Michael Gove is wrong—again

michael-Gove_2566694bI don’t disagree with Michael Gove on everything he says. Learning in any context is always a combination of knowledge acquisition and the development of skills, and I have some sympathy with the notion that the balance in secondary education has moved too far to the latter and needs more of the former. Acquired knowledge is very often the gateway into discussion and an exchange of ideas in which critical thinking skills are then deployed, so you must have the former to make use of the latter.

But his latest idea, of teachers’ pay being linked to performance, appears to be yet another ideologically-driven, unfounded, unresearched notion, designed to further undermine the teaching profession and set them against him, thus demonstrating (in his eyes) how self-interested they are.

When I was a personnel manager in an industry-leading manufacturing business, I arrived at just the time when performance-related pay had been ditched as a personnel policy. Why was this? Because even in a manufacturing-based, highly measurable, consumer-oriented, performance-focussed context, performance-related pay was just too subjective and too controversial to be worth the additional administrative burden. If that was the case in such a context, just think what impact its introduction would have in an already administratively over-burdened teaching environment.

With two children in secondary school and one just left to go into Higher Education, I am under no illusion that different teachers have different effects on children’s performance. We are treated (as I suspect all parents are) to regular teacher appraisal—our children tell us what their classes are like, and regularly assess their teachers’ performance. But how would this be enshrined formally? What qualities would be assessed? The teacher’s ability to inspire? Mastery of subject? A sense of humour? Intuition about what makes children tick? Administrative efficiency? All these are important, but can they measured so objectively as to justify a specific pay rise?

Of course, the easiest thing to measure would be children’s performance. And we have seen that measuring schools and teachers on exam results has a profoundly corrupting impact on the whole system. Children end up being taught to pass tests, not to learn, and examining bodies sell expertise on passing their exams to the schools whose profile depends on it. And what would the impact be within schools? Layla Moran, a former teacher, recounts her experience:

The worst consequence, though, was the way it set teacher against teacher and the importance of working as a team diminished. People who had been dedicated team players felt their job satisfaction plummet and divisions arose between those who helped and those who were just seen to help. For those who worked hard yet got the lower amount, it felt like a slap in the face.

Michael Gove argues that this change ‘will make teaching a more attractive career and a more rewarding job’. Yet there is little evidence for this. The Programme for International Student Assessment of the OECD notes that there are many more important issues:

Countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay, but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects, and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform. This requires teacher education that helps teachers to become innovators and researchers in education, not just civil servants who deliver curricula.

Changes proposed by Gove to the curriculum do indeed make it look very much as though teachers are ‘just civil servants who deliver curricula’ and his disdain for the profession demonstrated at the recent conference for Head Teachers reinforces this.

At one stage in the proceedings there was a bout of ironic laughter after Mr Gove said it was necessary to find out the sources of heads’ stress to tackle it. “They think you’re one of them,” said Mr Kelly [editor of the Times Educational Supplement] dryly.

Or as one witty commentator on the Guardian article mused:

Hurray, yet another brilliant wheeze! The acute shortage of teachers in key subjects such as Maths and Physics is definitely going to be a thing of the past now. Why would anyone with a 2:1 in Maths from a Russell Group uni go into, say, a high-paying job in the City when they could be earning peanuts in the teaching profession and be subjected to an endless deluge of ill-thought-out, morale-sapping, Mail-fuelled nonsense designed for no other purpose than to further the political ambitions of Michael Gove? Go on, you know it makes sense…

But the most disturbing thing about this and other recent proposals is that they are based on no evidence at all—or even that they fly in the face of the evidence. On the question of early years education, for example, the evidence appears to be that ideas in recent Government proposals have actually been demonstrated to be damaging to children’s welfare.

Research does not support an early start to testing and quasi-formal teaching, but provides considerable evidence to challenge it. Very few countries have a school starting age as young as four, as we do in England. Children who enter school at six or seven – after several years of high quality nursery education – consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing.

But this appears to have no impact on Gove or Government. This raises much bigger questions about the honesty and integrity of the whole discussion, as well as fundamental questions of justice and access. The effect of all the changes made under both Conservative and Labour Governments has been to increase the impact of wealth on educational performance; it is harder than ever to do well from a poor background. It seems that not only does money talk but it now decides whether or not you can—whether you become literate or numerate.

We seem to be more and more working with a hideous vision of the child in school as a future unit of production that must him- or herself be efficiently produced by an industrial knowledge system. This is no vision for education, for childhood, or for what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century.

