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

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…

Under pressure over Ofsted. Joe Giddens/PA Archive/Press Association Images

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.

Time’s up for A-levels. Ben Birchall/PA Wire/Press Association Images

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?

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40 Comments sorted by

  1. Racheal Rajah

    Student

    Education should not be devised through political party. Nor the hands of one party determine a Childs' precious education.I fail to acknowledge how a human right for all children be dictated by one party's beliefs. Over-ruled by one signature. Finalised by one pair of ears. Gove hears countless views, yet can we ascertain one pair of listening ears be enough to determine what's right for a nation so diverse. In a society whereby one county struggle with reading yet another with mathematics. Can…

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    1. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Racheal Rajah

      I support your call for independence but I think you are missing a vital ingredient from your claim [...I fight for a system envisioning ideas generated by teachers,assistants, parents, children...] - the immediate and future requirements of industry or workplace (whatever that might look like in the future). Add that into your equation for a good rounded education and we will be on the same song sheet.

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    2. Racheal Rajah

      Student

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      oh absolutely Charles. But I'm pretty sure that if we were to listen to the teachers, assistants, parents, children and those at the heart of education I am most sure a lot of us feel one of the biggest gaps is that for future requirements of industry and workplace. We need to incorporate this to allow the children a vital chance in attaining progression into an industry that is fast paced and ever changing. The sooner we are able to prepare the more hope we have in succeeding with the demands of employment.

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  2. Gareth Child

    Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

    After twenty years of teaching, I left the job firmly believing that the way education has been mismanaged by politicians is nothing short of a national scandal. They have arbitrarily moved goalposts and announced reforms without evaluating previous changes - Gove even scrapped his own GCSE reforms before teachers had started to deliver them!

    Yes, the unions have been worse than useless, but worse still has been the conduct of the press during all this chaos. Every time a reform has been announced…

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    1. Maxine Blundell

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gareth Child

      What a wonderful and well thought out response! Thank you! As a teacher myself I find that everyday is a battle to justify my existence. Despite the constant bombardment of abuse, I do continue to throw myself passionately into my work because unlike Mr Gove I care more about the education of children than I do about my own career! I just want to teach to the best of my ability!

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    2. Racheal Rajah

      Student

      In reply to Gareth Child

      'Education needs to be placed in the control of a permanent, independent authority that is answerable to Parliament, not Government, and with a remit that is defined not just by politicians but by independent experts in child development, education, business, culture, and health'

      - Yes Gareth, this is exactly the change that's needed to happen for some time, yet I feel its escalating more rapidly in our modern society where freedom of speech allows to confront all these absurd idealisations of…

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  3. John Walder

    Lay officer of NUT

    A comment I have just sent to my members in Kent

    FYI and perhaps to provoke a response to Bell's attempt to sideline the teaching unions with his rhetoric about knee-jerk reaction to all change. I'd like to see him come up with some evidence for such an assertion. If he were a little less disdainfully dismissive then he might realise that the unions would support a lot of what he has to say instead of claiming all expertise and knowledge in educational matters for himself and a small group of those he considers his equals

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    1. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to John Walder

      I am not so sure about your assertion that engaging unions is the way ahead - in fact I would remove them from this equation - they currently act as a sea-anchor as well as a dividing influence - and instead follow the ideas of Gareth Child [above] - an independent body answerable only to Parliament.

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  4. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    In a democracy all important actions of the state including education should be determined democratically, and the current democratic form is parliament. It is just as wrong to characterise all parliamentary representatives as malevolent 'politicians' as it is to call all opposition to the Coalition's education policies 'the blob'.

    Neither is all education controlled by national politicians. There is important discretion left to schools, teachers, parents and pupils themselves.

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    1. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      "Neither is all education controlled by national politicians. There is important discretion left to schools, teachers, parents and pupils themselves."

      In theory, perhaps, but not in practice.

      The theory of a profession full of highly qualified expert teachers is exactly that - a theory. The reality is that teachers are treated as lazy, incompetent, and politically biased; they are bullied into uncritical obedience, and then blamed when the policies they are forced to obey fail.

