Gove spins positive view of teaching while morale sinks - but not all is as rosy as he makes out

Janet Downs's picture
“Education reforms have "decreased morale and motivation" among school teachers and heads, a survey has found.”

BBC 2 September 2013

But Michael Gove disputes this. Teaching is a rewarding profession, he says. And he’s right – it is. When lessons go well, when pupils achieve their potential, when you witness pupils’ Eureka moments – then it’s the best job in the world.

But there’s a downside – workload, emotional wear-and-tear, carping from media and politicians, Ofsted’s moving goalposts and the relentless, rushed pace of change.

Gove pours praise on teachers in his latest speech. It’s an attractive profession, he says, citing the opinions of undergraduates and career-changers who’ve spent no time actually teaching. Teachers’ wages in England are higher than the OECD average (claim debunked here). And, using the rhetorical trope of “pattern of three”, he says:

“Teachers are the most important fighters in the battle to make opportunity more equal. Teachers are the critical guardians of the intellectual life of the nation. Teachers give children the tools by which they can become authors of their own life story and builders of a better world.”

That may be true (if rather overblown) – but it does teachers a disservice to downplay the downside.

Gove is right that teaching makes a difference. But he misrepresents his opponents who argue that pupils’ circumstances impact on their education. Gove twists this – his opponents believe teaching can have no effect, he says. He chides Dr Mary Bousted* for arguing for “less wealth inequality” and “far more balanced school intakes”.

But there is a link between family background and educational achievement in all countries. (Dr John Jerrim**) and the OECD found “The highest performing education systems across OECD countries are those that combine quality with equity,”

Nevertheless, Gove censures Bousted for mentioning this. He misrepresents her position by saying she believes “deprivation is destiny”.

He’s right that deprivation isn’t destiny but it does have an influence. The OECD found a high concentration of disadvantaged children in a school impacts on overall performance. But Gove attacks Bousted for stating this.

Gove puts the responsibility for the advancement of disadvantaged children firmly on schools and the children themselves. In saying this he denies all political responsibility for raising children out of poverty.

The best schools, he says, can take unpromising material and make them above average. He cites examples: Woodpecker Hall Primary and Durand Academy had far more special educational needs (SEN) children than the national average (7.9%) but the pupils achieved above average results. Woodpecker Hall had 11.7% SEN pupils in 2012 which is more than 7.9%. But Durand Academy only had 2.8%. This is not more than 7.9%.

Gove claims that in both schools “every child…achieves far above the national average [Level 4] in numeracy and literacy.” So 100% of children achieved Level 5 in Key Stage 2 SATs, did they? Unsurprisingly, the answer is No. It’s a silly remark to make.

It’s not the first time that Gove has made misleading comments about Woodpecker Hall and Durand Academy. But repeating them doesn’t make them true.

In a veiled attack on Michael Rosen, one of Gove’s fiercest critics Gove said:

“It is teachers, not poets, who are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.”

But teachers don’t make laws, politicians do. And teachers are poets are teachers. Or, in the words of William Blake:

“How can the bird that is born for joy/Sit in a cage and sing?”

CORRECTION 19 September 2013

The above has been changed to correct an error I made about the SEN national average.  I originally said this was 19.8%.  This included SEN pupils on School Action.  However, the figures quoted in School Performance Tables omit such pupils.  They only include SEN pupils with a Statement or who are on School Action Plus.  This means the proportion of SEN pupils at Woodpecker Hall was higher than the national average (7.9%) and not below as I originally said.  However, as we now know, Gove was not referring to Woodpecker Hall in his speech but Cuckoo Hall, a school he's visited several times.  More information about my corrected error and Gove's muddle is here.


*Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers and described by Gove as “one of the most impressive people in the education debate”.

**Dr John Jerrim, the University of London’s Institute of Education, is the author of The Reading Gap which looked at the relationship between family backgrounds and high achievers and different genders.


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