Work as hard as the Chinese

The DfE has now produced perhaps the definitive summary of Michael Gove’s educational philosphy. Commenting on his speech to a Spectator conference, a Whitehall source (can we guess who?) said: “We can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we’ll all soon be working for the Chinese.”

The specific context was the proposal that schools should work longer hours and for more weeks in the year. Apparently, if we don’t do this “we are running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap”.

This would seem to be part of a broad onslaught against the agreements that have governed teachers’ conditions of service, in some cases since the end of industrial action in the 1980’s. The rhetoric from the DfE says one thing: “I believe there is a need to review the framework for non-pay conditions to ensure that it is suited to a high-status profession and gives primacy to teaching and learning” says the remit letter to the Teachers Pay Review body.

The hints and briefings however point in a different direction. They suggest Gove has in his sights the agreement on the 21 administrative and clerical tasks that teachers are not required to undertake. To this, add the longstanding agreement setting the directed working time at 1265 hours. And before anyone thinks this is a bit low, remember that “it does not include any additional time which teachers spend on planning, marking, assessment or other tasks related to the professional responsibilities of the role.”

These are clearly big issues for teachers. And it follows the assault on pensions and the introduction of performance related pay. But it’s also important to look at things from the perspective of the child. Gove clearly thinks that children don’t work hard enough either. In his universe, the road to success is for children to spend more time grinding away at their desks.

The most obvious comment to make is that we seem to be losing sight of childhood. It shouldn’t be an extension downwards of adult working life. Children need space and time to play, to explore the world for themselves and to do things in an unstructured and undirected way. It’s how they learn about relationships, working with others and how they develop their imagination and their creativity.

This is something that Asian societies are in fact beginning to recognise. One American teacher in China wrote of Chinese children that “they are followers, not leaders, with little to no motivation to work as a team and accomplish goals in the most effective and timely manner.”

More comprehensive research has identified serious levels of stress as a big problem amongst Chinese children. Research led by Therese Hesketh, a professor at University College London found that Chinese children as young as six are suffering from serious stress at school. More than 80% of 9 to 12 year olds worried “a lot” about exams, two-thirds feared punishment by their teachers and almost three-quarters reported fearing physical punishment from their parents. One in three children questioned exhibited the “physical symptoms” typical of stress, including headaches and stomach pains.

Much the same is true of other Asian systems. Not only is it bad for children but increasingly this kind of regime doesn’t deliver what society needs. One writer has summarised the Singapore system as being about “identifying the top 1% for future leadership roles and training the remaining 99% to be hamsters to run the economic wheel.” But that isn’t how advanced economies work – we need leaders and imaginative thinkers everywhere. Just putting the hours in will not deliver what we need. The learning that takes place in unplanned and unstructured time is at least as important.

Above all, if we want our children to grow up into balanced and healthy adults, we need to allow them a childhood.


One Comment on “Work as hard as the Chinese”

  1. Steve says:

    As an adopted child Gove should know better than to replace childhood with Victorian educational values. He erroneously believes education to be a serogate substitute for childhood. It isn’t. Children usually grow in the round. Childhood difficulties are cross-cutting so need interagency support. Education is just one aspect of life, of growing up. Piling on verticle pressure for exams, announcing children should read one book per week whist being pressured for exams, introducing phonics tests, reducing school holidays and increasing floor targets is tantamount to child abuse. A typical school week is already oppresive. Where is the empathy?