Hit and List – A Simple Guide for Budding Education Secretaries

COMMENT – It’s the time that every primary teacher loves, isn’t it?  The latest secretary of state for education gets his paws on the national curriculum.  Of course, in Gove world, what you do is consult experts in education and then, when you  discover that they haven’t all simply sent in a sheet of paper with the words ‘Make it like you think you can remember your schooldays were, Mikey’, you ignore them completely.  Then, you cobble together a bizarre mixture of (a) things you think are not happening in schools already (but mostly are) and (b) things you reckon that of themselves will make every, single child leave school at the same level of achievement – just by dint of these things being on your lists.

Hence, we’re getting a list of spellings that all children must have learned by the time they leave primary school – and I don’t know about everyone else, but I really cannot wait to see what’s on the list.  Personally, I’d like to see these words arranged in groups, so that children are aided in their understanding by some sort of context.  For example, you might see the following:

Words to use when describing ministers:  foolish, deluded, conniving, imperialistic, barking, weasel.

Within the information published by the DfE on the national curriculum review there’s also the kind of talk about grammar that will have most Telegraph readers rushing to post approving comments on Gove’s website.  I can’t argue at all with a desire to improve children’s knowledge of grammar, though I do suggest Gove might begin with whichever semi-literate wonks down the DfE wrote the information on their website, since it’s littered with grammatical errors and examples of poor writing.  I was especially amused by this response to the posed question as to whether primary schools could offer a classical language in place of a modern foreign one:   “Yes. We do not wish to restrict primary schools in their choice of language, and classical languages can give a good grounding in understanding, and using basic grammar and writing in, other foreign languages.”

Perhaps Gove intends that teachers should use the various examples of poor grammar exhibited by his staff as part of new national curriculum teaching, thereby providing a free resource in these times of reduced school budgets.

I was also fascinated to see that Gove is holding up in triumph his requirement that primary schools teach a foreign language as if it’s the newest idea anyone’s ever had; his convenient amnesia in this area has wiped from his mind the fact that it was Alan Johnson, in March 2007, who announced that it would be mandatory from 2010 for primary schools to teach a modern language to all pupils from the age of 7.   In fact, it was because Gove himself scrapped Labour’s existing plans when he became education secretary in 2010 that we do not already have all primary schools in England already teaching a modern foreign language to all pupils from age 7.  That’s an example of irony, children.

Unfortunately, what we’re being offered in this overhaul of the national curriculum is a dog’s breakfast, much like the original national curriculum was in the late 1980s.  Gove appears to believe that England can compete with the ‘highest performing jurisdictions’ from whose curricula he’s cherry-picked the bits he likes by ensuring that children rote-learn things on lists.  Once again, I’ve no actual quibble with the concept that children ought to learn things like tables by heart, but genuinely laughed out loud when I saw that the ‘rigour’ being introduced to this area was merely the extension from the ten times table to the twelve, an ‘idea’ drawn from Massachusetts, apparently.   As the eleven times table is a bit of a cinch, the injection of greater ‘rigour’ here consists, in reality, of learning one new times table.  It does beg the question, however, as to whether or not Gove has sat down to think about why we used to learn tables up to twelve, but mysteriously gave it all up one day.  I’m willing to bet you a shilling he hasn’t.

Michael Gove’s approach to education policy and reform seems to me to be based on things he’s jotted down on the back of an envelope with the overall title ‘Children cannot be allowed to get through life without the following’.   Certainly, any notion that he’s used careful research and consultation of the great and the good can be dismissed by looking  at the list on the DfE website of those on his ‘expert panel’ – for example, Andrew Pollard.  This is the same Andrew Pollard who has roundly denounced the plans Gove has issued, calling them ‘fatally flawed’.

Moreover, just in case primary teachers out there are thinking ‘Yeah, load of old lists, who’s going to know if I don’t do it?’, we’re also assured that the new, ‘ couched in incredible detail national curriculum’ will be accompanied by punitive inspection arrangements and tough new tests at 11.

It seems to me that what we’ve lacked throughout the last thirty-odd years of educational change upon daft educational change is some sort of coherent plan.  It’s with this in mind that I hereby present Freeborn’s guide for education secretaries; I call it ‘Making your mark, cutting a swathe, annoying teachers:  four simple steps.’:

1.  Take a sledgehammer to structures, claiming that this will, of itself, raise standards. (Note to returning Tory administrations:  this time, ensure the structures are virtually impossible to dismantle, you know what happened with Grant Maintained schools once Labour got back in power).

2.  Put masses of micro detail into the NC, claiming you’re ‘restoring rigour, standards, etc’ when all you’re actually doing is making lists.

3.  Appoint as head of Ofsted someone who, having been a teacher once, makes the more naïve teachers believe will be a bit sympathetic, but is in actuality best described by the last three words on my ‘spellings to describe ministers’ list (above).

4.  Piddle about with appraisal.  Again.

Faced with all this, I find myself wondering why the phrase ‘great leap forward’ keeps coming to mind.  I do know that if I were a primary teacher today I’d be spinning on one leg trying to make sense of all this horror, though I have no doubt that secondary teachers should be looking over their shoulders too – because Gove isn’t finished yet, not by a long chalk.

Please submit your comments below.

Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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  1. During my last five years I worked for FIVE DIFFERENT Education Secretaries in as many years. Naturally I moaned about one gets his/her slippers on in the office and then someone else replaced them quicker than they could alter policy. However, I now consider myself well off because it would be impossible to work for this GOVE governor who hasn’t got a clue about MODERN education. I always get the impression his nanny has told him what to say.
    Well done again Helen for bringing to our attention how fortunate we are to be out of it all.

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