It’s a fact: Gove’s curriculum review is purely political

This week we heard that Michael Gove is launching a curriculum review, in order to create a return to more “traditional” teaching. Quite apart from the dubious aim of the review, the enormous irony of launching a review of something and simultaneously declaring its result is obvious; as Chris Keates, the General Secretary of the NASUWT union, said, the review is “pointless” as ministers have “already determined that children should have a 1950s-style curriculum”.

This only underlines what everyone already knows: no Government act is independent from the political context in which it is carried out. Despite having no political figures leading it, the review panel has been told by Government what its findings should be; it will now proceed to confirm those findings. Those leading the review are all involved in education and include some pretty big names – who have, ironically, reached their pre-eminent position by advocating and implementing progressive and non-traditional teaching, in an attempt to interest all children in school, not just those who would enjoy learning whatever style of teaching is used. However, the academics and practitioners on the review panel will have no opportunity to voice what they actually think about the way the curriculum should be reformed: they can never come to any conclusions other than those they have already been ordered to come to.

There is, of course, not much that’s new here; only, perhaps, the phenomenon of this political skewing of apparently “objective” reviews being reported openly and as a matter of course in the press. Governments have always used academically credible and politically impartial review panels as a mask for fulfilling their own agenda. The Rose Review, a so-called “Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum”, was Labour through and through. Led by Sir Jim Rose, who had long been a favourite of the Labour education policy people, it advocated in 2009 a massive overhaul of the the primary curriculum. It was clearly an enormous undertaking, consulting widely and emerging with some genuinely radical and well-thought-through ideas.

Of course, as soon as the Coalition took power around a year later, any steps towards implementing the Review’s findings were dropped immediately, and the Review was never heard from again, hidden in the archive of the Department for Education website. This is the kind of wastage that Government should deal with, over and above the ubiquitous “efficiency savings”: despite being an “Independent Review”, the Tories could not – even if they had wanted to – have used any of its ideas, for fear of assimilating what was effectively Labour policy.

On a personal level too, I find the ideas behind Gove’s new review somewhat chilling. He has explicitly said he wants more “facts” in the national curriculum, as if “facts” were somehow of value in and of themselves. Teaching over the past twenty years has shifted away from this idea of education as equivalent to the accumulation of facts, towards a view that it is concepts, skills and analytical processes that a child really learns at school. It is easy to see why: is it important to know the fact that George shoots Lenny at the end of Of Mice and Men? No, of course not. But it is important to understand the thousands of reasons why he feels he has to do it, his feelings afterwards, and how Steinbeck’s skilful writing allows the reader to understand the significance of this ending to this book.
It is Gove’s understanding of education as simply this process of empirical building up that offends me, and it provides a consistent conceptual thread throughout his policy. He has also denounced the idea that GCSE English Literature requires the study of only one novel – as if making pupils study ten novels in the same timespan would somehow make them better-educated than studying one in great depth; nevermind that fact that this is a minimum; and that as well as novels each pupil will also study a good body of poetry, and several short stories, plays and non-fiction texts.

I find myself agreeing again with Chris Keates when she colourfully says that teachers “want another curriculum review like a hole in the head”. This review is clearly nothing to do with what is good for teachers, and especially nothing to do with what is good for pupils: it is an overtly political act, and nothing more.

This post was originally published here.

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7 Responses to It’s a fact: Gove’s curriculum review is purely political

  1. rawkus83 says:

    Any decent student of history should know you don’t ‘play fast and loose with dates and empirical facts’. If you’re not sure that the factual evidence on which your case rests is sound, check and research it using the internet (or do what I did when I was in your situation and use a book). The accumulation of facts by rote-learning is increasingly devalued in today’s media-based society.

  2. Stephen says:

    Some of the things Gove and Wolf have pointed out are correct. Some of the courses children have been “guided” into taking Eg DIDA and OCR Nationals are not valued by many Colleges or Employers or Ofsted. Children have been made to do these courses for “League Table Status” only not for the benefit of the Children. This was not stopped by Labour in fact the demand for these courses grew and grew. This Anti Working Class attitude to our children is revolting. Give our kids a chance!
    Gove also got rid of the GTC – Hooray!

  3. paidtoreason says:

    Again, to clarify – I don’t see the Government as “the enemy”, and I disapprove just as strongly of Labour’s propensity for allowing dogma to overwhelm policy. Equally, I certainly don’t propose to speak for all teachers – although all the teachers I know roughly agree with me!

