The Arrogance of Michael Gove: How dare he judge 85% of students to be failures?

Henry Stewart's picture
When Michael Gove announced that he would like all students to take Maths, English, Science, a humanities subject and a language, many people nodded in agreement. Those seemed a sensible combination.

However it soon became clear that this was not just a suggestion or piece of advice. On the one hand, Gove complained about how much was prescribed by the previous government. One the other, he has made clear that schools will in future be judged solely on their success in this combination of subjects, effectively proscribing them as the route all students must take. (The DfE website makes clear that other measures will only be kept in the league tables for "the time being".)

It was Fiona Millar on this site that first spotted that this measure was being introduced retrospectively. Though it was only announced in September, and schools adjusting their choices now won't see the benefits until 2013, the figure will be included in the league tables as a measure of school quality from this month.

Last year only 15% of students achieved the GCSE combination that Michael Gove prescribes. So he is effectively judging 85% of our students to be failures. To highlight this, let me give some genuine examples from my daughter's year group:

Student 1 - Maths A, Eng Lang A, Eng Lit A, Biology A, Physics A, Chemistry A, Art A, History A, RE B
Gove's verdict: FAILURE (no language)

Student 2 - Maths A*, Eng Lang A*, Eng Lit A*, History A*, Media Studies A*, Biology A, Chemistry A, Physics A, Art B
Gove's Verdict: FAILURE (no language)

Studnet 3 - Maths A, English Lang A, Eng Lit A, Geography A*, Art A*, Biology A, Chemistry A, Physics A
Gove's Verdict: FAILURE (no language)

Student 4 - Maths A, Eng Lang A, Eng Lit A, French A*, Spanish A*, Art A, Drama B, Biology A, Chemistry A, Physics A
Gove's verdict: FAILURE (no humanity)

Each of these students should be proud of their achievement. The school should be proud of how it has supported and taught these students to get these grades. But in Gove's brave new world, these will not be results to be proud of. None of these students will be included in the % listed in Gove's league tables. Instead the school will be deemed to have failed them because they did not achieve the specific combination of subjects that Michael Gove has decided is the right combination for all students. And he, of course, knows what is best for them.

And these are all fairly academic students. There are many others whose strength is in the more artistic and creative subjects - or the more practical - whose choice will be restricted and who will be forced to take subjects that simply do not play to their strenghts.

Can nobody stop this absurd development before it restricts education for all our students?
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Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 09:00

This e bacc concept is very subjective in its definition of subjects.

As you vividly point out there are students with 9/10 excellent GCSE passes who will have fallen short of the e bacc criterion which have wider implications for the school and student, and there will be others with fewer passes and weaker grades who will secured this nebulous benchmark which shows the weakness of the system.

I've said in the past that I think Labour was right to abolish making languages a compulsory subject at GCSE and the pupil examples you've shown illustrate why. Also the restrictive choice of a Humanities subject compounds the folly. I don't see why there has to be any tightening of the 5 GCSE inc Eng and Maths standard for league table purposes but if there does need to be another criterion why not include Science as well which should be a mandatory GCSE subject and make the number of passes up to 8? That would seem fairer than the e bacc.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 09:10

This article really makes clear how unfair, destructive and demoralising the English Bacc will be. As you point out these are all obviously great students who have benefitted and flourished from making choices about what they want to study at 14. This new proposal will annihilate choice and put students off learning. We already have a system which doesn't cater well for non-academic students, but this is going to make things far, far worse. Last night I watched 'Fish Tank', which is about a teenager in Dagenham who is bunking off school; all she is interested in is dance. The film rather eloquently makes the point that we live in a culture that just doesn't value creativity, or nurture it properly in our children. This retrograde policy will only make things far, far worse. What is more to suggest as Gove does that Biblical Hebrew, Latin or Classical Greek are "better" subjects like PE, RE, Music, Media Studies, Art, D and T, is utterly madness.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 09:13

Moreover they government still doesn't appear to have clarified the point about community languages ( although I have been out of the loop for a couple of weeks so correct me if I am wrong).
Why should the bilingual child of a native French speaking family ( and his or her school) benefit from this new benchmark, but not the child of an ethnic Albanian who may have grown up in the UK ( as several of my daughter's friends have) but still speak another language at home?!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 09:18

I think community languages are allowed; it was posted on Twitter by the DfE that any MfL which is a GCSE can be permitted. But I have yet to see an "official" document with this on. Once again, confusion reigns! Gove intimated recently he admires the style of Chairman Mao's "cultural revolution"; I think the confusion and chaos may be deliberate. He sees it as the right's revenge on the educational establishment...

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 06/01/2011 - 09:58

Do read this post ,'Michael Gove. An Idiot Abroad' about Gove's 'cultural revolution' comments made after his trip to China. It is very good and backs up the observations of our young Chinese contributor

Alison's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 10:05

The thing I don't get is that Latin counts as a modern foreign language for E Bacc purposes. So even the statements about the decline of the study of MfL that have recently been made are not backed up by this policy.I have nothing against Latin, but the rhetoric and action do not support each other.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 10:15

I think it's critical to realise that Biblical Hebrew, Latin and Classical Greek are "dead" languages: they no longer have living contexts where they are spoken "naturally". They are purely academic subjects to study; they are fossils to be studied, whereas MfLs are living organisms. They are utterly different from MfLs.

