Are Gove’s “bespoke” reforms turning to rags?

Janet Downs's picture
“Last month the Government published a schools white paper that so precisely addresses the key lessons of Pisa 2009 that it could easily be mistaken for a bespoke response to it.” So said Michael Gove, education secretary, in a TES article published shortly after the publication of the 2009 PISA* results which were hailed as proof that the UK education system was failing. Headlines such as “Travesty of our ‘stagnating’ schools” appeared. These, like the Government, ignored the OECD* warning that the 2000 UK PISA** results shouldn’t be used for comparison. These, like the Government, misrepresented OECD findings.

The UK Statistics watchdog has confirmed that Gove’s use of PISA figures was dodgy but there’s been little publicity and no official retraction. And Gove’s assertion that his Education White Paper (now law) was a “bespoke” response to PISA was a rhetorical flourish. Many policies had no obvious relationship with PISA and some were contradicted by the OECD evidence that Gove claimed had informed the Bill. Andreas Schleicher, the OECD official who runs PISA, told TES that spending money on professional training for existing teachers would improve school performance faster than insisting on high level degrees for teacher trainees.

Gove’s claim in the White Paper that international evidence showed increased competition between schools improved performance was contradicted by the OECD which found the evidence was inconclusive (see faqs) and the best-performing school systems tended to concentrate on equity (OECD Education at a Glance 2011). The Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment found that countries which improved their literacy results often did so because they reduced the proportion of low achievers. But there was little in the White Paper to address their needs – and Gove’s proposed exams, the EBCs, threaten to nudge low achievers out of the exam system and palm them off with a “Statement of Achievement”. He says the EBCs are intended to match the best exam systems in the world – they won’t (see faqs).

Academies and free schools would, according to Gove, raise results in all schools. But academies as a whole have not performed better than similar non-academy schools. And the OECD warned that although academies and free schools would increase choice the policy risked having a negative effect on already disadvantaged children (OECD Economic Survey UK 2011).

Gove has set great store on his policies being underpinned by evidence but his “evidence” has been misrepresented, distorted and cherry-picked. It’s even been contradicted by the sources he quotes. Sometimes it doesn’t even exist.

Gove adheres to the Goebbels principle: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

But not everyone believes the propaganda. Gove’s proposed exams have united heads in private and state schools, including academies, the CBI, representatives from the creative industries, unions, even Ofqual, in opposition to his rushed and ill-conceived reforms. Perhaps this coalition will open eyes and ears - the emperor really does have no clothes, “bespoke” or otherwise.

*Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

**Programme for International Student Assessment. These tests are set every three years and are administered by the OECD (see faqs above).

UPDATE 9 December 2012.  There is doubt about what Goebbels actually said about repeating lies often enough to become the "truth".  It would be more accurate, therefore, for the sentence above to read: "Gove adheres to the principle attributed to Goebbels : “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 07/12/2012 - 19:51

Janet - You are right that Gove misrepresents PISA and ignores the steadily accumulating evidence that claims for the positive benefits of marketisation of the education system, league tables and academies are false. However that does not mean that the English education system is not broken. Gove is not responsible for this. He is just making it worse. It is failing because of a flawed ideology and the rejection of the positive lessons from decades of educational research. The blame lies with Baker, Blair, Blunkett, Barber and Adonis. The rot started with the 1988 Education Act and Local Management of Schools, which was needed to make league table driven competition possible. This abolished school heads as 'classroom teaching leaders' and gradually replaced them by non-teaching managers that increasingly understood less and less about education and theories of learning. The resulting decline in standards is evidenced not just by PISA but by the work of Professor Michael Shayer and James Flynn. All Gove has done is build on the ideological foundations created for him. That is why Labour needs new education thinking that rejects not just Gove but the entire ideology that supports his policies. That is what my New Statesman article is about.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 08:29

Roger - you're right that successive governments have interfered in the English education system with constant "reforms". As Professor Robin Alexander told Chilean TV:

"...for nearly thirty years, the UK education system had been subjected to quickly changing reforms enforced by different governments often without being properly evaluated. Some of these policies were good: the last Government tried to address the needs of disadvantaged children, for example. But others were not so good, such as the same Government’s obsession with curriculum, standards, testing and pedagogy."

Claiming that the English education system is "broken" is unhelpful. It suggests that schools are anarchic institutions in which no learning takes place. This is, of course, untrue. However, you are correct in being angry that the role of school heads has moved from being leaders of education to "executive principals" responsible for "marketing" the school, ensuring it does what's needed to get to the top of the league tables and so on.

The late Ted Wragg was asked how a visitors to schools would recognise executive principals. Ted's answer was that he didn't know because they were never there.

For more information about part one of Robin's interview with Chilean TV see link below. My summary of part two will follow shortly.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 09:37

Nope, they aren't.

How can the emperor's clothes turn to rags when they are made of the finest golden thread by the greatest spinners and embroiderers in the land?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 11:08

Rebecca - all that glistens is not gold. In Gove's case it's tawdry tinsel spun by gnomes who have no regard for the rubbish they weave.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 10:19

Ach no here we go - the are blooming in all their glory.

