Saturday, 2 February 2013

Does Gove get it?

Is Michael Gove's touch deserting him?  It is not that long ago that, as a new Secretary of State, he was being praised in many quarters for his desire to bring back increased rigour to our education system.  Tackling grade inflation and seeking to ensure that all pupils receive a good academic grounding is certainly something to be welcomed and in his early months in office he was right to stand up to his critics.  Recent weeeks though have seen some well justified criticisms about lack of consultation and an ill-considered haste in the timetable for change.  More troubling though is that the publication last week of Performance Tables for schools has flagged up a real question as to the extent to which Michael Gove actually understands education. 

For the first time they have included as a measure the percentage of pupils gaining 3 A Levels in what are called 'facilitating subjects'.  These are the three sciences, mathematics, classical and modern languages, Geography, History and English.  All of these are traditional, rigorous subjects and presumably this is why Mr Gove wants to use them as a measure.  There are though serious flaws in his logic:
  • The list of subjects comes from a Russell Group document entitled 'Informed Choices' and is a group of subjects most commonly regarded as compulsory for related degree courses. 
  • They are not a complete list of traditional subjects (note that they do not include Economics, Politics, Religious Studies, Ancient History etc). 
  • They do not take into account the necessity of Art or Music for related degree courses. 
  • Or that the Russell Group clearly states that it is not necessary to have only 'traditional subjects'.  They are entirely happy with a mixture of two traditional and one of the more modern / practical / creative subjects.  Indeed, Art or Design Technology are valued for Architecture at Cambridge alongside subjects such as Maths and Physics. 
This is a really worrying sign of Mr Gove's lack of understanding and something I say as Head of a school which comes out well under this measure (8th out of the 37 Grammar Schools in Kent and Medway despite taking in a broader range of pupils and 8th out of 19 independent schools).

A similar blind spot is in his planned reforms at GCSEs which will see a new English Baccalaureate comprised of five compulsory subjects (English, Maths, History or Geography, Science and a Language).  There is nothing wrong with those subjects per se but it does not include any of the creative subjects such as Art or Music and has no place for Religious Studies and there is a concern that, nationally, many schools will not devote resources to subjects which don't count in league tables.  While that will not be the case at my school, or others like it, it causes me concern for education across our nation.

In recent days, Michael Gove has come under fire from universities, Heads and MPs on the Commons Education Select Committee.  He was right to stick to his guns in the early days but now he needs to demonstrate a little more understanding and humility.  He must listen to his critics and engage with their concerns or he risks weakening the very education system he wants to improve.