With Secretary for Education, Michael Gove, proposing dramatic changes to the country’s schooling, Big Debate asks, are his proposals promising?
YES: Rebecca Shapiro
“We cannot afford to have an education system that was set in the nineteenth century”
Media attention has recently been overwhelmingly fixed on Education Secretary Michael Gove and his U-turn on replacing GCSEs with the EBC. Granted, a U-turn like this is never ideal (except to the shadow ministers), but Gove’s other ideas for education surely deserve further investigation before they are dismissed so whole-heartedly. Despite media hounding, I find Gove’s proposals to be realistic, progressive and promising.
Structurally the school’s terms and times were designed when Britain had an agricultural economy. But, as Gove so aptly pointed out in his speech to the Commons, we no longer live in a society where children are required to race home and milk cows. We cannot afford to have an education system that was set in the nineteenth century; the unfortunate reality in many schools in Britain today is that pupils are losing their edge in an increasingly competitive world. Gove’s policies mark a courageous attempt to change this.
His proposals are simply changes that would allow many more children to thrive in the education system. His reforms would allow for longer days, which would mean state schools could stay open until 4.30pm. They would also lead to shorter holidays, for instance four-week summer holidays for pupils from September next year. In this economic climate it seems particularly sensible both for the standard of education and for the ease of working parents.
Gove’s curriculum proposals are also apt, at a time where Ofsted school reports highlight worrying levels of ignorance in school children about the history of their own country. The March 2011 report revealed that in 2010, over 100 state schools entered no students for GCSE history. And England is falling behind its very own neighbours: it is the only country in Europe where history is not compulsory for students over 14 years old. There seems no fault, therefore, in the proposed curriculum that teaches a coherent narrative of British history.
Gove’s proposed changes focus on our contry’s economic reality, not on the nation’s growing hyper-sensitivity when it comes to children’s well-being. Teachers at one secondary school in London were told that they must not use red ink when marking homework, for fear that it upsets pupils. At the risk of being labelled a bully, it seems that these pupils should stop crying over the colour of biros and start worrying about the lack of jobs in their recession-filled future. As James Wallis Simons declared in The Telegraph last week, ‘by global standards, our children have traditionally had it easy’. If the cost of fixing this is the toughening up of GCSEs then so be it. Fewer bite-sized, overly structured questions and a greater focus on quantitative problem solving can surely be no bad thing.
It is becoming increasingly evident that this country need to radicalize the way we educate. According to a 2011 British Council Survey of 500 business leaders, 75% feared that the UK economy is at risk of being ‘left behind’ because of a lack of recruits who have an international awareness. The root of this problem can be tackled through the education changes that Michael Gove is proposing.
By the time they reach 16, the cleverest British children are the equivalent of two years behind those in countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Scaremongering will achieve little but a Whitehall source certainly does have some clout when saying in regards to education that ‘we can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we’ll all soon be working for the Chinese.’
NO: Tess Brumwell-Gaze
“Gove seems to be on a one-man mission to restore his own childhood”
As the daughter of a teacher and a head teacher, I feel obliged to speak on their behalf – and on the behalf of a vast number of teachers also – of how ridiculous Michael Gove’s proposals really are. Against the will and advice of any of the experts around him, teachers and academics alike, Gove seems to be on a one-man mission to restore his own childhood for every young citizen in the country.
Luckily, Gove’s plan to stamp out GCSE’s has been itself stamped out. His approach to subjects shows just how out of touch he is with the demographic he is in his position to serve. To learn Latin is something I would personally see as a good move, but for Gove to suggest it ought to be compulsory, displays his lack of attention to the reality that Latin only exists in this nation so far as ‘carpe diem’ tattoos.
Yes yes, Britain is great. We won wars and have a flag that looks great in cushion-form. But Gove’s planned history curriculum screams the national anthem so loudly that pupils won’t hear the school-bell. I can grant that there could be some shake-up to the curriculum as it stands, and to be roughly chronological is not a terrible idea. However to restrict history to a lengthy list of British figures (men) and their consecutive effect on the country sounds boring even if Stephen Fry was teaching.
On a serious note, Gove expresses an opinion that our country must alter to suit a global environment. The curriculum boasts that “A knowledge of Britain’s past, and our place in the world, helps us understand the challenges of our own time”. Where national borders are decreasing in importance, where linguistics are invaluable, where knowledge about other cultures is priceless; it is highly important our schools fulfil these new demands. But what has Gove decided we should teach the younger generations about the past? Ah yes, a solid British-only factfile. History is not the only curriculum under serious scrutiny. Even the national treasure that is David Attenbrough has voiced concern over Geography, worried that environmental issues are effectively non-existent.
The newest proposal on Gove’s list is to schedule school with longer days and shorter holidays, as according to him we are following a schedule which was apparently “designed at a time when we had an agricultural economy “. Compared to our global competition, our shorter school hours “ensure that we start with a significant handicap”. This assertion of Gove’s is for a start, unfounded. Warwick Mansell explained in the Guardian that in fact Singapore has the entirety of December as a holiday, China has the majority of July and August and our European neighbours ‘have summer holidays of at least nine weeks’. In reality, more school doesn’t necessarily mean more learning. Pupils can only take in so much information, and down-time is valuable. Pupils aside, teachers are being laden with more and more paperwork, over-concerned parents and high expectations. More hours and less holiday will surely put off those considering a teaching career, and push those already involved into a state of despair.
What is clear, is Gove’s lack of knowledge and logic. With the brightest historians offering him advice for a European-based history curriculum, and NTU assuring him of what will and won’t work, Gove is on a crusade to realise his own warped imagination of how education ought to be. Even in the interest of global competition, he fails. Yes, education needs a shake-up, but a shake-up that is progressive, not regressive.