Relations between the Education Secretary and Britain’s teachers are strained to breaking point. At the start of the week, two of the profession’s largest unions set out plans for the most prolonged period of industrial action for two decades. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the exam system is mired in controversy, as are aspects of the sharply accelerated academy programme. And now, 100 leading education academics have written to The Independent issuing a stark warning about proposals to re-shape the national curriculum.
Battles are raging on almost every front, then. Yet if Michael Gove wants his vastly ambitious reforms to succeed, he will need to take at least the majority of teachers with him.
In fairness, the climate is a far from favourable one. The rolling strikes due to begin in June and continue almost to Christmas are in protest at a series of contentious tweaks to pay and conditions, many of them a result of the wider squeeze on state spending. Teachers’ pension contributions are going up, even as the payments they will receive are going down; guaranteed annual salary increases are to be phased out, while performance-related pay is coming in; and with the “ring fence” of the education budget applying only up to the age of 16, spending cuts are also being directly felt.
Against such a background, Mr Gove is attempting the most sweeping education reforms for a generation. From the creation of free schools, to the revamped curriculum, to the shake-up of exams – if the ebullient Education Secretary reaches even half of his goals, Britain’s schools will be profoundly different places.
Such ambition is, largely, to Mr Gove’s credit. He is no complacent Secretary of State, content to be constrained by the system as found. Nor is his focus on improving the rigour of state education an easy one with which to disagree. His methods are another matter, though. By its very nature, such radical reforms might be expected to cause ructions. But Mr Gove has made little effort either to consult teachers or consider their advice.
The warning letter published in this newspaper today is a case in point. The concern that a curriculum consisting of “endless lists of spellings, facts and rules” will prove educationally counterproductive may not be of a piece with Mr Gove’s own views. But, coming from so large a group of experts, it cannot simply be ignored. Neither can the judgements that the proposed syllabus demands “too much, too young” and is unduly narrow. Most striking of all, however, is the claim that the new curriculum betrays a “serious distrust of teachers”. So evident a breakdown in communication between the Education Secretary and those who are so central to his success cannot be taken lightly.
After all, not all reservations are the intransigence of the comfortably unimaginative. Many – such as those which saw the Education Secretary forced to abandon his plan to scrap GCSEs – spring from lifetimes of practical experience. Indeed, it is notable that the U-turn forced on Mr Gove over GCSEs will, in all likelihood, produce a better result even according to his own criteria. Now, standards in all subjects will be improved, rather than a new EBacc exam upping the ante in only a few. How much time, effort and goodwill might have been saved by talking to teachers first.
The lesson is one that the Education Secretary would do well to learn. He and Britain’s teachers have the same goal: a better education, for more children. Neither can succeed without the other. While there is much to be said for an impatience with the status quo, there is also much to be gained from listening to experts – even for one so bent on iconoclasm as Mr Gove.