If Nicky Morgan wants to detoxify British education, here's how to start

Finding a way out of this mess will not be easy

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"Guck Fove!" This slogan, seen in last week’s strike photos, illustrates the intense anger the man aroused. To become the Coalition’s best known but least liked politician was a considerable achievement. Eventually he just became too toxic, an electoral liability.

Gove was full of contradictions. A Murdoch journalist with classical pretentions, an arch-traditionalist but neoliberal privatiser, presenting the public image of a geek on steroids... the only real constant was his zeal in completing Thatcher’s mission, namely to tear apart the very fabric of a democratically-governed public education system.

Teachers faced an attack a month. All the schools which Ofsted had judged "satisfactory" were recategorised as "needing improvement". Secondary schools were expected to jump the hurdle of a GCSEs ‘floor target’ which rose 5 percentage points a year while exams were made harder. Their pay frozen, denied standard increments, subjected to micro-management and bullying, no wonder England’s teachers are so demoralised. Worst of all, those teaching the victims of the Coalition’s attacks on so-called “benefit scroungers” were blamed for failing to get them into Oxford. 

Gove’s new National Curriculum, imposed against all professional advice, seriously limits learning under the pretext of raising standards. It has 25 pages of compulsory spellings to learn but only two pages about spoken English and one paragraph of drama. Grammatical terminology take up 18 pages, but there is no mention of electronic media. The detailed prescriptions for maths are twice as long as ICT, art, music, geography, languages and PE together. 

It is laden with absurd demands: spelling Tuesday and Wednesday at age 5, distinguishing affect from effect at 7, and so on. Is it designed to fail thousands of schools so that they can be forcibly privatised as academies, or simply to make children’s lives a misery? If Nicky Morgan really wants to detoxify her government’s education record, she faces the immediate challenge of loosening up impossible demands before schools restart in September.

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Parents too were disconcerted to see younger children treated like battery hens while their older siblings faced arbitrary changes to exams including downgrading spoken English and devaluing technology and the arts. 

So much of what Gove did was an arbitrary exercise of power as he pursued his narrow-minded obsessions: a dogmatic overemphasis of phonics, attempting to give the First World War a make-over, excluding the creative arts from his English Baccalaureate.

 

Gradually his academies and free schools project began to unravel, thus demonstrating the need for support and guidance from local education authorities. The ‘Trojan Horse’ crisis was, at its heart, a breakdown of governance in a cluster of academies, so it became expedient to inspect 15 local authority schools to create a smokescreen. Ofsted dutifully delivered, condemning headteachers and governors in nursery and primary schools for being insufficiently fearful of four-year-olds being radicalised, organising single-sex swimming and (most hypocritically) over-emphasising literacy and numeracy. Inspectors even complained that eight-year-old Muslim children only had a "limited understanding" of other people’s religions – unlike pupils at Catholic or Church of England primary schools perhaps?

Finding a way out of this mess will not be easy. In the end, the question is not what Nicky Morgan will do, but rather: how much power one person should have over the education of 7,000,000 children? This is the big question the Gove phenomenon has raised.

The fundamental challenge for future Secretaries of State is how to dismantle the system of arbitrary political power which England has suffered for the past 25 years.  If a high-pressure high-surveillance system could possibly work, it would surely have done so by now. As Gove endlessly reminded us, the PISA scores are certainly not evidence of its success.

A better arrangement needs to be built on trust, not bullying. Politicians need to learn to work respectfully with teachers, parents and young people. The capacity of universities and local authorities to support schools should be strengthened, not undermined. In particular, teachers working in areas of poverty need the encouragement to enrich learning, not more blame from privately-educated politicians for failing to "close the gap". 

Dr Terry Wrigley is editor of Improving Schools journal and a director of Changing Schools (www.changingschools.org.uk). His recent books include Changing Schools and Living on the Edge

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