The Case against Michael Gove

August 15, 2013

I promised a few months ago to lay out where I thought the education secretary had gone wrong. It will be balanced by “The case against Stephen Twigg” in the next day or two.

Political debate about education at the moment is largely conducted in terms of hysterical accusation to the extent that even though I’ve set out here to criticise the education secretary, I can imagine that I might have to spend more time in any comments on what I choose not to criticise rather than what I do. So to get that out of the way, I really don’t have a problem with his attempts to make the curriculum more rigorous, and over things like phonics he is opposing what amounts to little more than the ideologically-motivated vandalism of children’s life-chances. I think criticisms about “style”, failing to consult and “attacks on teachers” are little more than the default complaints used against people who are winning the argument. While I have no particular confidence in any particular structure being used to reform schools (e.g. academies) I don’t particularly fear any of them either except where they affect the issues I discuss below.

Where I think Gove is fundamentally wrong is on workplace issues. I do not see any appreciation of the difference between management and frontline staff. I do not see any acknowledgement that schools are bureaucracies. Gove’s narrative appears to be that where there are low expectations in schools it is because teachers have been brainwashed by their training, protected by their unions and led by their local authorities. According to Gove, managers need more powers to reward good teachers and to remove bad teachers. I do not recognise this picture. I am the first to criticise the nonsense taught during teacher training and the nonsense some of the unions seem determined to speak in public. I even have a fair few negative experiences of local authorities, but the problem is primarily with the managers and with the system they work in. Gove’s picture is not correct. In compiling his list of enemies Gove generally has it backwards. At the frontline, unions can be really helpful; teacher training institutions and local authorities are relatively unimportant. SMT and OFSTED are the usual obstacle to good teaching.

Teachers with a bit of intelligence (and if anything we seem to be seeing more academically able teachers recently) work out that not everything they are taught on teacher training was sensible if they are given enough time to think. However, since the introduction of performance management and the culture of lesson observations (most of which is also informed by the influence of OFSTED) they are not free to develop their practice in light of those realisations. Bad teaching becomes, not a problem that managers are powerless to prevent, but often something that managers enforce and even where they can’t enforce it, it will be required for promotion. Nobody is going to rise up the ranks in teaching for saying that the highest priority is the recall of knowledge and that teachers should explicitly teach knowledge without regard to whether it is enjoyable. Even if they manage to get some autonomy in their own classroom, effective teachers are likely to have to keep what they are doing secret, in some cases a guilty secret which they feel ashamed about. Teachers are in a weak position  to do anything about the pressure to teach badly because their excessive workload leaves them constantly under stress and vulnerable to hassle from management. Additionally, teaching unions provide a small amount of protection from managers. Our unions are incredibly weak and divided and often represent managers better than they do the frontline. They are still one of the few sources of support for teachers who are being forced to lower expectations, but it is not enough to prevent many teachers from being bullied out or to ensure that we have the working conditions we are meant to have. Constant issues with behaviour, an overwhelming workload and the lack of freedom to teach in sensible ways are the normal problems of teachers with high expectations in comprehensives. Excessive workload does a huge amount to blunt our effectiveness, and we need every agreement that limits it to protect us, although in practice the uselessness of our unions and the power of managers to bully means we are regularly forced to do more than we are meant to.

Teacher training in universities is largely unhelpful, people do learn more about Piaget than behaviour management, but it’s been like that for a long time. What has changed is that the nonsense from training is now enforced on us in schools, instead of being something we can abandon on our first PGCE placement. It is also worth mentioning that some of the changes in teacher training, like Teach First, while they may have many advantages they have not changed the ideological orthodoxy of teacher training.

As for local authorities, the worst things they did were apply pressure not to exclude disruptive students and provide advisers who didn’t know how to teach. The growth in academies has simply seen the obstacles to exclusion move from local to central government, and the replacement of local authority advisers with private consultants who, in my experience, give even worse advice. Whereas local authority advisers were usually bureaucrats, with their training as good or bad as what central government dictated, the new breed of private consultants are overwhelmingly con-artists selling the latest fad, usually on the grounds that it will get schools through OFSTED.

And we can’t forget OFSTED. I’ve heard Michael Gove talk about “lack of consistency” in inspections, and I do watch them carefully for signs of improvement. Some people have had positive OFSTED experiences. However, the nature of the organisation is that it goes into classrooms and judges teaching on a superficial glance. For all the talk of objectively judging learning, inspectors will only ever be able to judge teaching and they will only ever be able to do it from the perspective of a particular view of what teaching looks like. I know there are inspectors who make sensible judgements, but most will simply follow the fashion. Some are even hardcore ideologues who have spent decades encouraging trendy teaching and they aren’t going to stop now no matter what the chief inspector says or what is in the handbook.

Contrary to fashionable opinion, the problem with Gove is not that he interferes too much, but that he interferes too little. Bad practice in schools is still encouraged by a massive bureaucracy. Probably the only policy Gove has implemented that actually dented the ability of the average manager to obstruct good teachers is the phonics check. When we go back in September, tens of thousands of teachers will start with an INSET telling them to teach “skills” not knowledge, use “groupwork” and avoid teacher talk. Most of this training will come from managers and consultants and much of it will be justified by the claim that it is what OFSTED wants. Few teachers will argue because they know that it will bring them to the attention of managers and their unions won’t be able to protect them from retaliation.

