Unqualified headteachers? Welcome to Michael Gove’s educational dystopia . .

Pimlico Primary, a new free school in London, made the news this week for hiring a  27 year old as the head teacher ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-22016045 ).  27 does seem a rather young age to take responsibility for a school, although an outstanding candidate with 5 years of experience in the classroom and as a deputy head could take the role and make a success of it.  Except this appointee has none of those things. Anneliese Briggs does not have a teaching qualification. Yes, that’s right, a school is hiring a headteacher who is not really  a teacher.

How in the name of feck did we get to this sorry state of affairs? I have nothing against Ms Briggs personally, and I think she is probably a victim in all of this caught up as she is in the ideological blitzkreig which Michael Gove is waging against state education.

Apparently what makes Ms Briggs suitable to be the leader of a state funded school (so we pay her salary), is her experience with the ‘cultural literacy curriculum’ of E. D.  Hirsch. Hirsch’s emphasis on the systematic teaching of facts and his creation of a curriculum which appears to follow a logical order has been the doyen of Gove’s eye for many years now, offering as it does a veneer of theoretical credibility to his curriculum reforms which are leading to a bloated and fact-heavy curriculum.  I too have experience of the concept of cultural literacy as a curriculum, and cutting the chase I can let you have my expertise for free right now, the cultural literacy curriculum is a load of old tripe.

Briggs was no doubt involved in Civitas’s ‘anglicisation of E. D. Hirsch’s curriculum ( http://www.coreknowledge.org.uk/coreknowledge.php ).  Maybe she even helped draw the wonderful diagram below, with its *amazing* insights into how a school curriculum is not just about core knowledge, but also about the school’s ethos and values.  Not that the diagram is wrong or anything, it’s just that it’s so glib and patronising.  The whole thing reeks of posh kids holed up in a London office thinking they have all the answers to education because they can draw a pretty diagram using PowerPoint.

It’s hard to know where to start with the debunking of the snake oil drenched chicanery of ‘core knowledge’, there’s just so much to go at.  But how about you just pause reading and quickly outline the story of Gawain and the Green Knight (from the top of your head, no Googling it). I don’t want you to quote from the original, just tell what the story is, and what it’s meaning is within Christian thought.

No doubt you rattled that off easily, but if you had trouble, then bear in mind that Civitas recommends that Year 5 children are familiar with the legend of Gawain and the Green Knight.  And if you teach in a school using the core knowledge sequence then you can’t miss this out, as the theoretical foundation of cultural literacy is that it is impossible to acquire later knowledge unless each interim step has been achieved. So miss out Gawain and his jolly green mate, and you’re stuffed when it comes to year 6 and you have to learn about ‘The legend of Culhywch and Owen’.. it will make absolutely no sense whatever to you. *

Gove, and his previous school minister Nick  Gibb have been obsessed with curriculum reform, because the curriculum seems, to the education outsider, the one thing you can grab hold of in education and change to impose your will on schools and bring the unruly teaching profession to heel.  But if  you’ve worked in education for even a short time (ie longer than Ms Briggs), you will soon learn that the curriculum is only part of the complex picture of education. Driving up standards and the quality of learning is not all about changing the curriculum, especially if your conception of the curriculum is a list of stuff to be taught and learned, rather than a more progressive view of the curriculum which is rooted in what we know about learning and child development.  Andrew Pollard writing of the pernicious influence of Hirsch’s ideas on the new national curriculum pointed out that  the new curriculum ‘neglects the way children learn’ ( http://www.ioe.ac.uk/64559.html ), but his views were ignored by Gove. Pollard has decades of experience in education and published his first book on primary schooling in 1985. If he was 27, had spent a few years knocking around in a think tank and spent a few hours once in a school, maybe he would have been listened to.

This whole story summarises what Gove is doing to UK state education.  He is using his pet free school project to create chaos and uncertainty, and undermine the professionalism of teachers in the most cynical of ways.  No doubt, Pimlico Primary will have lots of help from the DfE once opened (although we probably will never know how much as previous FOIs to determine levels of spending on free schools have been ignored or bypassed), so it will be a success and Gove can confidently declare that not only teachers not need to be qualified, but head teachers don’t need to be either.  And so the assault on state schools will continue as more are driven into the academy chains of the Tory backers and primed for profit making.

Welcome to the topsy turvy world of Michael Gove’s education dystopia, a nightmare from which we may never awaken.

* Just for the record I had to study Gawain and the Green Knight at university, but I never really got on with it, so I missed the lectures and tutorials and in the exam answered on Chaucer instead. I still have no idea what Gawain and the Green Knight is about, I know a Knight is involved and he is green, but my ‘core knowledge’ fizzes to a halt then. Thank god cultural literacy was not invented when I was a student or would have been stuffed for any literature written after 1370 which would have had serious ramifications for my degree .

It wasn’t so I graduated with a 1st.

Dead White Men: Michael Gove and the New National History Curriculum

Portrait in oils of Michael Gove

Michael Gove is at the centre of another controversy. This time it’s over his planned new National History Curriculum.  A ‘leak’ to the Daily Mail over the Christmas period led them to write ‘Some of the greatest figures in Britain’s past are to be restored to their rightful place in history, thanks to an overhaul of the school curriculum.’ (link – warning this takes you to the Daily Mail site)  Gove it seems is no fan of some of the figure in the old (New) labour history curriculum, including William Wilberforce (leading light in the campaign to abolish slavery), Mary Seacole (Jamaican nurse who showed extreme courage in the Crimean war), and Amy Johnson (you know, the one with the plane).  Instead Gove is insisting that schools teach first and foremost the history of England through its Kings, Queens, and major political and religious figures.

