Fred Jarvis: Michael Gove's new back-to-basics national curriculum doesn't add up

The former NUT leader has some burning questions for the education secretary.

Nearly 20 years ago, I became involved in what Lord Jonathan Hill (now Tory leader in the House of Lords) described as "one of Downing Street's epic exchanges of correspondence".

The exchange began when, as a former general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), I put 20 questions to John Major, the then prime minister. Today, I have a few questions for Michael Gove – but I am not exactly expecting a long correspondence…

We have become accustomed to the education secretary's gaffes and U-turns, but he could be heading for further trouble over his cherished, if backward-looking, quest for a new national curriculum. So is he going to make clear to all concerned that the hullabaloo he is creating over it might prove to be a waste of time?

One asks, because a speech to a gathering of leaders of new "teaching schools" in Nottingham, contained the following: "I think this national curriculum may well be the last. Because in future the teachers will be doing it for themselves."

According to his department, this was part of Gove's speech "as delivered". But when, some days later, as he was leaving a Commonts Education Select Committee hearing, I expressed surprise that no committee member had asked him about the statement, Gove did not say that he had not made it, but said MPs had raised other issues.

So, assuming the Secretary of State stands by his statement, there are questions he needs to answer.

Why did he not make that statement to the committee, when members had spent much time discussing the curriculum with him? Secondly, if he suggests that his remarks were only meant to apply to schools that enjoy "academy freedoms", is he prepared to extend those freedoms to other schools so that they, too, can "do it for themselves"?

And if he thinks the national curriculum can be dispensed with, what will be the curriculum framework within which schools should operate? Will he, for example, be prepared to let a thousand William Tyndales bloom?

In his Nottingham speech and his subsequent article in the TES ("Teachers are doing it for themselves. Good", 10 May), one of the "free" schools Gove praised is School 21 in London, run by Peter Hyman (a former Blair aide). At an RSA symposium last summer, Hyman said that his school requires "a revolution in the approach to teaching"; when I suggested that it would also require a revolution in the way we assess the performance of schools, and that five GCSE grades A-C (the "one-size-fits-all" criterion favoured by Gove and the chief inspector) would not suit, Hyman agreed but the chief inspector, sitting next to him, said nothing. So what will Gove favour?

There are also questions to be answered about other features of the speech and article. For example, in both of them Gove heaped praise on a number of schools, heads and teachers, all of them in academies or "free" schools. Not once did he make reference to any of the large majority of our schools, which are neither academies nor "free".

Does he not see that this is an insult to heads, staff and pupils, an insult he compounds when he says that "at last" free schools are enabling poor children to succeed, as if other schools have never done so, and that the establishment of those schools is "a huge step forward in enhancing the prestige of the teaching profession"? Is it not time that the Secretary of State recognised his responsibilities to all of our schools and spoke of their achievements, achievements that do not require academy or "free" status?

Questions should also be asked about serious matters for which Gove is directly responsible: such as the crisis arising over teacher education and supply and his refusal to allow local authorities to provide new schools, while allowing "free" schools to open in areas where there is a surplus of places. Of concern, too, is his contradictory attitude on teacher qualifications, calling for higher entry standards, but also saying teachers in "free" schools need not have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

Silent on such issues, Gove did not hesitate to indulge in his customary union-bashing and "enemies of progress" stuff. But in his Nottingham speech he went further, first praising those who have been calling for the creation of a Royal College of Teaching, which would include the unions, and then misrepresenting their intentions by saying such a college would be a better alternative to the unions "as a voice for the teaching profession".

He went on to urge teachers to leave their unions and turn to a new agency – edapt (edapt.org.uk) – which could provide "independent support for the teaching profession". Gove saw that his support for the Royal College of Teaching might prove to be a kiss of death for it – "any endorsement from me might blight its chances before it gets off the ground". Likewise, edapt may well come to feel that it would be better off without having a minister who is widely disliked acting as its recruiting sergeant.

Gove's attitude to the unions is at odds with the education ministers in other leading countries. They have joined with the unions in supporting the International Summit on the Teaching Profession. At the latest summit meeting in Holland, Gove was conspicuous by his absence. Should he not explain why?

The Secretary of State has, of course, been successful in one respect. He has managed to bring about unity among the main teacher organisations – the NUT, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) have all declared their lack of confidence in his policies.

The Secretary of State should realise that without the support of the leaders of our schools, and their staff, he will achieve little, no matter how much right-wingers applaud him. Nor will he be helped by the recent comments of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, who told heads to stop "moaning" and get on with the job.

Unless he can learn that lesson, the suggestion, by Anthony Seldon (head of Wellington College), that Michael Gove is "shaping up to become the most influential figure in education since the Second World War", is simply laughable.

Today's lesson: The new curriculum

The Department for Education has said the new national curriculum announced by Michael Gove concentrates on "getting the basics right". Critics say there's too much stress on memorising and learning by rote and that Gove has ignored the advice of education experts.

In English, during their first two years of primary school, pupils will be expected to be able to recite poetry by heart.

Five-year-olds will be taught fractions, which will be a first step before learning about algebra and more complex arithmetic in maths.

History will have a British emphasis and will be learnt chronologically rather than focusing on topics.

Primary school pupils will be expected to design, test and write computer programs and also be able to organise, store and retrieve data.

Also from the age of five, pupils will be taught internet safety such as how to keep personal details private, how to look out for danger and how to communicate safely.

Gove's proposals have come under fire in some quarters, with the National Union of Teachers' deputy leader, Kevin Courtney, saying: "This is a curriculum written by government advisers and officials, not teachers."

BEN MACKAY

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