Is This Really What Education’s For?

I try (no, really) to maintain a degree of political neutrality on this blog, but I can’t help watching this video – of Michael Gove, Conservative spokesperson for Education – without getting a sense of dread about what will happen to schools should the Tories win the next election. I’d urge you to watch it, especially if you’re a UK voter – it lasts 35 minutes (pour yourself a stiff drink first)…………

Finished? OK, allow me a few remarks. As the venue was the RSA, Mr Gove presents a vision of education which, I’m sure, has been sugared by a coating of enlightened liberalism (even Tom Paine gets a mention) so as to make it more acceptable. I’d hate to hear the version that gets delivered to the Monday Club.

Let’s set aside the (highly) selective use of supporting quotes, or the frankly misleading stats comparing independent schools and state schools. It’s also not worth spending much time on the obvious contradictions in his arguments (subjects and content knowledge = successful schools, but Steiner schools will be allowed to flourish; the most successful international examples all rely upon traditional subject disciplines – tell that to High Tech High, in San Diego where project-based learning hasn’t stopped 100% of its students going to college).

No, for the purposes of this diatribe, let’s just focus on his spurious argument that not teaching history in chronological order, and depriving kids access to Cicero and Wagner is some social injustice, perpetrated through the ‘tyranny of relevance’. First, it’s a fallacy that ‘relevance’ automatically means hip-hop, Carol Ann Duffy, and pandering to what kids like, rather than ‘the very best of what has been thought and written’. Second, has Michael Gove ever met any of these kids? I know the patronising view of the anti-relativists is that there was some past golden era where legions of working class kids were converted to the classics, and many, many more would go on to study them at Oxbridge if only their teachers would enlighten them, but it’s not, and has never been, like that.

Teachers are enthusiastically developing ‘skills’, project-based approaches and introducing cross-curricular weeks, because their students are highly motivated by it. Simply ‘doing’ content to these kids was causing them to vote with their feet – truancy numbers have been rising for years, because these kids have been bored, and felt that what they learned in school was irrelevant to their lives. And they also know that they can get all the content they need through the internet, When they’re asked, students say they want their learning to help them solve real problems, they want to see how things connect, and they want to make a difference in the world and to learn from a wide range of people, to learn how to learn.

So Mr Gove is clearly out of touch with the recipients of schooling, and he’s also out of touch with the captains of industry, who regularly bemoan the lack of ‘skills’ in young people: teamworking, skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills and a range of other real-world skills. So, no support from young people, or employers. Where, then, does Gove derive sustenance for his beliefs? Well, apparently admissions tutors at Cambridge aren’t happy with the educational shifts we’ve seen over the past couple of years. Too many students are choosing to study ‘soft’ subjects like media studies and art & design.

So that’s it, then? The conservative vision boils down to the need to ditch progressive, relevant, engaging learning in order to satisfy Cambridge dons?

If Mr Gove was really serious about social justice, then perhaps he’d make reference in his speeches to student voice – his speech at the RSA never mentioned them – don’t they get a say in what’s done to them?

The RSA’s Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor, has challenged Mr Gove through an open letter. It’d be nice to think that he’ll get a response, but somehow I doubt it. However, I’d urge you to read it, and reflect upon the very clear differences between the two major parties’ education plans, when the general election is called.

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