Puncturing the myth of Gove – taking a hatchet to the “evidence”

Janet Downs's picture
Yesterday I suggested that Gove’s “bespoke” reforms were turning to rags. I highlighted a groundswell of opposition from disparate groups including independent and state schools, the CBI and the exam watchdog to Gove’s exam reforms. I wondered if this would signal the beginning of more widespread disquiet about all of Gove’s policies.

The concern is spreading.

First, the “evidence” underpinning Gove’s exam reforms: Warwick Mansell provides a devastating critique of the document submitted by the Department for Education (DfE) to the Education Select Committee. This paper supposedly gives the “evidence base” which allegedly underpins the proposed changes. Mansell demolishes this – statement by statement. In his conclusion he attacks the wider misuse of evidence by the DfE:

“In summary, there’s no getting away from it: I think this is dumb, or massively dumbed-down, policy-making… The tragedy of our system has become, clearly, its ultra-politicisation, with fair treatment of evidence a casualty. I think people should start saying this much more loudly than they have been; “evidence” of this kind is not just embarrassing, but an indictment on the way we now do policy in this country, with potential implications for pupils across England.”

Second, the black hole at the centre of Gove’s propaganda: Peter Wilby in the Guardian writes, “…there is scant evidence that English schools face any kind of crisis or that Gove's policies will deliver improvements. [Gove’s] stellar rating [in the Daily Mail and other papers] rests on little more than a journalist's talent for telling a good story (he was a news editor and columnist for the Times) and some distinctly dodgy statistics.” Wilby takes Gove to task for his misuse of PISA figures, something that the Local Schools Network and FullFact have criticised many times in the last two years. The UK Statistics watchdog shares this concern and has censured the DfE’s use of PISA statistics.

Wilby punctures the academy myth by using Henry Stewart’s analysis for this site. Henry’s research has recently been confirmed by academics from Leeds and Manchester Universities: there is no academy effect. Wilby concludes that Gove’s “mission is essentially an ideological, not an educational one.”

Parents will not be pleased when they realise Gove has been using their children’s education to enhance his own political career through “stellar” ratings. There are already hundreds of parents angry about the GCSE 2012 debacle – their numbers are likely to rise when parents eventually realise that Gove’s talk about the urgency of educational reform is based on unreliable data.

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Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 13:25

Henry's research is summarised in faqs above. Click on "Do academies get better results, or improve more quickly, than other state schools?"

Further analysis by Henry using Ofsted's own ratings tool is here:


Steven Michael Wright's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 13:31

During our campaign for an open consultation on the issue of academy conversion at Newbold Riverside Primary in Rugby Mark Gore(lead on "education for Warwks LEA) accused campaigners of being politically motivated!!! At a meeting convened by campaigners the partner of Alison Livesy,an interestd party who would not give his name accused campaigner Lorna Dunleavy of disingenuity!!! Truth is the first victim in the push for educational reform.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 15:07

Janet - Misuse of statistics by the DfE is not new. I am a veteran of front line campaigning against the forced academisation overseen by Ed Balls. Remember, 'Academies are improving twice as fast as LA schools'? My research for TES back in 2005, in partnership with Warwick Mansell, first punctured the myth of ideology driven 'school improvement', but this dishonest snake of a claim has wriggled and transformed itself so vigorously as to resurrect itself after every refutation. It is a propagandist's dream: a single slippery sentence that it takes two pages of dense and often counter-intuitive argument to refute. However Peter Wilby is wrong and Gove is right about one thing. The system IS broken. This is not an attack on teachers, whose jobs and conditions of service have been so profoundly degraded that teacher turnover and the drop out rate for newly qualified teachers is scandalous (I don't have the figures to hand but it's bad). Now that national pay scales have been abolished maverick heads can even more easily pass their own system created stresses down the line with unpredented authoritarian powers. Dissent has never been more dangerous for a teacher. This is just another sympton of a disfunctional school system. Yes quality teaching and learning still takes place in schools but so does bad education (see the new book edited by Philip Adey), rote learning and cramming throughout Y6 in preparation for KS2 SATs, 'booster lessons' and teaching to the test for GCSE maths and English to secure C grades at the expense of Es, Ds, Bs and As. Science teachers forced to secure 100 percent pass rates in BTEC science in schools where the majority of pupils are denied a proper science curriculum that tries to get kids to understand the subject rather than tick the boxes. Academic GCSE courses denied to keen pupils the school judges unlikely to get a C. I could go on and on, and so could most teachers. All this bad education must have consequences for pupils and it does. They are denied teaching that promotes cognitive growth and higher levels of understanding resulting in the decline shown by PISA. See Terry Wrigley's post about the Pearson 'research'. Of course Warwick Mansell is right about the DfE and Gove's manipulations of facts and evidence and all the other angry contributors to this site are right to be outraged too. But please do not commit the error of thinking all this is the fault of Gove. He has slotted into the seat and is pulling the levers of a system set up for him by New Labour. Swapping Gove for someone else in the same cab would not solve the problem. The whole market based league table system has to go and this is where the energy of those rightly outraged by Gove's reforms should be directed. Pupils now know nothing different and this is becoming true for increasing numbers of teachers and especially heads. This is a real worry.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 18:44

More urgently than anything we need to deal with Ofsted Roger. It's Ofsted that keeps everyone on the front line so terrified and dysfunctional.