Michael Keenan's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 14:55

Who advises Michael Gove, Sarah Teather, Nick Gibb and the other Department of Education ministers? Do they actively seek out and listen to opinions from actual "real" teachers? Do they themselves have any background in education? I'm not actually being funny or trying to be argumentative here - I have just googled them to find out and I can't find any answers! Do you think they have they made a conscious decision to avoid engagement with actual living, breathing, teaching teachers?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 15:30

I know Michael Gove a little bit. He has spent most of his working life as a journalist, chiefly a right-wing columnist. He is very opinionated and quite evangelical about this opinions. He is quite shy about debating issues in private with people who disagree with him, although he likes nothing more than a public debate, which he excels at; he likes the formality of the approach.

He won't surround himself with many people who disagree with him. I've met Nick Gibb on a few occasions; he has a visceral loathing of "progressive education" and criticised me for having the temerity to teach Media Studies. I don't think he thinks that deeply; he's basically a tough, Tory politician. Sarah Teather is very young and out of her depth with these two. The only people who can overrule them are Cameron and Clegg. Clegg has done this on a few occasions, regarding making all schools academies (which Gove wanted to do) and cutting funding for school sports. Clegg has been hands off regarding the English Bacc, being public-school educated himself he probably agrees with it.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 06/01/2011 - 09:55

Try googling Sam Freedman - Gove's adviser who now appears to be a civil servant and not a political appointment even though that is what he was in opposition...

Michael Keenan's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 19:55

This is exactly what worries me - looking down at someone for teaching something "different" like media studies. I have 20 years experience of teaching and am still learning how to reach those difficult children who don't like reading, writing or education in general. You grasp anything going to engage these children - watching a film that has a theme in it(instead of reading), using a camcorder to express yourself (instead of writing), interacting with a computer (instead of listening to me lecturing them) or countless other examples. This is not bad teaching and learning, this is just teaching and learning in a different way. I feel sorry for Sarah Teather - she does seem too inexperienced to deal with these school bullies. But you know what they say about bullies...

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 21:24

Yes, I think you're taking the right approach Michael, get them engaged with learning! Films, the media, camcording, blogging really encourage and motivate children to learn the basics of literacy and numeracy; calling these approaches "dumbed down" is not correct. These new technologies are very exciting and full of possibilities to help children learn.

Here's a site of a teacher doing some interesting things with his primary school class.

Michael Keenan's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 22:05

Agreed - Mr. Mitchell is a superb example of the kind of teacher and leadership team the Department of Education should be asking for advice about shaping any new curriculum. I have been following his work for some time now but unfortunately this government wouldn't like it because it is based around collaboration with personal learning networks up and down the country with teachers sharing good and best practice with each other and the complete opposite of this competitive free market education system currently being introduced in this country.

Laura McInerney's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 22:44

The Conservative Party do seek out the opinions of real teachers. I've been involved in a number of consultation meetings with the policy advisors, department and even Gove. Furthermore a good number of ex-TeachFirst teachers now work in the department so there are at least some people with knowledge of inner-city schools involved.

The problem is the overall decision on a policy isn't really about education at all; it's about politics and vote-winning. It's very easy to forget that Labour, in their first year, went around 'naming and shaming' schools with less than a certain % of GCSE scores and implementing special measures policies, both of which caused issues in schools at the time. Estelle Morris did a better job than Gove of at least seeming to be reasonable (and also being publically annoyed about some of the decisions) though this may be why she didn't last too long.

One thing I find particularly annoying is that the Liberal Democrats specifically had a policy to remove education from policy and create a body, like NICE, for curriculum. Labour had also made good steps towards this with Ofqual and the QCA. Now these bodies have been obliterated (by a Liberal coalition no less) we are going to see ever more of this insane party ideology making its way into classrooms, further cheesing off teachers and learners who increasingly feel like tumbleweed stuck in the middle of a political hurricane.

Laura McInerney's picture
Wed, 05/01/2011 - 22:45

Just to re-iterate, in case the point wasn't made clearly enough above: the current government do ask for and often receive extremely sensible advice. They just choose to ignore it because it won't win them votes.

Jane Sweeney's picture
Sun, 09/01/2011 - 19:44

How desperately sad that creative and sporting talent is going to be ignored and actually deemed pointless by this government. We have to accept that not every child is academically gifted- and nor do they need to be. As for winning votes, I'd vote for anyone who put the needs of the individual child above the relentless and ruthless quest for results. Every child matters? Only those who can secure 5 GCSE grades. And one has to wonder what lengths these ego maniacs are prepared to go to in order to achieve their unfair and unrealistic government targets.

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