I 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.
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.