Show some character, Mr Gove, and less “vapid happy talk”. “Progressive betrayal” means gradual betrayal of our education (updated)

7 Feb

Update: 7 February 2013

See: Michael Gove must learn from EBC U-turn:

General Secretary Deborah Lawson said:

“This is astonishing but welcome news. On Tuesday evening, Michael Gove was praising and promoting the EBacc in a speech to the Social Market Foundations. On Thursday morning, we learn that he will scrap the idea of English Baccalaureate Certificates. This raises serious questions about his judgement and his future as Education Secretary.

“In that address, Mr Gove made headlines for dismissing aspects of the curriculum as ‘vapid happy talk’. Now it seems that the speech itself will remembered for being just that.

“This U-turn is a triumph for democratic accountability and a lesson for Mr Gove. In future, instead of rushing ahead regardless, following his own agenda, the Education Secretary must learn to listen, take advice from the profession, consider carefully and undertake genuine consultations.

“We hope that there will now be a national debate and genuine consultation, not only on the future of GCSEs and proposals for the National Curriculum, but on the whole 14-19 system of education.”

See also: “The purpose of assessment”: SecEd, 7 February 2013 

6 February 2013:

In a speech to the Social Market Foundation, “The Progressive Betrayal” Education Secretary Michael Gove spoke of his belief in a “core knowledge” curriculum and warned of a “Downton Abbey-style” education system in which academic subjects are reserved for privileged pupils.

The content of the curriculum has been the subject of considerable debate and the various suggestions have included:

Voice Professional Officer John Till, an Honorary Fellow of The Historical Association, has commented that:

“History has been probably the most politically controversial subject in the National Curriculum….This is not surprising. The choice of topics or periods of history to be studied in schools and the methodology to be adopted have political implications. The use and misuse of history by those who wish to influence opinion have been, and no doubt will continue to be, a feature of public debate. Professional historians and history teachers often disagree on the purpose and content of the subject, and can themselves be accused of seeking to manipulate…. So sensitive a subject calls for awareness and professional integrity in those who teach it. A renewed emphasis on the importance attached to history by the Government is likely to encourage interest in and scrutiny of what is taught, with consequent demands on teachers.”

According to Mr Gove:

“Unless you have knowledge – historical, cultural, scientific, mathematic – all you will find on Google is babble.”

Mr Gove is right about the fundamental importance of education, especially in the face of the celebrity role model culture that ensnared Jade Goody.

However, as we have pointed out in previous Blog posts and press statements, the narrow range of subjects included in the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate’ excludes and devalues both academic subjects such as religious education, music, art etc and vocational subjects for those who want to pursue them, from whatever background they come.

It also threatens to fragment the examinations system itself.

Mr Gove has even admitted that, as a result of these changes, a sizeable proportion of students will leave school with no qualifications, thus making the EBacc more the preserve of the “privileged pupils” rather than less.

Voice has long called for parity between academic and vocational education and courses and exams designed to meet students’ needs, rather than focusing on a narrow range of academic subjects in the ‘EBacc’.

“The act of measuring does not mandate” but there is less incentive for schools or students to engage with subjects which don’t count in league tables or performance targets “rigorously policed” by Ofsted or which fall into the category of second-class GCSE rather than prestigious EBacc.

There might be certain subject requirements “inviolably” in the national curriculum, but the ever-growing number of academies that now dominate secondary education not only “have the freedom to vary any part of”  the national curriculum “they consider appropriate”, they are not  “mandated” to follow it at all.

In its report, From GCSEs to EBCs: the Government’s proposals for reform, the Commons Education Committee said that the Government was trying to do too much, too fast. Chair Graham Stuart MP, said:

“No sensible reform of assessment can take place without clarity as to what is to be taught. Coherence is not achieved by accident but by design. Changes to assessment and accountability should only be implemented as part of a coherent review of Key Stage 4 education.”

As Mr Stuart has also pointed out, it is “naive” to believe that schools are not incentivised to follow the “framework” forced on them by the Government, as a “driver of behaviour”, citing an example of a school that had abandoned a popular and successful history & geography course in order to meet the constraints of the EBacc.

Numerous arts organisations and actors have opposed the EBacc as a threat to creative subjects.  Will there be future Downton Abbeys if the EBacc goes ahead?

(While on the subject of dramas, in 2011 a day’s work as an extra on the set of Downton, donated by Conservative peer Julian Fellowes, was auctioned off for £25,000 to raise funds for Mr Gove’s party, so that might not have been the best metaphor to use.)  

Where does all this leave Mr Gove’s arguments in favour of a robust “core knowledge” of facts and information?

His English Baccalaureate Certificate threatens, to use his words from another speech, the:

education properly understood – a liberal education which includes the disciplines of…, music, art and designand enables citizens to be “capable of sifting good arguments from bad, the bogus from the truthful, the contingent from the universal”.

This is yet more doublethink or, as TES put it recently, Jekyll and Hyde “awkward disconnect”:

“the new national curriculum.. return to old-fashioned subject matter” or “teachers to have the freedom to teach whatever they want, whenever they want”?

“What’s it to be, then? Is the long-awaited curriculum review the saviour of our Trot-controlled education system, or is it tinkering with a near-obsolete example of control freakery?”

“… the new secondary curriculum will be drastically pared back to just a few pages. Ministers will be able to expound on the freedom to teach. And thus the libertarian Conservative Dr Jekyll is chuffed. But wait! Here comes the authoritarian Conservative Mr Hyde. Mr Hyde’s obsessions are the exam system and take-up of such airy-fairy subjects as media studies. What we need is the English Baccalaureate, he says. That’ll sort them out. All kids will be forced down a traditional route without the need for a dictatorial curriculum.”

Mr Gove has a vision to transform education for his reforms, essential for social mobility, but it is a narrow and restrictive one that is not directly enforceable.  

The “progressive betrayal is not, as he means it, betrayal by “progressives” but a gradual, or incremental, betrayal by the Education Secretary of our education and those who study and teach in it.

“Vapid happy talk” or character building?

Having “stripped out” the “vapid happy talk” – whatever that is –  unless it’s yet another party political platitude – from the curriculum, one wonders what Mr Man up Gove makes of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility’s Character & resilience summit and its examination of character and resilience as the missing link in mobility.” It’s not exactly “core knowledge” of Gradgrindian “facts”.

The summit was debated on the Today programme and touched on teaching children how to fail.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, and a subject of Mr Gove’s adulation, has also called for tuition in “character education” to prepare young people for the workplace and university and warned that the “development of the child” has been sidelined in too many schools because of exam targets and league tables.

However, what is “character”? Is it possible to teach ‘character’ and ‘values’ and whose and which ones should they be?” Should they be “old fashioned” or more modern, questioning and less deferential, or are “good manners, self-control, self-reliance, responsibility, punctuality, determination, resilience, appreciation, kindness and tidiness” universal and timeless?

Is it Orwellian to advocate one particular way of living or style of “character”?

Do let us know your thoughts…

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2 Responses to “Show some character, Mr Gove, and less “vapid happy talk”. “Progressive betrayal” means gradual betrayal of our education (updated)”

  1. Hoover 06. Feb, 2013 at 6:42 pm #

    Gove’s speech was excellent.

    We’re sick of this system that lets kids down, and the progressives who make excuses for it.

  2. Richard Fraser 15. Feb, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    Voice’s Official Response 1084: Measuring Child poverty
    http://www.voicetheunion.org.uk/index.cfm?cid=975

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