccalaureate, would be launched, retrospectively, by publishing a league table of last years results (when schools had no inkling of the Govemeister’s plans). Predictably, schools were aghast, and appalled, by the publication of these so-called ‘results’.
Before I get on to the rationale behind this decision, let’s just quash another myth: the EB is to its big brother, the International Baccalaureate, what the Little Book of Happiness is to Buddhism. The IB is a broad-based curriculum, which seeks to foster intercultural awareness, holistic learning and communication skills through personal projects and learning in eight subject areas, including the arts and physical education. The EBac intentionally seeks to steer schools (through the publication in league tables) towards a prescribed hierarchy of subjects, where – bizarrely – Ancient Greek and Hebrew count as modern foreign languages, but Religious Education isn’t a humanity and Information Technology isn’t a science.
Once the retrospective results were published, we learned that only 15% of students would qualify for this highly dubious qualification, and only 4% of students on free school meals would qualify, thus ensuring that they feel even worse about themselves. The tables, predictably, were swamped with independent and selctive schools – you had to go a long way down the list before finding a ‘bog-standard comp’ with good EBac results.
Faced with the resultant hailstorm of criticism (check out this irate father laying in to Mr Gove on a BBC phone-in) an ingenious form of reverse snobbery emerges: the liberal progressives are being ‘elitist’ for thinking that free-school meals kids can’t excel at EBac subjects. You see, we’ve just been giving them a soft-option for years, when their employment prospects would really have been helped by studying Ancient Greek.
Well, no. The elitist position is to denigrate any other form of intelligence, other than logical-deductive reasoning and the ability to remember facts and historical dates. All students (yes, even the posh ones) should be rewarded for being able to excel with their hands, their bodies and their imaginations – for those skills will stand them in good stead long after they’ve forgotten most of what was drilled into them, in order to gain a qualification which has no currency, but will matter a great deal to schools desperate to keep out of the naming and shaming searchlight.
For a minister who vowed he would not be telling them what to do, Mr Gove now seems to be coercing schools into his own blue-remembered idyllic form of schooling, in the misguided belief that it will re-motivate students, and teachers, who already see school as exam factory.