  4. Peter says:

    I think both the original article and the comments from Pencil Case are hard to dispute. Good to see we are focused on the common enemy in the end – the tory led coalition government. Ministers like Gove are highly deceptive in some ways. They claim to want to give power back to teachers, police, parents, GPs, etc. But when a profession, like teachers, actually doesn’t subscribe to their home counties 1950s view of what the UK is like and should be like, they simply impose their view from the centre again.

  5. PencilCase says:

    The thing I like most about Left Central is the reasoned, curteous nature of the debate, and I thank you for upholding this standard! I agree about the political nature of Gove’s plans and worry about the ideological slant revealed in some of his comments. Sorry to use history as an example again, but I did hear him say on the radio a few months ago that there needed to be more of “our island story” in the curriculum. I think a bit more focus on British history might be a good thing and enrich our cultural awareness, but when you start talking about “our island story” you reveal an adherence to a Whiggish view of history as inevitable progress, i.e. a story of a brave and singular nation striving towards glory. I suspect Michael Gove has probably read too many history books by Winston Churchill!

  6. paidtoreason says:

    Thank you for an extremely articulate and intelligent response. I’d first like to be clear on my own political leanings: I am certainly not trying to sling mud at the right simply because it is the right. I believe that Gove’s policies are wrong-headed, but I am not a dogmatic leftie and would happily support a Tory policy which made sense to me as a professional. One of the main points I make is against the intrusion of party politics into this arena, where the presence of any political bias behind supposedly “independent reviews” renders them immediately invalid, and consequently totally ignored the moment another party is in charge.

    I think your analysis of the political problem and your views about your own experience at school are spot on, actually – and it is certainly important to have a basic factual knowledge when studying a subject. The problem is that teaching places, names and dates simply will not capture the attention of most students, and that this kind of knowledge tends to fall out of our brains the moment after we are tested on it. Placing a greater emphasis on skills of analysis, inference and evaluation does, I think, serve students much more usefully in the long-run, after the basic “1066-and-all-that” knowledge has disappeared.

  7. PencilCase says:

    I am entirely with you in resisting a conception of education as mere rote-learning. However, and I say this as a sceptic of Gove and his plans, I think facts and empirical knowledge have indeed been denigrated in our education system. As a History graduate and former GCSE and A-Level History student, perhaps I’m on safest ground referring to the study of history in making my case. Leaving school with an ‘A’ grade in A-Level History (having attended a good comphrensive school with a good History department), I have to admit my grasp of British and world historical events was highly limited (largely to the twentieth century) and rather patchy. This wasn’t because I was a poor or inattentive student, but because teaching and the examination system geared students (and still does gear students) towards personal interpretive analysis of tightly geographically and temporally defined historical ‘modules’, e.g. ‘The Road to WWII’ or ‘The Cold War’. Going on to study History at university, I began to realise that, while I often displayed analytical flair in written work, I had a tendency to play fast and loose with dates and empirical facts, leading to intellectually imaginative but fundamentally flawed historical analysis.

    I use examples from my own experience a) because I think they’re common, and b) they come from someone who has experienced the current system and, looking back, can see its flaws. Of course analytical skills are hugely important and school shouldn’t be about the accumulation of disembodied facts, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can do without one or the other. Just as fact learning is dull and pointless without interpretation and analysis, analysis is hollow and facile without an understanding of important facts – whether they be dates, statistics or a particular sequence of events. What’s more, going back to the example of history, knowing and having reference to a body of key dates and facts helps us to build up a basic picture and sense of the past – a landscape we become familiar with and hence more confident in exploring. How many young people growing up today know when the sack of Rome took place, when the Magna Carta was signed, or when the Act of Union that United England and Scotland was passed? Not many, and I’m afraid it’s sheer arrogance (as well as ignorance) on the part of all of us, to assume that this stuff just doesn’t matter, because our sophisticated imaginative and interpretive skills will somehow make up for our lack of rhard knowledge.

    Finally, I think there’s an important political issue at the heart of all this. A crude dichotomy seems to have emerged between conservative commentators who value ‘facts’ and hard empirical data in education on the one hand and those on the left who seem to prize interpretation and analysis. A lot of mud-slinging goes on between the two sides and both groups seek to caricature each other – those on right berate the left as ‘wooly’, while the left scream at the opposition as reactionary. The issue is undoubtedly more complex and both sides should try to think a little more clearly so as to offer the best chance of sensible policy that will improve educational standards. I’m a 25 year old socialist, hugely critical of the Coalition and Michael Gove, but I’m not going to automatically brand any effort to better acknowledge the value of empirical knowledge in the classroom as right-wing nonsense. A little more sobriety and a little less political vitriol is badly needed on this issue.

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