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Primary Education News
News Ringleader of Michael Gove's 'bad' academics
Michael Bassey explains why the national curriculum is a good idea gone wrong
Getting academics to agree about anything is normally as difficult as the proverbial herding of cats. But Michael Gove, the education secretary, has created so much alarm that 100 education professors and lecturers, including top academics at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and the London University Institute of Education, unhesitatingly signed a letter this spring denouncing his national curriculum plans. Under Gove, they wrote, children face "endless lists of spellings, facts and rules" that "could severely erode educational standards". The letter was sent to the Daily Telegraph – not the Guardian, I was told, because the signatories didn't want to preach to the converted – and then to the Independent, because the Telegraph didn't initially respond. In the end, both papers reported it on their front pages.
Gove came out fighting. The academics, he wrote, were guilty of "valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence". They operated by stealth, controlling quangos and committees that shape policy. He described their views as "bad academia". They were the "enemies of promise", a phrase borrowed from the title of a 1930s book by the critic Cyril Connolly, which includes an account of Connolly's years at Eton where, he recorded, "the arts … were under a blight". There was lots more of that sort of thing from the Mail and Telegraph, with the former describing the academics as "predominantly leftwing ideologists with links to trade unions, socialists and the Labour party". But the letter became a rallying point for Gove's opponents and gave notice that he faces a significant political battle with experts and practitioners – who, the public may think, speak with authority.
I went to see Michael Bassey, a retired professor from Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), who, with Terry Wrigley of Leeds Metropolitan University, drafted the letter and recruited signatories. He lives in Newark, Nottinghamshire, and celebrates his 81st birthday this month. As Gove's curriculum plans draw heavily on the works of ED Hirsch, an 85-year-old American professor, it seems the future of English schooling will be resolved by a battle of octogenarians.
In a bad imitation of the late Senator Joe McCarthy (who, in the early 1950s, led congressional inquiries into US subversion), I asked Bassey: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party or other Marxist organisation?" "No," he replied.
He was once briefly a Liberal Democrat member and recently joined Labour for the first time so he could vote for Ed Miliband, a former environment secretary, because, as we shall see, Bassey has strong green opinions. Though he was a member of the academics' union, he was never an official, unless you count his presidency of the British Educational Research Association. As a chemistry student at University College London, he became union president in 1956-7. But his most subversive act was to organise a refectory boycott and his only march was to the Soviet embassy in protest against the invasion of Hungary. If he is secretly a dedicated communist, he has chosen an odd location to pursue his mission, living on a modern housing estate where most of his neighbours read the Mail.
His political beliefs are set out in his book, Convivial Policies for the Inevitable. The "inevitable" is that economic growth will hit the buffers as the planet's resources dwindle and global warming increases. "Conviviality" means "living in harmony with one's natural, cultural and social environment". Bassey wants a minimum "citizen's income" for all, paid regardless of employment status; an upper limit on annual income, net of taxation; national self-sufficiency in food and energy; an end to arms exports (with arms factories converted to make "simple farming equipment, water pumps and hand tools"); and decriminalisation of drugs. Which, while it may not be doctrinaire Marxism, suggests what, to Gove and the Mail, would be a nightmare world.
Much of Bassey's educational thinking follows from his concern about climate change. We would do better to educate our children for survival in a warming world, he thinks, than to worry about competing with Pacific Rim countries. "Education should be seen as a means of gaining intellectual wealth, not financial wealth," he says. The concept of making our schools "world-class", he argues, is an empty one.
He agrees that children need basic knowledge as well as sound grounding in literacy and numeracy. "But to say that you have to stuff them with facts at the beginning so they understand what comes later is to misunderstand how human beings develop. You don't have to say that, in years one and two, children must be taught the meaning of beach, coast and democracy. Most adults don't understand democracy."
Bassey says the national curriculum, when first introduced in 1988, was a good idea. "It got teachers to assess, through the development of Sats. I interviewed 900 primary school teachers in the late 1970s and found that, though they weren't using particularly trendy methods, there was no sense of assessment." But now, he argues, the national curriculum has become oppressive. "It should be a guideline, with Ofsted pointing it out if they miss large sections."
He agrees that "the number of children who don't get a decent experience of literacy is serious". In the early years of secondary education, therefore, he would introduce a literacy test, defining literacy as "not just reading and writing, but thinking". It wouldn't be graded; it would be a pass/fail test, which the failures could repeat, "rather like the driving test, which Gove admitted he failed five times before he passed".
Naturally, Bassey would abolish school league tables and replace them with what he calls "bottom-up accountability". Schools would set their own goals and evaluate themselves. A national education council, comprising teachers, MPs, academics "and other prominent members of society", would collate evidence of what was happening in schools, commission research, organise nationwide sampling of basic skills and report to parliament every two years. Parliament's deliberations would be discussed by every school governing body. A secretary of state for education would be unnecessary. "One junior minister would suffice," Bassey says. This will hardly commend his proposals to Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, never mind Gove.
Bassey was born in Leytonstone, east London, before his parents moved to Orpington in Kent when he was two. After state primary school, he won a free scholarship to Eltham College, a direct-grant grammar which is now wholly independent. His parents weren't especially political but his father, a local government official, was a pacifist who denied his only child toy guns but joined the Home Guard in the second world war.
Bassey focused on chemistry from an early age, and was so confident of his abilities that, when saddled with "a completely useless chemistry teacher" for A-level, he asked if he could study alone in the library. Remarkably, this request was granted. What about practicals? "I was allowed to use the laboratories." Unsupervised? "Oh, yes, health and safety hadn't been invented."
After completing a PhD, Bassey became a management trainee at Fisons, the fertiliser company. But he decided not to become "a captain of industry" and moved into adult education at Sheffield University's extramural department. By then, he was campaigning on the hopelessness of chemistry textbooks, which, he said, were scandalously outdated.
In 1961, he moved into teacher training, initially lecturing on the science of home economics in an all-girls college. Only later did he take a PGCE and he admits his experience of teaching children is limited to teaching practice, for which he got a distinction, and a half-term in a primary school while researching a book. But that's more than Gove's experience, and Bassey also spent "many hours observing" primary classrooms, writing Practical Classroom Organisation, which was translated into Spanish.
His second wife, who died in 2008, was a primary school head and she, he says, was the source of much of his anger about political interference.
You wouldn't expect Gove to warm to Bassey's educational blueprint, which involves abolishing GCSEs and A-levels, Sats, the national curriculum, Ofsted and parental choice of school. But a man who took his degree in what Gove classifies as a core academic subject at a "proper" university and then worked for a "wealth-creating" company ought to command the education secretary's attention.
Alas, he was absorbed by what Gove calls "The Blob – the network of educational gurus … who drew gifted young teachers away from their vocation and … towards ideologically driven theory".
Gove will therefore stick with Hirsch, who believes seven-year-olds should learn (I open at random What Your Year 3 Child Needs to Know, edited by Hirsch for the UK thinktank Civitas) that "though the Rhine is a big river, it is still smaller than the Danube, which flows through 10 countries on its way east from Germany into eastern Europe".