After the Govian Deluge, part two

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If anyone is in doubt about the legitimacy of looking at Gove’s impact on education policy now that a new year has arrived, then recent editorials in The Times should convince them of his long-term influence. ‘Gove’s reform of the GCSE exams must be carried through!’ they cried, linking his policy to Margaret Thatcher’s hatred of the exam, as recently revealed in cabinet papers released under the 30- year rule.

At first sight, these reforms might seem relatively innocuous – more emphasis on fact rather than process, more academic ‘rigour’ than applied skills, more ‘sit down and remember’ exams rather than coursework, more restrictions on re-sits – but it shows a direction of policy travel that is pushing our system in the opposite direction to our competitors. In the USA , China and Singapore, they have recognised that their economies require a move towards more creative and collaborative thinking, towards dispositions of learning that can function in any domain rather than more subject specific information, and towards continual informal learning rather than formal learning and assessment procedures.

Having any sort of educational rational for his reforms was never one of Gove’s strong points, but since the National Curriculum reforms only apply to little more than half the nation’s schools, because Gove has allowed Academies to opt out, it’s hard not to see his National Curriculum as much more than a punishment regime for schools that don’t take Academy status. Yet another way in which he has undermined his own policies.

Rather than competing successfully with the US and the East to create a powerful intellectual elite, his department has ironically been much more successful in responding to the impact of their economies, and of globalisation generally, on our society – by helping, to some degree, the children of our now permanent and growing underclass.

The two stand-out policy successes of Gove’s period were the Pupil Premium and the apprenticeship programme. The first is providing extra money for 30 per cent of all children – slightly more than the 25 per cent of children on free school meals. This was a commitment for all the main political parties in their election manifestos, but the Liberals made it a point of principle for their joining the coalition and so a large amount of money has been made available.

The Pupil Premium has been important in addressing the inbuilt disadvantages of children coming from socially deprived communities and has been used for additional SEN provision or ‘closing the gap’ initiatives. But it has been the baby of Lib Dem minster David Laws rather than Gove, and was fortified by the coalition agreement, making it untouchable.

The second great success has been apprenticeships. They are being widely taken up by children who are not going to get great academic grades at A-level, or potential graduates who don’t want to wait three years to start earning or are afraid to rack up huge debts. This latter group has given the scheme huge credibility amongst employers and this, in turn, has dragged up many school failures into the near reaches of employability. It has also, for the first time in a long while, obliged employers to make a reasonable but bearable contribution towards apprenticeship training. But this scheme cannot really be claimed as a Govian initiative – it originated within the Department for Trade and Industry, and the transition to education was not altogether happy, as two of the officers who did most to develop apprenticeships have experienced significant demotions within the DfE.

Gove has provided some stings in the tail for both policies, good though they are. The academic ground keeps shifting for the Pupil Premium earners – the more the gap is closed for them, the more it yawns wider as academic requirements for GCSE and A-levels are yanked higher and higher. The DfE is also going ahead and introducing one of Gove’s most loathsome policies – putting each child into a hierarchy of performance percentiles – so that children outside the top 20 per cent will know their place and those in the bottom 40 per cent will know they are well below average and a long way below the academic best. Children struggling to overcome disadvantages of one kind or another will be disheartened by this, and it will counter much of the good work achieved by the Pupil Premium spend. As for apprenticeships, the scheme’s success is being used to help cut provision for adults and the mentally ill, who are being told their special bespoke schemes are being folded in favour of apprenticeship type programmes – although finding employers for this group is not any sort of given.

Overall, the Gove years have been profoundly destructive and obstructive. Even within the terms of Gove’s own policy objectives, they failed, curiously undermined by their creator’s determination to sacrifice everything to destroy local government’s involvement in education. The tragedy is that their effects will linger on because they have played to the country’s deepest reactionary ideas about education, in an era when reaction and social inequality are in the ascendency.

Read the first article in this series.

Image: Steve Punter

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