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Primary Education News
News In Michael Gove's world who needs teachers? | Peter Wilby
The education secretary's obsession with 'spellings, facts and rules' ignores the professional consensus on child development
No matter what you think of Michael Gove, he has one remarkable achievement to his credit: his policies have persuaded the two biggest teachers' unions, the NUT and the NASUWT, normally at loggerheads, to act in unison. They have agreed a rolling programme of strikes and, when they hold their annual conferences over Easter, the only issue will be whether it should be launched sooner or later. A third union, the traditionally unmilitant ATL, this week passed a motion of no confidence in the education secretary.
Gove intends not only to introduce performance-related pay and increase pension contributions but also to revolutionise, at breakneck speed, the content and format of GCSEs, A-levels and the national curriculum. As teachers see it, he is de-professionalising them, squeezing the autonomy and creativity out of their work. In effect, teachers are being told to forget how they were trained and teach in a different way.
That explains why 100 of the top names in teacher education – including professors from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and London – signed a letter published in two national newspapers last week, warning that Gove's curriculum, consisting of "endless lists of spellings, facts and rules", could "severely erode educational standards".
Most teachers are trained to believe that children don't learn best through what the philosopher John Dewey called "the piling up of information", much of which will be forgotten. They should master a range of skills – from basic reading and writing to critical thinking and weighing evidence – and teachers should choose suitable content, varying it according to individuals' needs and interests. According to this view, too many "spellings, facts and rules" too early will put children off learning, as well as stunting imagination and creativity. Children should "learn how to learn", not be stuffed with inert and dimly understood knowledge.
Previous versions of the national curriculum echoed, at least to some degree, the consensus of professional educators. Gove's version, published last month and apparently written largely by himself and his aides, ignored "expert panels" that the education secretary himself set up. As he explained in a speech to the Social Market Foundation, he believes that what used to be called "general knowledge" is as essential to a sound education as reading, writing and maths.
"Literacy," Gove argued, "is not a skill learnt in abstract isolation from the culture around us – it reflects the accumulated learning of our civilisation." Children must be introduced, from an early age, "to the knowledge which allows them to be culturally literate". People cannot understand National Gallery paintings, Seamus Heaney's poems, Shakespeare's plays, Richard Dawkins's books, newspaper opinion pieces or even much of what they find on Google without such knowledge – about literature, history, geography, religion, science and the ancient world, for example. They may read the words or enjoy the painting before them but they will not comprehend their full meaning.
In taking this view, Gove closely follows ED Hirsch, an 85-year-old retired English literature professor from Virginia. Hirsch argues not only that lack of "core knowledge" penalises children from poor homes and reduces social mobility, but also that it damages social cohesion and democratic participation. Without shared knowledge, we cannot communicate. We become strangers in our own land, as if we were all visitors to a big city, lacking any shared landmarks to orientate ourselves.
It doesn't matter, Hirsch says, if adults remember only a fraction of such knowledge. Even a hazy recollection of, say, the chronology of English history or the laws of physics will provide sufficient cues when someone refers to Henry VIII or relativity. Hirsch produced a 53-page list of "what every American needs to know" – from Aberdeen to Zurich; absolute monarchy to Zionism; Aaron, Hank, a baseball player, to Zola, Emile – and the Civitas thinktank recently adapted his programme for Britain.
The emphasis on knowledge – or "data" as the dissident academics' letter calls it – is evident throughout Gove's curriculum: in history, events and personalities are listed at length; in geography, children must learn and locate continents, countries and capital cities; in English, maths and science, the precision about what children should learn and when they should learn it is mind-boggling – teachers are even told to warn pupils against looking directly at the sun.
It's easy to see why teachers, and particularly education professors, are so upset. If children need only "spellings, facts and rules" as laid down in Whitehall, why should teachers be trained at all? Indeed, Gove has ruled that academies and free schools (which, bizarrely, are exempt from the national curriculum) can employ unqualified teachers; even in other schools, a growing number are trained "on the job", spending only 40% of their time in college. His curriculum pays scant attention to what teachers are trained for: coping with children's infinite variability, their uneven cognitive development, their low boredom thresholds.
Gove demands painstaking attention to spelling, handwriting and grammar, and lists the grammatical terms, such as "modal verbs", that children must learn. He expects five- to seven-year-olds to grasp concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament or democracy. If children are presented with material that runs ahead of their mental development, only one teaching method is possible: learning by rote. The skill and judgment that teachers use to motivate and enthuse children will be worthless.
Many teachers would agree that schools have tipped the balance too far away from basic knowledge. But Gove unbalances the curriculum in the opposite direction. Insisting on high aspiration – as though a nation of Shakespeare-quoting savants can just be willed into existence – he ignores what teachers have to say about how children learn and develop. He therefore risks alienating and demoralising the profession.