To seasoned education observers, the obsession with ‘the curriculum’; can sometimes get a little tedious. Although the curriculum specifies the content which is to be taught, it’s a very reductive viewpoint indeed which equates learning only with content. Learning is a process, and being a historian is a lot more than being able to rote learn the dates of every British monarch.  Far more important are the skills of weighing up conflicting evidence, creating narratives and understanding how events are linked.  History is after all, just a collection of narratives; this is given away in its very name! Figures such as Seacole are very useful to history teachers; they illustrate how people can overcome prejudice (in Seacole’s case both racial and gender based), to achieve remarkable things.  Most of what we learn at school we forget, but stories such as Seacole’s have the potential to inspire young people.  This is far from being an inclusion of the ‘PC brigade, or the loony left’ as the charge from Gove goes, but rather an opportunity to examine a fascinating period in British history and the prevailing social attitudes.

It is telling that the figures which Gove wants taught are from the monarchy, the church and mainstream politics (Churchill, Nelson etc).  Gove’s history curriculum sits proudly on his shelves in plush red leather with gold-tooled lettering.  He is clearly impatient with the stories of ordinary people who challenged the status quo or fought for social justice, or women (like Johnson), who took on male dominance in a field like aviation and proved themselves equal if not better to men.  Kings and Queens (of Britain) rule by divine right (this much I learned in my history lessons). God *tells* them they are in charge and this supremacy cannot be challenged in the earthly order. This suits Conservative ideology very well, it shuts down the narrative of uppity commoners getting to big for their boots. Studying the monarchy is an exercise in knowing your place and the lives of common people, their struggles, the battles they fought to achieve a modern democracy disappear from view. So Gove’s history curriculum is purpose built to reinforce, albeit on a very subliminal level, the agenda of his government, which is proving itself to be the most reactionary and socially regressive in living memory.  Cameron’s cabinet is dominated by white men with an unshakeable belief they were born to rule, so it is very fitting that the history curriculum is stacked in a similar manner.

In specifying so closely which figures are to be taught in History lessons, Gove shows himself to be quite the control freak, eager to wield his power so his particular take on history is the one played out in the exercise boards and whiteboards of the countries’ school.  But if he is a control freak, he’s a hugely conflicted one as his flagship free schools don’t have to teach the national curriculum, nor do any of the academies. They are free to teach whatever they want, they can base their entire history curriculum on Malcolm X if they wanted to.  Gove’s tenure as education secretary has been nothing but a mess of badly thought out policies and ideological blindness.

‘Bursting at the seams’ – the National Curriculum and Special Interest Groups

Martin Lewis is the Money Saving Expert. He runs an excellent website which demystifies personal finance and makes very useful appearances on the Jeremy Vine show advising people who to save money, and more importantly how to stop wasting it.  His personal and professional behaviour is highly ethical, he is genuinely on the side of the consumer and shares valuable nuggets of learning to help the man in the street beat, or at least fight back against, the big financial institutions.

He has an e-petition at the moment to add financial education to the school curriculum. Lewis’ argument is “We’re a financially illiterate nation, with millions caught by misselling, overborrowing and being ripped off.” and he believes that schools are ideally placed to change this by teaching young people about finance.  This is a laudable objective and I agree with him about how the majority of the nation have about as much clue about finance as they do about what happens under the bonnets of their cars. The whole thing is a black box to them, which makes them easy prey for anyone hawking financial products with dubious benefits or bloated rates of interest.  Take car finance for instance.  All car dealers will offer you finance on a new or used car. I was recently offered this, and the kind man printed out a quotation for me as I drank my watery coffee ‘from the machine’.  I handed him the quote back with a polite ‘no thanks’. He looked shocked, as if nobody had ever done that before.  I could see he wanted an explanation.  I hit the browse button on my iPhone, launched a price comparison site and quickly entered the details of what I wanted to borrow.  The first 10 hits were all at rates of between 6.2% and 7.0%.  I raised me eyebrows hoping he would join the dots and save him an explanation. His eyes met mine with incomprehension, at which point something in me snapped and I prodded his print out with my little finger at the point where an APR of 11.98% clearly printed at the bottom.

So education to help young people work their way through a financial maze is a good thing, hard to disagree with, surely something schools should be doing as a matter of urgency/

But I have not signed Martin Lewis’ petition and I don’t think I will. I have not signed for this reason; the curriculum is already full, there is no more room for extra stuff.  Every special interest group and latest moral panic (riots for instance) create calls for schools to ‘teach X’.  But nobody ever explains what will come off the curriculum to make way for this.  The curriculum is not the educational equivalent of the Tardis, you cannot go inside and be greeted by endless vistas of time and space. It has limited space, and schools have limited time to teach.

I have believed for a long time that the content of the National Curriculum should be treated in the same way as interest rates. These are now set by an committee of experts, chosen for their conflicting views and independent of politicians. A committee for the National Curriculum would, in my opinion, be an experiment worth trying.  Although the selection of members would itself be politically fraught; once in place the committee could calmly consider what compulsory content schools should teach.  Special interest groups, however worthy their claims would have to present evidence to the committee which could act without fear of political recriminations and the Education Secretary of the day could be bound by their decision without losing face in the same way as the Chancellor of the Exchequor does not have to explain or justify the decisions about interest rates.