Gove’s ‘Dead Philosophers Society’ article designed to show off his erudition but lacks evidence. Talking of Marxists, are bursaries for the few fair?

1 Aug

In what might be described as hisDead Philosophers Society’ article in The Guardian,  the Education Secretary claims that: My education reforms are based on evidence, not ideology” and “the truth, of course, is that there is nothing ‘ideological’ about free schools”

This is the classic politicians’ trick of claiming that their own policies – “the truth, of course” – are not “ideology”, or even policies at all, while the policies of those with a different view are “ideology” or “dogma”. 

“Ideology” is defined as “beliefs”, “principles”, “vision”, “set of system of ideas and ideals, basis of policy”. It would be surprising if any minister’s policies didn’t meet these criteria.  

The use of statistics in the article is also classic spin.  

“Ofsted has just completed its independent inspections of the first 24 free schools, which opened in September 2011. The results are in – and these schools are outperforming the rest of the country. The proportion that are good or outstanding outstrips other state schools. Although a handful of schools required some improvement when judged against Ofsted’s tough new inspection framework, the leaders of those schools are already taking action to ensure they improve – or are ex-private schools that need a little more time to adjust to the disciplines of state school inspection.”

However, elsewhere in The Guardian: “Three-quarters of the free schools are rated by Ofsted as outstanding or good, compared with two-thirds of maintained state schools” – hardly “outstripping” – while the BBC reports that: Inspections of England’s first 24 free schools show they are performing in line with other state schools…19% required improvement and 3% were inadequate.” 

If these weren’t free schools or academies, Mr Gove’s rhetoric and the media headlines would follow the usual  “standards are falling”, glass-is-quarter-empty-rather-than-three-quarters-full line, focusing on the “handful” that were inadequate, while ‘excuses’ like “when judged against Ofsted’s tough new inspection framework” and “leaders of those schools are already taking action to ensure they improve” or a “need a little more time to adjust” would be given short shrift. 

Mr Gove talks proudly of his much-criticised  “draft national curriculum” but this is the curriculum that free schools don’t have to follow! 

He references various philosophers and philosophies, including Marxists (this time neither “trots” nor “enemies of promise”), but not Maoists.  

“Classical Marxists support free schools because they embody the ideal of the soviet, a self-managing institution run by workers in the wider public interest.” 

How many free schools are actually run in this way and why are they in the “wider public interest” – surely they are in the “interest” of those who own/run them or have children who attend them? 

If we’re dragging John Stuart Mill into this, how “sovereign” are the individuals who operate or work in free schools when there are questions about how ‘free’ free schools really are 

Mill also believed in preventing “harm to others”. Voice has challenged the Government’s educational doublethink on free schools on a number of occasions. Voice has expressed numerous reservations about free schools, including:

  • the motives of those setting them up;
  • the impact of free schools in terms of their long-term funding and viability and their potential effects on other schools;
  • their cost to the public purse;
  • the risks of a “buffet approach” to education provision causing chaos and confusion for parents, admissions policies, infrastructure planning, employers, and staff recruitment and retention;
  • the risks of conducting an ideological experiment on children’s education; and free schools employing unqualified teachers.

Mr Gove boasts that free schools can “hire the best people to teach”, yet, according to The Sunday Mirror and The Observer One in ten teachers working in free schools are not formally qualified to do so, according to official figures.”  

As we have pointed out before, how do you raise teaching standards while encouraging the employment of unqualified teachers? If QTS “will remain the highly-respected professional status for teachers and one that all teachers training in the state sector must continue to meet” why allow some to teach without it? 

While promoting ‘freedom’ from QTS with one hand, the Government is promoting QTS through its School Direct training programme and introducing tougher English and maths tests for trainee teachers striving for QTS with the other. 

Where is the “evidence” that Mr Gove claims? 

Earlier this year, Dr Ben Goldacre produced a paper on how education could become an evidenced-based profession. Building Evidence into Education describes how teachers could establish professional independence using evidenced-based practice. A coherent ‘information architecture’ is required in conjunction with a culture where evidence is routinely collected and used to improve and promote teaching, learning and outcomes for children.  

It was generally well received by members of the DfE Education Forum, which Voice attends. However, it was disappointing that the DfE did not appear to have an immediate expectation to develop the concept. We hope that the report will not be buried because it dares to proffer a way for teachers to take education back where it belongs – away from politicians’ stranglehold. 

The lack of evidence in Mr Gove’s article suggests that ministerial policy making is an evidence-free or evidence-lite zone. 

What would the Marxists make of bursaries for the few? 

Bursaries of up to £20,000 are to be offered to teach maths, English or Special Educational Needs (SEN) in England’s further education colleges, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has announced.

What does this say about the state of FE teaching that incentives are required? 

While welcome for those who want to teach these subjects, is this divisive and unfair on those who would like to teach other subjects?  

Do let us know your thoughts on this blog post…

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2 Responses to “Gove’s ‘Dead Philosophers Society’ article designed to show off his erudition but lacks evidence. Talking of Marxists, are bursaries for the few fair?”

  1. John Winter 01. Aug, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    Whilst agreeing with much of what Richard Fraser has to say here in terms of criticising Gove’s self-serving article it is perhaps worth noting in the interests of balance that John Stuart Mill’s concept of the individual as “sovereign” and autonomous requires us to fairly acknowledge that this would call for more not less diversity in terms of education. Mill was suspicious of conformity and whilst he certainly believed in the necessity of education for all children and the State’s duty to ensure that parents educate their children, he nonetheless did not advocate a one-size fits all approach to education and was himself educated privately. Thus whilst calling Mill to our support in asking how free “are the individuals who operate or work in free schools when there are questions about how ‘free’ free schools really are” we must also acknowledge that this may equally apply to the old State sector local authority model which predominated in recent times of which Mill would have been equally critical.

    Richard also goes on to cite Mill’s belief in preventing “harm to others” and went onto to talk of Voice’s challenge to the Government’s educational policy with respect to free schools, which presumably may be thought of as causing “harm to others” when we count in “motives…impact….funding and viability and their potential effects on other schools; their cost to the public purse;the risks of a “buffet approach” to education provision causing chaos and confusion for parents, admissions policies, infrastructure planning, employers, and staff recruitment and retention;the risks of conducting an ideological experiment on children’s education; and free schools employing unqualified teachers.’ Unfortunately for Richard, Mill thought of “harm” in On Liberty only in terms of physical harm. He would not have extended harm in the way suggested and arguably would have been more in favour of what Richard terms a “buffet approach” particularly with respect to parental choice.

    As a member of Voice, I am proud to belong to a Union that is not ideologically locked in to one system of education, whether State sponsored or fee-paying; Secular or religiously based. In criticising Gove’s self-serving spin, we must be careful ourselves not simply to oppose Free Schools because they are his idea, because that would make us equally ideological and doctrinaire. If there is a good evidence-based reason for a free school in a particular area then fine, if not then there should be no rush to build one. This to me sees the sensible and reasonable approach to adopt!

    • Richard Fraser 02. Aug, 2013 at 9:30 am #

      Thank you for your response. It is good to know why you support Voice and that you share the union’s stance on the importance of evidence and being fair and inclusive.

      As a profession, we should not simply oppose all change as a default position but should challenge how that change is implemented, how it is presented by politicians and the media, the pace of that change, the impact on pupils, and failure to engage with the profession.

      Voice considers each education policy on its own merits, or otherwise. Our concerns about free schools would be the same regardless of the individual Secretary of State who introduced them.

      I agree with what your say about Mill. However, some concerns about possible “physical harm” have been raised: http://blog.voicetheunion.org.uk/?p=2153

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