Seeing Michael Gove on Question Time on Thursday (13/01/10) was illuminating. Even one of my Labour friends was drawn to comment that it was “the best QT performance I’ve ever seen from a Conservative.” Amidst this sterling performance, the most interesting by far was the vigorous debate between Gove and some audience members over the new English Baccalaureate (henceforth EB). It was an exchange that highlighted not only Mr Gove’s inspirations and principles but also shone the spotlight on the ideological malaise that has so undermined the British education system in recent decades.
The theme taken up by a quintet of teachers in the Question Time audience – and endorsed by Labour-sympathisers on the panel – was that the EB represented a ‘narrowing’ of academic focus. Diane Abbot stated that the EB meant that its constituent subjects (which are English, Mathematics, Sciences, Foreign/Ancient Language and History/Geography) would be perceived as a ‘tier one’, and that this was a bad thing. I can think of nothing else that so clearly demonstrates how out of touch Labour has been on education. Does Diane really think that there is a majority in the country that doesn’t think that English, Maths and Science warrant special attention? Mr Gove, at one point, reeled off a list of figures from the international league tables showing how the standard of education in the UK relative to the rest of the world had slumped during the last ten years of Labour government. If Diane is any indicator, there would be no change from that course were they in office now.
However, even more worrying than Labour’s position was that taken by some of the teachers themselves. One particularly striking example serves as a suitable illustration. A female teacher in the audience suggested that young women from underprivileged backgrounds “might not be able to have the confidence to take on an academic subject”, and that these teenagers would subsequently feel “like they’ve been pushed to the bottom of the heap”. This attitude, if representative of a substantial proportion of the teaching profession, should be of great concern to Gove and anyone else responsible for educational reform. What it suggests, is that if a child doesn’t have the self-confidence to think they can succeed in an academic subject, then that should be accepted and the child directed to whatever courses their low self-esteem leads them to selecting. Instead of pushing children to work harder and achieve good grades in rigorous and valuable subjects, this approach risks further undermining the core academic subjects that lie at the heart of a well-rounded education.
This latest mutation of ‘trendy teaching’ is hugely detrimental to helping a child recognise and fulfil their true potential and thus to social mobility, which has stagnated over recent decades. The courses selected for the EB (aside from some quibbling about what constitutes a legitimate humanity) are broadly those that are widely recognised as being intellectually rigorous, socially useful and valued by employers. Children are ill-served if they are mothered through school without being properly informed of the value of these subjects, and the underlying assumption that children from poor or troubled backgrounds aren’t up to an academic education represents the soft bigotry of lowered expectations, at the very least.
I was an under-achieving student for most of my school career, crippled by a lack of belief in my own abilities. The probable course of my life was changed forever when I was lucky enough to get into one of Buckinghamshire’s Grammar Schools. There, the teachers were supportive but firm, and never ceased to both encourage me to achieve what they recognised as my potential and to upbraid me when I failed to achieve the standards they knew I could. I was also lucky enough to have parents of a similar cast of mind. Under their tutelage I managed to pull my grades around, achieved excellent A Levels and have since gone to a good university. I could never have done that had my teachers passively accepted my own pessimistic assessment of my capabilities.
Those claims made by Mr Gove’s opponents that this government is placing too much emphasis on a narrow band of academic achievement do not stand up to scrutiny, for the government is both re-opening and re-imagining the old technical colleges and via the Free Schools program, relinquishing the micro-managerial power that Labour sought to assume over schools and putting resources and emphasis into the long-neglected trades and professions. Of course it is not bringing back Grammar Schools (a policy that I, and others of all political stripes who were lucky enough to attend them lament) but a supportive and constructive yet firm teaching environment is not conjured or banished by the presence of an entrance exam. The Education Secretary must accompany his structural reshaping of our education system with a vigorous challenge to the entrenched attitudes within the teaching profession that do so much to sell children short. No student who is ‘spared’ an academic education and then fails to be all that they could have been has cause to thank their teachers.