Another education conference season draws to a close, and – as permanent a springtime fixture as daffodils and lambs – the teaching unions are at war with the Education Secretary.
But it is as if the continuing cold weather has made this year’s hostilities fiercer than ever. On one side, Michael Gove accuses the rump of the teaching profession of being champions of mediocrity and “enemies of promise”. On the other, the NUT and NASUWT threaten strike action, and some even talk of making Mr Gove the subject of a citizen’s arrest.
What are parents, sitting in the middle, to make of this? This year, for the first time in two decades, I am preparing to engage with the state education sector, when I look at local primary schools for my daughter. She will start in September 2014, the month that the new national curriculum will be introduced.
This was already a daunting prospect. But the noisy battle between Mr Gove and the teaching unions is drowning out any hope of a reasoned debate about the future of education, leaving parents like me aghast at what awaits our children in the classroom. If you want to teach your child the meaning of the words hyperbole and pejorative, you could start by showing them an article by Mr Gove or some speeches from the NUT.
This week, the NUT joined the NASUWT in calling for strike action over pay and pensions, but some members who took to the conference podium also demanded a general strike. The NUT, whose members I am sure are broadly moderate, has been hijacked by the Socialist Workers’ Party and other hard-left factions. As someone who grew up in militant Liverpool in the 1980s, I thought the hard left was a relic of the past. I was wrong.
Relatively small in number, the socialists in the NUT receive a huge amount of attention. Alex Kenny, an NUT executive member, was perhaps joking when saying he wanted to make that citizen’s arrest. But Mr Kenny, a member of the Socialist Teachers Alliance, also invoked Dickens by calling the minister “Gradgrind Gove”. This was echoed by another leader who said the new curriculum was “Victorian”. These alarmist labels are not helpful.
Mr Gove must have been rubbing his hands with glee at such hysteria, because it merely boosts his cause. This week’s vote of no confidence by the NUT will be held aloft in triumph by the Education Secretary. “Look how much the Marxists hate me,” he will say. “I told you so.” And when the consultation period on the new curriculum closes in two weeks, he will simply carry on with his plan.
While most teachers – including those in the leading unions – may have their concerns about the curriculum, and other issues such as free schools, their views are not represented by ultras like Mr Kenny. But the Education Secretary is guilty of being misleading, too. Last month, he dismissed 100 academics as a Marxist “blob” and “enemies of promise” after they argued that the new national curriculum would put too much pressure on pupils at too early an age – a six-year-old will be expected to assess the influence of Romantic poet Christina Rossetti.
This was itself an outrageous, disingenuous slur, and Gove knew it: he could name only three out of the 100 as being on the hard left. He said the academics were opposed to correct spelling and times tables, which they were not. It helps the Education Secretary to distract attention from the real, reasoned debate about his new curriculum. He has form for not listening to differing views: only once has he backtracked on a policy, when David Cameron and Lord Coe persuaded him to keep the ring-fenced budget for school sport, which he was desperate to axe. The rest of the time, he has carried on regardless. Any teacher or parent in the state sector is accused of wanting to keep the best children down. This simply isn’t true.
So what should parents do? Or, indeed, the majority of people in the teaching profession, who are not champions of mediocrity but only want to do good for pupils? Listen to the independent experts, for a start. The Mathematical Association (MA) and the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (ATM) – hardly a Marxist front – have expressed concern that, under the new curriculum, children will be faced with difficult constructs at too early an age, including using square and cube numbers by Year 5 and formal algebra by Year 6.
The MA and ATM say that “there is a rush to introduce formal representations, which contradicts research evidence that emphasises the importance of developing secure conceptual understanding”. By putting too much on children at a young age, the less able pupils – those who are not like the supremely talented youngster Mr Gove was – will fall further behind in class. Similar submissions have, incidentally, been made during the consultation period.
Mr Gove and his ministers use international comparisons to back up their push for faster, harder schooling: children in Singapore start more complicated maths at primary school, they remind us. But in Germany – no slouches in global competitiveness – algebra and calculating volume are taught at secondary school. In Denmark and Finland, the great bastions of Scandinavian excellence, the focus is on developing primary school children as young people, not on how many facts they can reel off.
It is difficult to see Mr Gove and the teaching unions declaring peace. But our children’s education is too important to be fought over by these warring opponents. Mr Gove should stop wearing the hard left as a badge of honour and, for once, listen to the evidence.
Jane Merrick is the political editor of ‘The Independent on Sunday’