Michael Gove & the BlobPosted: April 7, 2013
Trevor Fisher writes:
Whether Michael Gove is slipping or not, as he approaches his 3rd anniversary in power, the pace of change is accelerating. This is more than the actions of one man. Behind the headlines, there are trends which go beyond one individual and which progressive forces need to be aware of.
But Gove is taking the limelight. After 100 professors published a critical letter in the Independent and Telegraph on March 20th pointing to the dangerous National Curriculum proposals, Gove counterattacked in the Mail ( 30th March). The academics were part of “The Blob… a network of educational gurus in and around our universities” which “tended to operate by stealth…. but the Blob has broken cover in the letters pages of the broadsheets because this Government is taking it on”.
If this were said of me, I would be consulting my lawyer. We wait to see how this will play. However the debate on the curriculum is pointing to contradictions in the Westminster consensus which are now becoming toxic.
FREEDOM VERSUS CONTROL
The government is running three agendas in 2013. The obvious one is the National Curriculum, which is for consultation and is at least attracting debate – the deadline is April 16th. But then there is the dominant project, academisation and free schools. All institutions must be turned into them. And these do not have to do the National Curriculum (NC).
This freedom from the NC is buttressed by an almost anarcho-syndicalist belief in school autonomy. The second agenda is that all parties now believe that regulation of schools, including the National Curriculum, is anathema and all significant decisions must be taken at school level.Tthe current dogma is that schools are to be free to teach and employ who and what they want, and there is no requirement to have any experience or qualifications beyond a degree for teachers. At least Stephen Twigg has made it clear Labour would reverse this. However Gove has reinforced the line that no qualifications at all are required for those who run schools and chains – the requirement to have the NPQH qualification has been removed.
Anyone can run a school. The autonomous school and the all-powerful head teacher is dogma, though training of Heads is controlled by the DFE and on April 2nd two agencies were merged to form the “National College for Teaching and Leadership”, which is to “work in new ways to support the school led system”. But not all schools can lead. Non-academies must be led.
Within the remaining maintained sector, which cannot be trusted to run the curriculum the National Curriculum will still operate, though Liz Truss said on March 18th it will be “disapplied” for a year to allow the new one to operate: which points to a third agenda. But currently the maintained sector has to do the NC, and some think that the rigid NC approach is designed to induce schools to become academies.
However closer study shows that there are two strands in the NC approach. On June 10th the Sunday Times headlined a prescriptive approach which will involve learning poetry at the age of 5 and even how to hold a pencil with children “sitting correctly at a table, holding a pencil comfortably and correctly”. However on June 29th the TES reported that the secondary curriculum will be drastically cut, becoming “very very short” and giving teachers “almost total” freedom over the curriculum. The primary curriculum was the province of Nick Gibb, who, as Andrew Pollard reported, was a devotee of E D Hirsch, the American “Fact Fact Fact” man, while Gove ran secondaries. Which suggested Gove was the anarcho syndicalist and when Gibb went to the back benches, freedom would sprout in the Primary sector.
THE NEW MECHANISMS OF CONTROL.
However nothing is that simple. The programmes of study especially in maths and English remain draconian; but in her March 18th statement Liz Truss proposed the NC be disapplied for a year “so that head teachers will have a year to decide how to maximise this opportunity”. This is the freedom “from excessively prescriptive top-down diktats and the freedom to innovate”.
Unless the whole National Curriculum is to be disapplied not for a year, but for ever, this does not make sense. Is the law is to be changed to abolish the statutory curriculum? However there is a sub text, aimed initially at academies. It has always been hard to think the government wanted 24,000 curriculums with each institution creating its own. And right on cue, Truss went on to put down a marker, namely “Pimlico academy has written a curriculum that is being promoted nationwide by Civitas. Based on the Core Knowledge Curriculum developed by E D Hirsch in the United States….”
Gibb is on the back benches, but this is a massive steer to Hirsch and the “Fact Fact Fact” curriculum. I suspect we will hear less and less of Autonomy as first Academies then all schools are induced to adopt a new National Curriculum based on Hirsch…. but not one we will ever have a chance to discuss. This is the third agenda.
One writer asked me recently why they needed all this farrago of hints and tips. Why not simply impose Hirsch? It is of course because they need to appear to be giving freedom as this is the line on academies. But the only real freedom is freedom to obey.
There is still some room for movement, and some schools are thinking about the International Primary Curriculum. Then there is the IB for secondary. If schools do have freedom, and academies do, they should look at alternatives to Hirsch. However the experience of Ebacc shows that even when a performance measure is not statutory and does not even exist, press reports are enough to sway heads.
PIMLICO AND BEYOND
It is also crucial to note that Truss extolled Pimlico Academy, which has just appointed a 27 year old head, Annaliese Briggs, with no experience, a teaching qualification pending – but from a teaching school, not a university for fear no doubt of the “The Blob”, and apparently not to pass through the National College, though this is not clear. She is a former Deputy Director of Civitas, the right wing think tank promoting the Hirsch curriculum of “Fact, Fact, Fact”. Much comment has focused on her lack of qualifications. But surely she has the one that matters? She is trusted by those who count.
How can Labour and the Liberal Democrats tolerate this politicised approach to the curriculum now with over intervention by Right Wing Think tanks? This is the shape of things to come unless stopped. It’s the National Curriculum, Jim, but not as we know it.