      No-one listens to teachers (except, obviously, for the children in their classrooms.) That is why the profession is haemorrhaging talent.

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    2. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I have twenty years of policy compliant lesson plans that contradict you.

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    3. Racheal Rajah

      Student

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I value your opinion, however, I have to disagree with the statement that 'There is important discretion left to school, teachers, parents and pupils themselves'. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to witness a differing view to what others have, and what I believe is the majority. If schools had an 'important' discretion in regards to the education system within the school we would not be currently facing a widespread opposition to such a system. I'm sure there wouldn't be a vote of no confidence…

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    4. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      You are assuming, incorrectly, that the only variables are policy and the teachers.

      There are countless other factors - let's start with the one that the politicians and the politically correct refuse to acknowledge: native ability. Some children are more capable than others.

      Then there are social factors, economic factors, health factors. Some children have parents who are more supportive, others have parents who are less supportive, and still more even oppose schools. Even diet and the time…

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    5. Racheal Rajah

      Student

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      This study would provide evidence in favour of Gareth's' point just made. As Hattie devised his longitudinal study across a set of variables not limited to just teachers. These variables were students, homes, schools, teachers, curricula and teaching approaches. Hattie identifies a significant effect (p<.5) across 90% of all the variables, clearly demonstrating the importance of many varying factors. Of course I don't dispute the fact that teacher quality is a key factor to achievement, I think…

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    6. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Thanks, Rachel, for your excellent response - I won't duplicate your comments, and summarise what I was going to say this way:

      First, Gavin, you claimed that the only variables are policy and teachers.

      Then you dismiss the challenge to that claim by asserting that teachers correect for the other factors, leaving only policy and the teachers themselves as the only variables.

      That, in a neat little nutshell, is one of the most patronising dismissals of the massive body of expertise and professional…

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    7. Racheal Rajah

      Student

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Policy may be the same for many classes throughout many schools. But we must not be haste in saying that therefore differences perceived are due to the teachers alone. That would be a dreadful mistake to make and assumes that every school and all children do not differ. Every child is different. Every school is situated in different areas where significant differences within the communities are evident. If we were to move a successful teacher who taught in an affluent area where parents are likely…

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    8. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Gareth Child

      Where did I claim that 'the only variables are policy and teachers'?

      I did not claim claim that 'teachers correect for the other factors', but that the studies of teachers' effects correct for other factors and still find that teachers have an important influence on pupils' attainment.

      My general point is that however good or bad one may find national policy, it has limited effect on pupils' learning because important discretion remains with schools, teachers, parents and pupils themselves.

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    9. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      ...you are missing the obvious here - you are omitting the need for gearing up for a future world of work - perhaps you should add some element of local and national work skills requirements in there to.

      In simpler terms - teachers are good at teaching - they are not in the workforce on a daily basis - so are 'just' teaching yesterdays requirements. Need to add a dash of 'real world' in to our education system.

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    10. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      "My general point is that however good or bad one may find national policy, it has limited effect on pupils' learning because important discretion remains with schools, teachers, parents and pupils themselves."

      National policy has had numerous profound effects on pupils' learning.

      This academic year alone, an entire cohort of GCSE English students have had 20% of their work dismissed AFTER the children have already sat their assessments. This is not an isolated one-off - just the most spectacular of the recent examples.

      To describe that level of malevolent mismanagement as having a "limited effect" is pretty breathtaking.

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    11. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      In what way can the trashing of several months of work, with the explicit message that previous promise that it contributed to the GCSE qualification being retrospectively cancelled, not have an affect on pupil's learning?

      First, it means that months of education has been wasted.

      Second, if you are dismissing the psychological impact that action has on children, then you are inhuman.

      Third, it demotivates. Again, if you don't see that then you don't understand the relationship between effort and reward.

      Fourth, it erodes the trust between the child and the education system they are stuck in.

      Need I go on?

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    12. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      As I've said before, these things are not left to the discretion of the classroom teacher any more.

      The format of the lesson, the learning activities used, and the teaching methods are all subject to instruction by management, set out to comply with the latest Ofsted priorities. Monitoring is now a matter of whole school policy, and conducted at set times to set standards. Evaluating learning is centralised and standardised.

