The Mr Men Debate

Trevor Fisher's picture
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The Mr Men story which Janet Downs commented on (see sidebar) is part of a bigger narrative - Gove avoiding commenting on the critics of his National Curriculum proposals. The Mr Men citation is important, but it is vital not to allow him to divert from the critics particularly the Royal Historical Society, whose comment on their web site is vital, or the bigger picture of selecting evidence in the form of special pleading which the Mr Man issue is a clear example of.

The Mr Man exercise is cherry picked as Janet Downs observes, and is only one of a large number of exercises on the Active History web site. It may be appropriate, or it may be a bad piece of work. We don't have to defend every piece of work on every web site. However what Gove does is to take a piece of evidence out of context to make his general case. This is invalid deduction. There are bad doctors. There are certainly bad hospitals. I live in Stafford, and the local hospital is a national scandal. But we do not condemn the NHS because of poor standards in particular areas. We try to improve the service - which is what the people of Stafford are seeking with their hospital.

In theory, Gove is doing the same for education. But what he does not practice is select a bad example and then say everything is awful. In this case, he is arguing "proper history of being crushed under the weight of play based pedagogy which infantilises children, teachers and our culture....At GCSE level this infantilisation continues. One set of history teaching resources...." and off he goes. The full speech - May 9th at Brighton college is full of similar examples of making a general statement from isolated cases. It is intellectually invalid. His method always involves special pleading and the whole speech provides evidence of this polemical approach.

In this particularly rich case of how a career politician operates, Gove is also playing to the old Black Paper approach, used in the 1970s to great effect and never known to fail since, of saying everything is wrong so politicians must intervene. However in the Mr Man Example he plays to the old view that GCSE is rubbish - so teachers should adopt the IGCSE, or international GCSE, that state education is rubbish so schools should be modeled on independents, the root of the academy movement, and that They Do Things Better Abroad and we must catch up with the International Competition.

Except that the Active History site is run from an independent school, is an IGCSE site, and is located abroad - the International School for Toulouse. So it has ticked all the boxes and fails to match up to the Gove agenda. We may also note this is a teacher run resource, which is what Gove advocated in his April 25th speech.

There is no pleasing Mr Gove.

And indeed there is not. He is on a mission, and evidence is what fits his preordained case. In this context, critics are to be ignored and the evidence cherry picked to suit. This is not objective and balanced judgement, but a politically driven agenda which selects what is said to give the desired impression. On school History the objective assessment, supported by OFSTED reports - at least in the era before Michael Wilshaw took over - was that history is well taught, and universities regularly praise History, which is a Facilitating Subject. It is therefore profoundly disturbing that Michael Gove argues in this manner, and essential that we keep pointing to his partisan and illogical approach.

Trevor Fisher
Editor, Education Politics.
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