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News Michael Gove should forget maths and turn to marshmallows | Simon Jenkins
The education secretary wants to test children from the age of five. If he had real conviction he'd start far earlier
Michael Gove is clearly a wimp. The education secretary's proposal to extend "baseline" testing to five-year-olds is too late. He should start at five months. Everyone knows that five months is the crucial developmental stage, when the infant brain adjusts from teat to tooth and is most vulnerable to parental (rather than ministerial) influence. "Give me a child until he's seven," cried the Jesuits, "and I will give you the man." Gove already tests at seven, and now wants to move to five. But he lacks the conviction of the true fanatic.
A letter in Thursday's Daily Telegraph from more than 120 education pundits protests against testing the "nappy curriculum". Gove wants to move the early years of school away from play, classroom activity and social awareness, and teach the three Rs and "school preparedness" from the start of school at five, with testing to match.
The educationists say this will "cause profound damage to the self-image and learning dispositions of a generation of children". In Europe such an early start to formal learning is practised only in Britain, Cyprus and Malta; advanced educational performers such as Scandinavia leave it to six or seven. They concentrate on school acclimatisation before then. There is no known correlation between early starting age and later performance, let alone economic productivity or general contentment.
Gove's approach is essentially Leninist. He believes that national economic prosperity depends on a massive databank of children's quantitative performance. A stern enthusiast for state surveillance, he seeks what amounts to a GPS attainment tracker through life. The reaction of his office to the Telegraph letter was derisive. The "devaluation of exams" by those who "bleat bogus pop psychology" merely "excused not teaching children how to add up". Gove apparently wants to "prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus". For him maths is the religion of fact, though even its high priest Gradgrind would surely draw the line at five-year-olds.
Every authoritarian state becomes obsessed with removing its young from the dangerous vagaries of childhood. The French revolutionaries did so, as did the Russians. The influence of parents, friends, teachers and communities was assumed malign against the benign paternalism of the state. British education ministers such as Kenneth Baker, John Patten, Ed Balls and now Gove see government as the true arbiter of education. Teachers should do simply what they are told, their outputs measured against each other.
When league tables, targets and testing were introduced in the 1990s, I wrote jokily that they would culminate in a league of "best children", with each year's top child saluted as a hero of the British people, like Stakhanov by Stalin. I am told that such a scheme has indeed been mooted in Gove's Whitehall. Even I never imagined it would start at five.
Where might this end? Any geneticist will tell Gove that assessing children at five is far too late. By then family, friends, carers and teachers will have infected the infant brain, contaminating what should be virginal for insemination by Gove's curriculum. His scientists in white coats should gene-test all infants, grade them and stream them through school to match the Treasury's needs for labour force skills. Gove already offers those christened as Anglicans special access to his "best" schools. Surely he should offer it to other tested groups?
One mechanism could be the Stanford marshmallow test. Here evidence of delayed gratification at age three (you get more marshmallows if you wait for them) clearly correlates with higher scores in statutory assessment tests in school, and even mid-life achievement. It therefore wastes state resources to "prepare infants for the calculus" if they have failed the marshmallow test. Indeed, I gather the forecast is robust if you forget the child and just test its parents.
The craving to test, measure and record is a familiar mania of power. The great god of data is assumed to confer control. But in British government it only induces a desperate fidget, where not a day must pass without a minister messing about with someone else's job. England's health and education services are classics of this. For 30 years since Margaret Thatcher became an obsessive centralist, messing about has been the dominant government ethic.
Gove's ambition to raise school standards schools is admirable, if hardly novel. His method – the nationalisation of everything – has given him total control over the school building programme and teaching curriculum. As was totally predictable, for the first time since the war England is now threatened with a gross shortage of school places, coupled with the flight of a shocking quarter of all parents to the private tutorial sector.
There is no evidence from abroad that testing infants will yield higher performance, better teachers or a fairer education system. The trouble with education is that evidence supports almost no policy. When I studied at the Institute of Education I became convinced that almost every generalisation on the subject was bunk.
Exams, reforms, targets, syllabuses did little but induce lurches in teacher and pupil morale. Success at school rarely correlated with success in life. Social and emotional adjustment seemed to matter more than algebra or geometry. Parental support was often crucial. What pupils most remembered about school was an extracurricular activity or inspirational teacher. I came to believe that Whitehall's one useful job was to make sacking bad teachers easier.
I still think so. All else is a politician's yearning to exert control over fellow humans. But at five? It is beyond belief.