I’ve been a huge fan of Michael Gove. I believe that his work on our schools is critical in delivering a modern and competitive British economy.
Throughout the Labour years, we saw British schoolchildren slipping down the league tables compared to other countries. Partly, I believe, this was the result of Labour’s backing for the producer interest in the schools — the teaching unions — but even more, I attribute it to the cumulative effect of trendy modern academic theories introduced in the sixties and seventies. They took away whole-class teaching, and blackboards, and to a large extent avoided teaching at all, in favour of “child-centred learning” and other such modish nonsense. Let the little dears discover for themselves. Only the little dears didn’t.
We now see phonics coming back as a method of teaching reading — and we desperately need a new way to teach reading, when some studies suggest that a fifth of our children leave school functionally illiterate. Yet the irony is that phonics is essentially the method used since Victorian times. In the seventies, we abandoned tried and tested methods for vapid theories, and it has taken us decades to see the error.
Meantime, a generation of British people have been let down. Not just on reading, but on everything else, because you can’t study anything unless you can read first.
Michael Gove, despite a couple of early banana skins, has doughtily driven through his academies programme in the face of bitter resistance from the producer interest, and even from some Tory-controlled local authorities who should have known better. The programme was resisted and ridiculed. Yet it is forging ahead, and seems to be developing an unstoppable momentum of its own. Well done Michael. Academies will respond to the wishes and expectations of parents and pupils far better than council-administered schools ever did.
Yet all this excellent work is now threatened by a Lib-Dem inspired focus on social engineering. First we saw it in the Universities, with cack-handed attempts to impose student fee levels and create incentives for the admission of students from deprived backgrounds (I don’t think we’re allowed to say “poor homes” any more). Surely we know what happens when the state controls prices? Centralised price controls will work no better in British education than they worked in Cambodian rice or Russian vodka. Already the “exceptional” fee level of £9000 has become the norm. There is no differentiation between modest institutions and the very best, so there are no price signals or incentives in the market. This is a recipe for on-going shortages and inefficiency, and for a consequent erosion of standards. How can you excel — and why should you bother — if your superlative quality is not reflected in price and income?
Now, I’m horrified to see the same approach being adopted for schools, which are to be invited to discriminate in favour of children on free school meals. I was interested to see on last night’s news, several vox pop interviews with parents of modest means (but not on free school meals), fearful that their children would face discrimination, and demanding a level playing field. A cut-off based on free school meals will be profoundly unfair, and breed resentment.
But more fundamentally, we need to go back to localism and Cameron’s Big Society. If it means anything, it means devolving authority and decision-making to local organisations — to schools, to staff, to parents and governors. We want all schools to strive for an ethos which demands excellence and achievement. This is not consistent with top-down social engineering, and central policies imposed by Whitehall. Nor is it, it seems to me, consistent with selection by any criterion other than ability, whether academic ability, or for specialist schools, talent in music or drama or sport.
A helpful suggestion on student fees: if the objective is to deliver the educated work-force that British business and industry need, why not (A) set Universities free to charge what the market will bear; but (B) subsidise promising students for those courses the country needs, like engineering, physics, mathematics? We could call this …… well ….. State Scholarships.
But above all, we must recognise that government-imposed selection criteria will damage British education, will be hugely unfair, and for good measure will probably fail to achieve the social objectives that motivated the policy to start with. This is not what we expected when we voted and campaigned for the Conservative Party.