I've written before about Penrith which has a grammar school and a comp.

Well, now the comp has been judged to be 'requiring improvement' despite not failing it's inspection on any criteria and doing very well on many.

That'll help parents to make intelligent decisions!!
Top report.

Gove would know about failure, wouldn't he.
Like he would know that labeling a schools as being a failing school is the best way to improve it.
Please excuse me while I projectile vomit over the computer screen.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 11:18

Warwick Mansell offers a devastating critique of the Written Evidence submitted by the Department for Education to the Education Select Committee re the “evidence base” for the proposed exam reforms.

Mansell demolishes the "evidence" – statement by statement. Here’s the introduction:

“It is amazing, for government ministers who seem to pepper every speech they make on qualifications reform with the word “rigour”, that this is precisely the quality lacking in the detail of what the Government says about the subject, in policy papers such as this.”


“But in this latest DfE paper, I struggled even to follow the logic of some of the evidence being used at times. … I’m not sure we should hang too much of the blame for this on the civil servants who will have done a lot of the drafting, as I’d guess that they are simply trying to fit evidence around the brief that politicians are giving them.”

In other words, make the “evidence” fit the ideology.

Morten Johann's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 15:14

May I politely protest at the distasteful linking here of a British Education Minister with the Nazi propagandist, Josef Goebbels.

It does no credit to this website and is, in any case, widely regarded as an incorrect attribution:

'Nor can the reference be attributed the to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, whose only reference to a “big lie” comes in a 1941 speech attacking Winston Churchill: “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” This is only at slight variance with the Hitler citation, as Goebbels’ ministry routinely argued that the English government and media were manipulated by Jewish power.'

'The “Big Lie” myth is bipartisan, popular with excitable representatives of both political parties and all ideologies: Sen. Chuck Grassley, Rush Limbaugh, Joe Scarborough, and Chris Matthews have all accused their enemies of planning to lie loud and lie often—just like the Nazis. And the fear of impending American fascism, a charge made most recently by Rep. Ron Paul during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, are distressingly common. Even the recent kerfuffle over an anti-Obama cover story in Newsweek led one Huffington Post blogger to dismiss the author, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, as a “British fascist.”

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 18:24

On Wiki Goebbels' version of the big lie is stated as being:

"The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous."

Can you restate your protest at this being linked to Gove in the context of this definition Morten? As someone who has been fully aware of how untrue the claims associated with free schools and academies (and virtually all the other crap which has spewed forth out of Michael Gove's mouth) from the beginning I would struggle.

Here's the link:

Morten Johann's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 04:26

“sustained lying in politics predates fascism, wasn’t deployed in any unique way by fascists, and......wasn’t an acknowledged fascist propaganda technique. So, why the constant invocation of Nazism instead of, say, Stalinism?

Beyond the ugliness of comparing a political opponent to genocidal racists, and the anti-Semitic etymology of the phrase, the less-remarked-upon problem is that such arguments pervert and simplify the historical record.....

This statement reinforces the long-debunked view of a hypnotist Führer, repeating the catechism of anti-Semitism, and convincing a pliant nation to commit genocide........minimizes the breadth and depth of anti-Jewish feeling prevalent in prewar Germany.

The “big lie” wasn’t a Nazi propaganda “technique.” It wasn’t “invented” or “pioneered” by either Hitler or Goebbels. Nor was it the backbone of an anti-Semitic media strategy that precipitated the Holocaust.'

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 08:06

Martin if you look at the mindsets of those who rose to prominence in Nazi Germany and Michael Gove the parallels are so obvious I find it rather odd you are choosing to be so proactively defensive about this.

Essentially in a healthy democracy you get people who rank highly on scales like Hawkins' scale of consciousness in positions of power. Not people who are prone to paranoia and to 'seeing/labelling' people with ability and experience who are attempting to engage in the debate as being some enemy group of people (extreme socialist idealists, self interested teachers who don't care about children and so on) that you need to eliminate.

Morten Johann's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 11:39

To seriously liken the mindset of Britain's Education Minister of today to that of prominent Nazi leaders of the 1930s and 1940s is, I'm afraid, quite mad.

To suggest that what is arguably the world's most democratic state, envied the world over for its personal and political freedoms, is an unhealthy democracy is to move off into a different solar system entirely.

Enjoy the trip.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 12:34

It would be more healthy if you constructively criticised my point rather than trying to destroy my right to make it by labeling me as being insane and therefore unqualified to comment Morten.

In doing so you are precisely replicating the aspect of Gove's character which I am drawing attention to.

To give Michael Gove credit he himself doesn't flinch from engaging with drawing parallels between his own behavior and that of those in power who use violent oppression of intelligent people to pursue unevidenced and damaging policies they personally happen to believe are wonderful.

It was he himself who drew attention to his determination to emulate Mao and to use the red guard (Ofsted) to brutalise those who did not agree with the conclusions that if everyone melted down their teaspoons there would be a great leap forward (Gove's academies program and his use of Ofsted as a weapon against schools like Downhills).

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