You know that nightmarish scenario in which a teacher, fed up with their student constantly sniggering at the back of the class, asks: “Well, why don’t you teach the lesson?” Michael Gove as education secretary is what happens when that cheeky little kid ends up running the school.
Gove’s latest shot-in-the-dark idea to ‘save’ British education is recommending school open longer hours and have shorter holidays. In a speech to an education conference in London yesterday, he said the current school timetable was out of date, and was “designed at a time when we had had an agricultural economy. We can’t afford an education system set up in the 19th century.” His plans allow schools to open at 8.30 and close at 4.30pm and introduce a four-week summer holiday from September 2014.
He takes into evidence findings that suggest students in Hong Kong and Singpore had superior scientific knowledge expected of them “at every stage” of their educational development. But he didn’t cite any actual facts that recommend longer hours and shorter holidays. With no evidence to the contrary, it just looks like he thinks it a good idea.
Gove claims that at school in East Asian countries: “hard work is at the heart of everything” and the length of the British summer holiday puts our young people at a “significant handicap”. But take a look at some of our neighbours: in Germany, whose economy is the envy of Gove’s Notting-Hill buddy George Osborne, children start school at six (a year later than the UK) and the school day typically ends at about 1pm in junior school, while in France, most schools have a four-day week – Wednesday is a whole day off. Remember, British education, for all its faults, is ranked sixth in the world.
And independent schools here in Britain, who have no issues in getting a majority of their students into good universities, have as much as six weeks more holiday a year than their state counterparts.
And does Gove really think children become slackers in the summer? Holidays are more than equal to education for a child’s personal development, where young people can explore, relax, have fun and mature outside the confines of a rigid day-to-day environment. My feeling has always been that while he’s encouraged the wrath of teachers, academics, unions, it’s the most important people Gove really hasn’t considered – the children themselves.
What equally remains baffling is Gove’s assessment that British education should be remorselessly assessed against ‘rival’ nations. George Osborne believes that we shouldn’t take the advice of foreign financiers and the IMF – but Gove doesn’t feel the same.
When I got a bad school report, I remember comparing myself to others in my class with lower grades (if there were any), and my Dad saying: “I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about you”. It’s that kind of introspective philosophy that Gove needs when he compares British education to other nations – real life isn’t an episode of the Weakest Link.
Which is funny, because Gove has recently been in the headlines for next year’s “pub quiz” national curriculum, which has received a kicking from everyone from the Royal Historical Society to James Dyson to the Muslim council of Great Britain.
A curriculum should encourage a child’s awareness, make them enquire, engage them in debates and discussions and understand better the world in which they live. I’m certainly not denying the requirement for reform in British schools; the culture of exams and assessment is entirely inappropriate, and there are significant problems in school leavers entering employment without basic language or arithmetic skills. But Gove’s plans are scattergun, and he thinks like a pub quiz player trying to top a leaderboard.