More than a “basic error” – Gove’s “Mr Sloppy” statement was a distortion of the truth

Janet Downs's picture
“Michael Gove is called 'Mr Sloppy' for making a basic error”

Daily Telegraph, 29 October 2013

But the “updating” by the Department for Education (DfE) of his Policy Exchange speech was more than the correction of a “basic error” in which Cuckoo Hall Primary Academy had been confused with Woodpecker Hall. The alteration changed Gove’s statement that Woodpecker (ie Cuckoo) and Durand Academy had more than the average number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) but still ensured every child achieved above-average marks in literacy and numeracy.

The amended version said: “But the vast majority of children – regardless of the challenges they face – achieved at or above the expected level in numeracy and literacy.”

So “every” was changed to “vast majority” and “above-average marks” became “at or above the expected level in numeracy and literacy.”

Not such a “basic error”, then, but a deliberate alteration of an erroneous statement.

So why did Education Secretary include this claim in his speech - a claim which was repeated in Standpoint and on Conservative Home although he didn’t name the schools? It was because highlighting such schools establishes benchmarks which other schools should reach:

“There is an urgent need to ensure that every school is as good as these.”

But these schools didn’t reach the standard Gove originally said they had. And it’s not the first time that Gove has made inaccurate claims about the number of SEN pupils at Durand Academy – he said the same thing in January 2013. To make one error, Mr Gove, may be regarded as a misfortune; to make it twice looks like carelessness.

Gove’s misleading claims ratchet up pressure on schools to achieve an impossible target – all pupils must be above-average.. Leave aside the obvious fact that 100% of pupils in English schools can’t be above average – England isn’t Lake Wobegon. This extra pressure to raise results is likely to inhibit innovation, to distort what is taught, to encourage teaching to the test,and to act as a perverse incentive whereby schools dissuade pupils who are likely to depress their success rate from applying.

This pressure would bear particularly hard on those schools that educate a large proportion of SEN pupils. Any such school which doesn’t become “as good as” the schools he highlighted is likely to be attacked as “failing”. This will demoralize teachers who work in such schools and dissuade teachers from seeking jobs there.

But the schools he highlighted don’t exist. And no amount of changing the wording of a speech after it has been made will alter that fact.

So, it wasn’t just a “basic error”. It was a distortion of the truth far more serious than confusing the names of two schools.

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