Additional note:

I loved this interchange from last year between Gove and Education Select Committee, recorded in its unedited transcript. It is depressing at one level to see how ill-thought out current policy is, but also offers a moment of light relief:

Q98 Chair: One is: if “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?

Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?

Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.

Q100 Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?

Michael Gove: I cannot remember.

Second Additional Note:

The most viewed TED video to date is Sir Ken Robinson talking about how an industrialised education system stamps out creativity in children:

Wikipedia comments on his work:

Robinson has suggested that to engage and succeed, education develop on three fronts. First, that it should foster diversity by offering a broad curriculum and encouraging individualization of the learning process; That it should foster curiosity through creative teaching, which depends on high quality teacher training and development; And finally that it should focus on awakening creativity through alternative didactic processes that put less emphasis on standardized testing, giving the responsibility for defining the course of education to individual schools and teachers. He believes that much of the present education system in the United States fosters conformity, compliance, and standardization rather than creative approaches to learning. Robinson emphasizes that we can only succeed if we recognize that education is an organic system, not a mechanical one. Successful school administration is a matter of fostering a helpful climate rather than “command and control”.

What is puzzling though is to note that he has been an adviser to government on education and, after all, has a knighthood. So why have successive education secretaries ignored his insights?

Third additional note

Polly Toynbee has written an interesting article on this subject, which I comment on in another blog post here.

Fourth additional note

There is a really good ‘open letter‘ to Michael Gove from Deputy head Michael Steer, in which he comments:

You are very vocal about the need for improvement, and in actuality, everyone working in education would agree with you but that won’t happen with a series of, seemingly, knee-jerk policy changes and a culture of blame and finger-pointing.

While education standards remain a political weapon, any improvements will always happen on a political timescale rather than an educational one. If there is a serious desire to have a ‘world class’ education system in this country, then why not remove it from the political arena?

Hand it over to the experts and the academics who have dedicated their lives to the study of education and learning, to the thousands of dedicated staff who are committed to securing the best possible outcomes for young people.

Let’s be radical, Mr Gove: try working with us instead of against us, support us instead of denigrating what we do, don’t try and pit us directly against each other when it is clearly a meaningless exercise. Sit down with us, ask our opinions, see if we can come up with a shared vision and think of creative, yet practical ways to implement it. You may be surprised by what the Enemies of Promise are capable of.

Spot on.

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12 thoughts on “Michael Gove is wrong—again”

  1. Hi great article, Mr Gove may or may bot be right about the knowledge and skills balance but industry needs skills installed in school as it it unwilling to pay for training even in graduates,

    Not being a teacher I wondered what would happen of we applied performance related pay to the clergy. What would you measure by and where would you look for your value added, it may be fun to laugh at and truly a bad idea but I soon started wondering if in fact the application of that style of management may not help us b a little more interested in the number of souls won for the kingdom, the amount of impact we have on the community. Worse still I realised that the MAP is the thin end of the wedge to that anyway, eg setting targets and strategising the meeting of them..

  2. I don’t often comment on these things Ian but you raise some interesting points but I’m not sure this tells the whole story. As a Chair of Governors who has been heavily involved in the implementation of the new pay policy in our school there are some very motivating parts in the policy for teachers if they are delivered in the right manner. For me as someone who has sat on the pay policy decision board and seen teachers go through threshold just because they’ve been in the job a while has always seems a little incredulous. Just because you’ve been doing a job for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at it. The new policy also allows for those who are very good to progress quicker up the pay scale as a one point and two point progression is very clear as criteria.

    As someone who saw PRP implemented in a bank and having experienced the fear of such a system I actually found the policy quite motivating to perform the best I could as I knew I would be rewarded for the effort. I would hope that any teacher teaching my own children would be motivated to give their best but any other extra that may also do that as a parent is welcome. (And sadly although we hold all teachers up as shining lights – not all are that motivated! I know shoot me now for even suggesting it!)Also as a governor who has recently been hauled before the LA due to poor historical results in many ways directly affected by poor teaching I welcome this move. The mechanisms for removing a poor teacher in a school are frustrating at best and downright criminal at worst. 18 months to remove a poor performing teacher and the effect they have on children’s education is rarely mentioned but a very real aspect of schools. To then see them move up a pay scale is even worse.

    I agree it is a minefield but as a governing body we have told our staff that we want to reward the very best teaching in our school and will make sure that is what we do and although as Chair I still remain cautious I believe the potential for this system is certainly worth trying.