And Gove’s answer to this: give managers more power and teachers more work. Gove has done more than any politician since Blunkett to get a grasp on the education debate, but compares poorly with Blunkett when it comes to developing the capability to exercise power over the system. While nobody wants their classroom to be run from Whitehall, power that politicians don’t exercise does not simply disperse. At the moment, the same class of people are running education as they did before. The education establishment has not suffered more than a glancing blow in 3 years of reform because their influence over managers and OFSTED, which grew so much in the previous ten years, has not changed in any noticeable way. While good leadership is so important to schools, bad leadership will only become more toxic as the power of SMT is increased. Worsening working conditions are a real threat to the recruitment, retention and effectiveness of teachers. Teaching well takes more preparation than teaching badly and increasing our workload obstructs that preparation. As long as Gove treats those limited protections we do have as “red tape” or assumes that giving managers freedom to make things worse for teachers is the way forward teaching cannot be expected to improve.


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

    • I have taught for 20 years in state high schools and for 20 years before that in what passed for “financial services” – Ofsted belongs in the latter category, circa 1982, in thinking and motivation.
      As for training, SMT, behaviour problem denial and above all ideology, this article is spot on.

  2. Agree with much of this, but once again your handling of teacher training is rather simplistic. I do not doubt that the criticisms apply to some providers – or maybe even a majority – but there are excellent courses out there for which your description is not sufficiently accurate.


    I also wonder if there’s more to say here about the influence of examining boards which are, in my experience, significantly more influential (both directly and indirectly) than OFSTED, ITT, LAs etc., especially as so much of a school’s grade and teacher’s performance management is based on results. History mark schemes are often very generic (from GCSE up to doctoral level) and, because an exam is a performance, inevitably they focus on ‘doing’ rather than ‘knowing’. It’s not too big a leap to see how school managers that want good results focus on mark-scheme requirements and consequently prioritise ‘doing’ over ‘knowing’ in the classroom.

    But thanks for getting me thinking out of my post-holiday mind fog.

    • I agree with your comment on exam boards and how they prioritise doing over knowing. The demands of mark schemes dictate what I must teach. The technique or ‘doing’ can also be very specific guidance (on Q3b paper two include 3 paragraphs which should each contain…) and much time must be devoted to drilling this stuff.

      • Despite having thought long and hard about this, I’m not sure whether exam boards are necessarily wrong to focus on ‘doing’ – most of the mark schemes are focused on use of knowledge which implies that strong knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for exam success (which broadly correlates with my experience of A-Level marking and moderating – haven’t done GCSE). The problem comes when teachers work backwards from this too simplistically and focus on exam technique over teaching good history (e.g. spending more time drilling kids on giving more than one cause of an event rather than on what different causes there were). I have certainly been guilty of this! My current thinking on this is that we, as a community of history teachers, need to get more confident in having our cake and eating it by showing how a strong focus on historical knowledge and understanding (however you wish to define those two terms) is the same thing as good exam preparation.

        • I understand what you are saying and from my own experience am happy enough that the A Level history essay mark schemes for our board encourage the demonstration of strong knowledge. Our document paper mark schemes certainly don’t although I think our board is particularly bad. I have written elsewhere that we were told by our chief examiner that an analytical physics student should be able to get a C without any knowledge on that paper. Our strongest student for many years scored a D and then a C on that paper and I, as an experienced teacher and examiner (but not a teacher of that paper), could not initially spot how he had lost marks when we got his script back, the technique was so specific.
          Changing to IGCSE has encouraged our department to have a stronger focus on marshalling detailed knowledge to answer the question, with less technique. However, that is because they can see doing so will help students get better marks. Ultimately teachers will emphasise what leads to exam success and before we changed board we knew our A* students didn’t need the same level of knowledge to get the top levels but they did need more detailed technique knowledge to do so.
          Funnily enough I have just been looking at the politics script ordered back by a very able student. It was clear that not jumping a mark scheme hoop cost him far more dearly than missing out some of his top notch and well marshalled knowledge would have done.

          • I don’t understand how this could be the case, unless the mark scheme is being inappropriately applied. I mark for a board in a subject where “any other relevant knowledge” is a standing item on every mark scheme.

  3. Some interesting points here, but I disagree with your assertion that “management” is somehow out to crush unorthodox teaching styles. The simple fact is that as long as a teacher gets results, the vast majority of heads are happy for them to teach as they like.

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  9. “According to Gove, managers need more powers to reward good teachers and to remove bad teachers. I do not recognise this picture.”

    Having been in school not that long ago and with no major reforms in this area (we can’t even pay Maths teachers more despite being desperately short of them) since I left I strongly disagree.

    I was in a good comprehensive, regularly second in the area in the league tables, and still encountered a more than enough terrible teachers who simply should have not been in their job and probably not teaching at all. I also encountered a lot more teachers who were ok, strong in some areas but really lacking in others or just generally a bit sub-par and probably in need of significant training but training that was more persistent feedback that actually works. The good teachers really shine.

    A mix of retraining that gets poor teachers to fundamentally re-approach teaching and what they do in class. A lot more learning opportunities for training and learning what works (things like Doug Lemov’s approach in Teach Like A Champion using techniques the best teachers use, practicing those, better feedback that comes through regular observation). If those who need to improve cannot or will not there is no reason they should remain teaching.

    If we took our approach to teaching more like the private sector so instead of effectively having a very safe job it is incredibly hard to lose (which is then often at the expense of children) we have a system where those that can’t perform and don’t improve we can get rid of.

    • You get that this is about England? Your first paragraph seems to be entirely incorrect given the many ways to pay teachers extra including recent changes. Beyond that, the turnover of teachers suggests that they are remarkably easy to get rid of.

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