      It is a myth that classroom teachers are autonomous. They used to be, back when teaching was fun and goalposts weren't moved every year at the whim of the latest politician in charge.

      Not any more.

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    13. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      In an awful lot of schools, yes. As a matter of policy lesson plans are electronically submitted to line managers (subject heads for main scale teachers, assistant heads for the next level up, and so on) and must be approved and 'signed off' before the lessons are delivered. This is usually done a week in advance.

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    14. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Always a pleasure. I particularly liked the paper you referenced - I disagreed with the way you used it, but it is still a very impressive and challenging piece of work.

      A fine example of what research should do.

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  5. Andrew Johns

    Technical

    The problem is that most education ministers of any party know little about education and I’m afraid to say also most academic educationalist that spout out the latest next big thing in education.

    Part of the problem with education IS government policy that lies outside education. Most in education are too wrapped up in an education system to understand this. Examples of such are: economics, family life, aspirations, and opportunities. Without an environment that encourages learning you can have…

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  6. Bola Ogun

    Chair of Governors

    I agree! 'Gove-ism’ like Thatcherism has at its core a compelling critique that must not be dismissed. Gove is right to question the Blob of a bloated educational establishment of bureaucrats, unions and academics, particularly where it appears to lack ambition for our young people. I assert this as a ‘survivor’ of school days spent at a ‘bog standard neighbourhood comp’. In fact probably one of the worst - an establishment so devoid of ambition for its pupils, the place was barely worthy of being…

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    1. Andrew Johns

      Technical

      In reply to Bola Ogun

      Bola - Gove maybe right to question The Blob however you make the wrong conclusion that they are always incorrect. The bloated educational establishment I'm afraid includes Ofsted, school governers and many head teachers.

      My assertion is that part of the problem with the school system and lack of aspiration is precisely the direction you believe we should be heading, thata child “on leaving school to successfully compete in a hyper paced global economy”. Only part of this is correct as seen like this the end product of a child’s education is GDP.

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  7. Charles Dowie

    Retired/Researcher

    Reading this article and the comments below leaves me cold and angry. The arguments presented in this piece focus on the educational system and its 'control' by educationalists - presenting, loosely, theories of teaching and political influence and how they can succeed or fail or children.

    Anybody out there think that we need to engage our children with less 'well done - take a gold star' to simply educating them to find the solution without 'guidance' - encouraging them to work individually and as a team to reach conclusions - some of which may surprise you - and the teachers. I have experienced that and it is inspiring to watch.

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    1. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      Charles, you sound like you think what you saw was unique.

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    2. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Gareth Child

      I really hope not Gareth - but 'teaching to tick the box' suggests a sort of desperation that means a 'pat-on-the-back' approach is all that is required to reinforce 'good results' on a known set of tests.

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    3. Gareth Child

      Charity development officer at Freelance, parents & carers of disabled children.

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      You're nearly right, actually.

      The thing is, teachers don't get a pat on the back for ticking all the boxes. They get disciplined and sacked for failing to tick the boxes.

      As a teacher, I didn't really mind that because it is pretty important that children receive a good education - and teaching is a well paid job that used to be incredibly rewarding.

      What made me change my mind was the boxes that needed to be ticked - and none of it was for the children's benefit. That and the relentless attacks by Government and press on the teaching profession.

      It doesn't take a genius to join the dots in all of Gove's policies and see the end result he is aiming at. He calls it improvement, but I call it impoverishment.

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    4. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Gareth Child

      I did actually mean a 'pat on the back' for the students. Your points on box ticking all ring true - I am just amazed that we still have any teachers left.

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  8. Andy Barham

    logged in via Facebook

    Although I am in partial agreement with the overall tenure and even some of the recommendations of this article, I remain skeptical. I am a teacher myself, so I had better get that fact out of the way, and I taught for seven years in the UK. (My training and experience is Canadian; although, I did complete secondary in the United States at a time when they still had a good education system.)

    One thing that the majority of teachers are quite cynical about, on both sides of the Atlantic, is self-proclaimed…

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