    I know I’m going to get shouted at by teachers and I have every respect for what they do in difficult circumstances but that shouldn’t mean they are immune from scrutiny and change if done for the right reasons.

  3. Thanks Dave, for commenting and for being willing to disagree!

    I agree with you about the lack of mechanism for dealing with poor performance—but is there a good model in other professions or areas of employment? This is always a tricky thing, and putting remedies in place is *always* much better than just kicking people out.

    I think one of the wider difficulties arises from the context in which this is all happening. In healthcare, in most businesses, very clearly in banking and not least in politics people are not subject to the degrees of scrutiny being proposed for teachers. Why is this?

  4. Having been a governor of a ‘failing’ school I can sympathise with Dave’s perspective whilst agreeing with the article and I think there is a danger that views have so polarised in this debate that common sense in the middle ground is lost to nomansland inaction. In the end the school (along with another) was closed to make way for an Academy. Because of the TUPE process the new-build Academy may have changed but the school is still close to going into special measures….why?

    Amidst very gifted and able teachers there are those who clearly have the attitude that “You can only get so far with a *ESTATE NAME* kid” despite them excelling in other subjects…it’s a ‘job’ for them and there is no apparent passion for the children they teach. But there are others who in one sense may not be the best teachers but who do have that passion and a vocation to improve the holistic aspirations of the children. They could have jumped ship to a ‘better school’long ago but with a loyal sense of calling to that community they have stuck it through and through; despite being deemed failed.

    Being an area of deprivation we were better with a ‘failing school’ with average buildings, average teaching, engaged Governing body and a strong ethos of pastoral care and nurture than a new-build Academy that is so stressed by OFSTED performance hoops that it too will fail….and under pressure of OFSTED having lost so many of those predecessor pastoral and holistic qualities….but still after all this time some poor teachers remain.

    So it is in the nomansland we stand. Poor teachers need to go quickly. Our struggling kids deserve more. Despite the TUPE process they haven’t gone because in an effort to pacify the anti-Academy brigade the Sponsor kept nearly everyone on….including ‘failing’ Leadership Team members all the way to the top. The only influence to depart were the existing grounded critical-friend governors who were replaced with ‘high flying performance-assured’ Trustees….through no personal fault of their own too aloof and committed elsewhere to bear pressure on the ground. So performance pressure has only damaged the school and poor teaching and leadership still exists.

  5. Having spent a lifetime in teaching in a very poor region of the north east I have seen how children have been deprived of opportunities because of the low aspirations for them of some teachers.Many passionate and committed teachers stick it out in very challenging situations but when everyone else around you is emerging at 16 with a handful of Es Ds and Cs, you think that is OK because you never see anything else. When you are told that the local ex poli is as good as Oxbridge, and have never even heard of the Russell group, why take the risk, bother and expense of moving away from home?

    Reforms have been bitterly resisted in many cases by some teachers and also in this region by local authorities but it has been the introduction of colleges of technology and academies that has gradually raised standards. Some schools have produced astounding 90% A-C passes in this region in the teeth of bitter opposition from the educational establishment.

    As these have become successful they have shown how many deprived children are able to succeed beyond their wildest dreams with the right help. It is perfectly possible to measure the value added by good teaching. Don’t believe the propaganda!

    Despite all this recent international league tables have revealed just how far Britain still lags behind her competitors. There is a long way to go and I believe Mr Gove, who does not come from a particularly privilege background himself, is generally on the right lines and has the interests of educationally deprived children at heart.

    We just cannot afford to go on in this way.It is a scandal that our high prison population consists largely of illiterate young men whom the system has failed. How can someone spend 11 years at school and emerge unable to read and write?

    It is perfectly possible to quantify the value added by teachers because of the introduction of really quite minimal testing and measurement of achievement at different stages.introduced by both Labour and Conservative governments at different times.

    I have no political axe to grind but I am angry that a small proportion of malcontents in the teaching profession continue to oppose developments which have the potential to transform the life chances of children from deprived areas such as mine. They do not deserve to be be used as pawns in a political game.

  6. Thanks Jennie. Lots of points!

    Firstly, I think I am unpersuaded of the logic of ‘We have tried this approach, and it has failed…so let’s do it even more!’ In terms of targets, ‘raising standards’, league tables and added value, I don’t think Gove is changing the direction of education, but continuing in the same direction. So why will things suddenly improve?