I think what you've written is very good and some of your phrases express things brilliantly but your commentary misses this crucial point.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 08:25

Roger - you are right that misuse of "evidence" is not confined to the present Government. the Labour government's deception is highlighted in this thread:


Your critique of the system is correct but I think it's unwise to describe it as "broken". There is much good work going on in schools despite the pressures you describe above. Perhaps it's about time the headteachers who really care about education in its broadest sense to stop being supine - they're professionals and should behave as such. They should not be chasing league table glory by engaging in the practices you so eloquently describe. They should be standing up to a punitive Ofsted.

Perhaps the HeadteachersRoundtable is a step in the right direction.


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 08:37

Roger - you're right that Labour needs to reject Gove's approach. But it also needs to reject its own past. Labour was complicit in deception about "Education, education, education" - their policies encouraged the very practices you rightly condemn. But Stephen Twigg, now shadow education secretary, must bear some of the blame. He adopted the "bash the teachers" approach now taken up so enthusiastically by Gove and his supporters.

The late Ted Wragg wrote about how he'd read a letter (when he'd retrieved it from the bin) from a junior minister whose signature looked like "Sven Turge". This squiggle revealed that the missive was from Twigg. Wragg describes how Twigg's approach which "harangued" heads to meet targets and "whipped [Governors] into a frenzy to hobble defaulters" was an "exceptionally unintelligent" managerial strategy.

Labour needs to rethink its education policy. Ditching the emphasis on targets based on raw results would be a start. An apology from Stephen Twigg for his crass behaviour in the past would also be helpful.


Readers who missed Roger's thread about how Labour must reject Gove's approach can access it here:


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 08/12/2012 - 21:06

Rebecca - You are right. How could I have left out OfSTED?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 13:23

Roger are you still in the Cumbria area?

If so you're welcome for a cuppa here!

Steven Michael Wright's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 02:24

Oops,in my recent post I neglected to add that the mystery man's partner Ms Livesy is a school governor and an education consultant.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 10:36

Janet - Absolutely right. And how we miss Ted Wragg and his ever-ready, sharp as a scalpel, bullshit detector.

Michael Dix's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 17:55

As a primary headteacher for the last 15 years, I would certainly agree that Mr Gove is by no means the first education minister to push their own agenda on schools, although it is frightening just how much he is able to impose his own views of education regardless of whether there is any evidence that they will work.

I remember about twelve years ago being summoned to a meeting for headteachers with one of the New Labour ministers. We were promised an opportunity to discuss how to raise standards in schools but instead we were treated to the minister's one and only formula which, at that time, was booster classes. I remember being disgusted at the waste of an afternoon and the paucity of ideas. The message was purely about raising levels in league tables.

Successive governments, once national testing and league tables had been introduced, have been judged by newspapers on the average results being achieved. When results were low, they introduced all manner of new initiatives to try and raise them, never giving any of them time to embed and be judged for their true value. This obsession with national data then influences the independent inspection system so that it polices their policies. When a new government comes in, it has to find ways of rubbishing the previous lot's results, hence the wrong use of PISA data a couple of years ago.

Once you have high status testing then it is inevitable that the curriculum becomes distorted. Synthetic phonics were promoted by the last government but I suspect they were not uniformly taken up. The current lot knew jolly well that if you pop a nice little test in there, obviously to support children rather than hold schools to account, they would create a frenzy as schools redesigned successful reading programmes in order to get the required number of children through the test. I've not yet heard of booster phonic classes for five year olds but it's only a matter of time.

It is easy to criticise headteachers for not standing up to Ofsted but that's not the way it works. They come into your school, already with information that has set their minds in a particular way, good or bad, and then you have to spend all your time justifying what you are doing and trying to stop wonderful inspirational teachers from becoming wobbling jellies of insecurity. You can challenge their judgments but they can just ignore you if they feel like it.

Headteachers are isolated in their own schools so it is hard to present a united front. Maybe the Heads' Roundtable will have some impact. The NAHT does good work but even when they finally got a boycott up and running, the resulting Bew report was thoroughly disappointing and nowhere near what headteachers were looking for.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 19:20

Rebecca - Yes still near Ulverston. Ask the editorial team for my email address quoting this post and email me.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 09/12/2012 - 21:19

Have sent a message through the AAA contact system Roger.

It'd be a lot easier if you were on linkedin!


Rebecca - who understands what academyisation in Cumbria is like....

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