Middlemarch, Misrepresentation and Mr Men – another Gove speech

Janet Downs's picture
What would most impress you as a parent? That your daughter read Twilight or Middlemarch? Or that your son used his laptop to play Angry Birds or coding? These questions kicked off the Education Secretary’s latest speech.

Leave aside the gendered stereotype – girls read while boys use computers – Gove’s questions raise false dichotomies. It’s either one or the other. There’s no room for both and no suggestion that one could lead to the other.

Reading Eliot should be motivated by curiosity not because it might impress. Literature isn’t for intellectual one-upmanship. And today’s gaming geek can be tomorrow’s game designer.

Gove confuses reading books and studying books. For Gove, the latter doesn’t include studying anything outside the Great Literature canon especially if it’s pre-20th century. He bemoans the fact that exam candidates prefer Of Mice and Men to Pride and Prejudice. But it’s the quality of engagement with a book that’s important not the perceived quality of the book. Orwell wrote just as elegantly about boys’ weeklies as he did about Tolstoy and King Lear. The former essay isn’t weaker than the latter just because it discusses popular comics. And a discriminating reading of Twilight could lead to Gothic classics.

Gove applies the same logic to computer gaming. Angry Birds, implies Gove, is a low-level activity in which children “while away hours flinging electronic fowl at virtual pigs”. But, according to Harvard Business Review, gamers are “bottom line-orientated; understand the power of diversity; thrive on change; see learning as fun; and explore radical alternatives and innovative strategies. Gamers learn constantly.” Those electronic fowl can lead to higher thinking:

"Let’s redesign Angry Birds Friends into a good game. Take literally ten seconds and think to yourself, 'What sort of multiplayer game works (and sells) really well on mobile devices?' If the answer is not forthcoming, ask yourself, 'What type of game do I really like to play with friends?'"

Arent't these the kind of questions a coder needs to ask before starting coding?  Coding without purpose would be like allowing monkeys to bash computer keys.

Gove reels off authors which he says are studied in the academies he heaps with praise. But there’s nothing exceptional in his list. The same or similar authors appear in thousands of schools in a smorgasbord of fiction, non-fiction, biographies, diaries, reportage, travel writing and short stories. And that’s just prose. Although quite why Gove included Malcolm Gladwell in his list of great authors for secondary pupils is unclear.

History teaching takes another knock although he avoids mentioning “survey after survey”. Instead he misrepresents lesson plans from the Historical Association and a revision activity about the rise of Hitler. The latter attracted particular opprobrium because it asked pupils to produce a book in a simplified Mr Man format suitable for reading to younger pupils. But Mr Gove forgot to mention the purpose of the lesson plan (consolidation), the target of the books (younger children) or that the latter would be fully-briefed beforehand. Instead, he focussed his attack on the Mr Men element. In any case, it’s not outrageous to use comic strips to portray history. Persepolis and Maus attest to that.

Gove similarly misrepresents Michael Rosen. Rosen wrote that Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Tests might not be the best way to teach grammar and grammar rules aren’t fixed but change over time. Gove misinterprets this as showing that Rosen thinks correct grammar doesn’t exist and he with other “progressive” thinkers want to prevent the majority of children from being taught how to communicate.

Finally, Gove said 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English were “the minimum level of literacy and numeracy required for future employability.” But the Office of National Statistics makes it clear that Level One qualifications (GCSE D-G) allow entry to elementary jobs such as customer service and basic administration.

So, after Middlemarch, Mr Men and Misrepresentation we have another M – Misleading information. But it wouldn’t be a Gove speech without some of that.


A longer critique of Gove’s speech is here.

A satirical piece featuring a new Mr Man character is here.

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