    The move to academies feels to me like another con (the school where I am a governor having just made the change–we had no choice. If others switch, we could not afford not to.) Just the same way that LMS was a con when it was introduced in the 1980s when I was a governor of a school in Windsor. It meant that we could choose who to buy our pencils from…and led to schools ditching more experienced teachers as they were too expensive! Too many of these initiatives are politically motivated (often to undermine local authorities) rather than having any justification in educational philosophy.

    You might be right about some sectors of the teaching profession. But three things to note.

    1. The biggest single factor in children’s progress is not their teachers but their parents.

    2. The biggest statistical chance of bettering oneself was offered through the grammar school system.

    3. No education secretary can hope to transform education by setting themselves against the teaching profession. It is just plain stupid. We would be much better off with a politician who showed some respect, and work with rather than against teachers.

  7. Thank you so much for your insightful and thought provoking blog. Sir Ken’s Ypu Tube clip has really consolidate what I believe education to truly be about. I had not heard Sir Ken Robinson speak before and everything he said made so much sense. My week at school will be peppered with smiling moments thinking about selected snippets that me laugh and sit up and take notice at the same time.
    Thank you again.

  8. Ian, this is a great post. But there is a much bigger problem. I think people need to have worked in education to have a grasp of it. There are so many things that could be said and so little space here. We don’t need another idiotic, money-wasting, teacher-bashing scheme to improve education.

    1. A Clinton-style sign for the door of any education minister: “It’s the behavior stupid!” Remove the poorly behaved pupils to another campus so that the rest can learn.

    2. Redirect OFSTED away from the school to the parents. They chose to have the children; they should be held responsible for their behavior and given help where needed. It’s learning that needs to be addressed. Teachers can facilitate learning or get in the way: parents will model the importance of learning for their children.

    3. Understand “evolution” as applied to social situations. Applying social pressures causes adaptations. If you create an environment where teachers are constantly bullied, humiliated and stressed you will select for individuals who can withstand those pressures. What you should be selecting for are caring individuals who love their subject areas and have a passion to share it with the next generation.

    4. Understand the “law” of unintended consequences (linked to evolution above): if you attach an arbitrary measuring unit (call it a “target”) to something you wish to achieve (e.g. increased learning), don’t be surprised if the system tries to achieve the target even if, as is usually the case, it doesn’t really link to the intended aim (e.g. learning). Attributed to Einstein is the saying: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”, or, “Not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured”. This is something successive Governments have demonstrated repeatedly in Education and even now in Health.

    I feel much better now after that rant. Thank you.

  9. Thanks, Paul. Glad you feel better! I mostly agree with you. Some observations:

    1. Yes, behaviour and discipline is a key issue. Big question: where do you put those who have been removed?

    2. Parental responsibility is key. But what mechanism is there in society for managing this? It used to be shame, but that is not allowed any more…

    3. This is really interesting, and touches on the whole question of recruitment.

    4. Yes, and I have posted on this in relation to health as well..

  10. As a non-expert (governor of 18 months experience at a ‘failing’ inner city primary school now academy being ‘turned round’ by a capable head teacher and committed staff) my experience leads me to offer two points for comment :-

    1. The kids in my school get one chance and one chance only to learn the basics of numeracy and literacy and life’s chances are already stacked against them (75% pupil premium, 64% EAL – yes I’m learning the acronyms slowly!). We use some pupil premium to provide a free breakfast club so that children who otherwise wouldn’t, get a meal at the start of the day. Three years of special measures have left an identifiable ‘tail’ of children now in or heading for secondary school who are struggling despite massive interventions, which statistics show will hamper them throughout their education and beyond. That saddens all of us involved in the school immensely. It is only by putting things in that perspective that change can be inspired. I think MG is trying (in both senses) but can’t see how performance related pay will inspire anything in the right areas.

    2. Not sure that performance related pay achieves anything in that direction – in my old firm we used to go by the maxim that people will try and deliver what they think is being measured (not necessarily what is being measured) and that research shows that pay is a surprisingly small factor in job decisions. Not sure how you measure passion to enable children to succeed to the best of their ability, but that’s what turns competence to excellence in my book. At my school we devote a lot of time to monitoring, training, development and, where necessary, performance management (in which a lot more than league table outcomes are reviewed). This has weeded out ineffective teachers who can’t improve (whilst helping those who can) and pay does not feature. Any teacher departure in itself creates instability in the learning environment which hampers children, so facilitating quick-fix sacking is no silver bullet at all.

    In reinforcing a target culture PRP does risk a hardening of the arteries that will not, in my view, deliver better outcomes for children.


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