Is Michael Gove a modern-day Hercules?

A copy of a response to a thoughtful New Statesman article. The article claims that Gove’s reputation is built on a myth because (1) his claim to be reintroducing rigour will turn out to be bogus; (2) he is centralising power in Whitehall and not, as he claims, in the hands of parents; (3) that the benefits of academies will not spread beyond a few model schools; and (4) that the claim to put an end of Labour’s white elephants (ICT and BSF) fails to recognise the continuing need, at least to update the school estate.

The jury is still out on point (1). With respect to (2) it is faulty logic to argue that because Whitehall is becoming more powerful at the expense of local authorities, therefore parents may not also become more powerful. But although I am a supporter of what Gove is doing, I tend to agree with the New Statesman on points (3) and (4). Below is a copy of my comment submitted on their website.

I think Gove is doing a good job in leading an apparently fearless attack on the heap of mad-verging-on-corrupt practice which has built up in our schools under the bureaucratic control of local authorities.

That said, I think this is a serious and thoughtful article. The (maybe justified) excitement on the right about Gove’s up-staging of Cameron is not necessarily very helpful when it comes to sorting out the long-term problems in education.

The fundamental problem is that there have never been enough teachers with sufficient commitment and qualifications to staff a system of universal education. Setting up a few beacon model schools is always the easy bit – it is the long tail that will always be the problem.

But I do not think the article’s assumption that this is all about pay washes either. Teachers’ pay improved significantly under Labour – but there is not much evidence that performance rose proportionately (as there wasn’t either in the health service). I think you would need really dramatic pay increases if you wanted to attract a significantly larger pool of really talented people – and those types of increase were never affordable (and certainly are not now).

I think the reason for teachers to be angry is not so about pay but about the difficulty of the job, particularly against a backdrop of a challenging youth culture (involving a lack of deference, high expectations, poor discipline, low skills/commitment). In the face of this challenge, we still have a model of teaching as a craft-based enterprise, in which young teachers are shut in a room with 30 children and told to get on with it.

What is required is the systematization of education, so that teachers are not required at the age of 23 to become a combination of guru, stand-up comedian and sergeant major – but are offered a job involving the application of well-tested procedures that can be shown to work and which ordinary people can do.

Computer software (both instructional and for classroom management) has a key role to play in this respect. Gove is right to regard the Becta-led ICT programmes of the last government as a colossal waste of money – but that is not a reason to turn your back on education technology altogether. In his speech at BETT in January, Gove called for “a serious, intelligent conversation about how technology can transform education”. But the conversation has not happened. The existing power structures have nothing interesting to say and Gove himself has done nothing to lead the conversation himself.

2 thoughts on “Is Michael Gove a modern-day Hercules?

  1. I think you may be mistaken to think that education can be systemised or that it hasn’t been tried before. It was the flawed logic of the National Strategies that believed that best practice could be identified and regurgitated in any school. This led to a consultancy approach copied from Management Consultancy in business that attempted to formulise the answers.

    This failed to move people from where they were to being any better. Dylan Wiliam prefers to espouse a form of change leadership that tries to, “Love the one you are with”.

    Far from a one size fits all magic bullet we need to value teachers as intelligent professionals who solve particular problems for specific situations. It may be these people aren’t there or it may be no one believes they can be trusted. I’m not sure more money or more accountability is going to discover which is the case.

    • Hi SuperCollision,

      Thanks for the comment. I recognise the danger you identify of a mechanistic approach to teaching. What I think we need to do is to find the middle way between an inflexible, scripted approach – and a “let’s make it up as we go along” approach – avoiding the pitfalls of both extremes.

      First, some people might feel a visceral reaction against any talk of “systemisation” of education. In response, I would say that we tend to over-romanticise what much education comprises. I would be the first to agree that, at the higher end, education relies on the inspiration which can be given by exceptional human teachers. But at the other end, there is a great deal of bread and butter activity which is really pretty mechanistic – learning your French vocab or your times table for example . The point I am making is that, in trying to systematise what *can* be systematised, I am not denying the importance of the crucial part which *cannot* be systematised.

      Excuse me if I pick through your comment. It’s not because I want to make superficial debating points – but because I want to tease apart the argument into it’s different parts.

      > you may be mistaken to think that education can be systemised

      I am meaning to get round to writing a review on the blog of Diana Laurillard’s new book, “Teaching as a Design Science”. Her key point is that teaching is like engineering involving repeatable design patterns. I would cite a simple one that Diana Laurillard does not mention. When revising or learning your vocab, periodic review and reinforcement is critical – go over before bed what you learnt in the morning. From the point of view of the classroom teacher, this represents a formidable administrative task – for the computer, it does not. Prof Laurillard talks more about the principle of variation: attacking the same problem from different pedagogical angles – instructional, discovery, creation etc. Again, the effective combination or sequencing of activities is a formidable administrative task – but could be handled relatively easily by good computer systems. To jump ahead a bit in your post, I think that Dylan William, one of Diana Laurillard’s colleagues at the IoE, also has a lot of important things to say about teaching as a design science.

      > … or that it hasn’t been tried before…

      The difficulty of the “it’s been tried before” argument is that it might well have been tried in the wrong way. Few innovators would ever be successful if they gave up when the first trial did not work.

      > …It was the flawed logic of the National Strategies that believed that best practice could be identified and regurgitated in any school

      I would never have expected the National Strategies to work – or indeed the sharing of lesson plans – because what the human teacher does well is so closely tied to their personality. I am sure we would both oppose any proposal to reduce teachers to robots, delivering a script. This would drive out exactly the kind of personal inspiration and insight that is what you need to see from a good teacher. In my vision of blended education (i.e. blending digital and traditional), the system is the fall-back – the equivalent of the textbook, if you like – and the human teacher is the part of the service which can extemporize, using the technology as far as the technology is useful, adding their own value-add, which will often involve their superior diagnostic capacity, answering the question “what does this student need to move to the next level”. But let’s be honest, many teachers barely know all their students’ names – let alone the kind of in-depth understanding of their cognitive capacities that they need to do this job properly. So like an air-traffic controller, they need systems that help them with the mechanical and information-processing bits of their job, enabling them to make the high-level decisions that only a skilled human can do. And they need the freedom occasionally to override or ignore what the system is telling them. So I am not advocating systems as things that will limit the human element in education – but that will support teachers in doing what is an incredibly difficult job.

      > consultancy approach copied from Management Consultancy in business that attempted to formulise the answers

      I completely agree. When I say “systematization”, I do not mean “bureaucratisation”. I also agree that that is what has tended to happen in the past and that it has been very damaging. What I am advocating is a process of technical systematization, which will be driven by the teachers themselves through the purchasing decisions they make. The systems I am talking about will be encapsulated in software which the teachers (properly incentivised to do the best job that they can) themselves choose to use. So, to take my example of the principle of review and reinforcement – if there were a good instructional software program which taught foreign language vocabulary, included review and reinforcement quizzes and different kinds of activity (drill, contextual use, shared use amongst peers), reporting student performance to the teacher – that would systematize a (relatively simple) learning process and if it worked, I as a teacher would choose to use it. So from the point of view of the teacher, system is empowering, not crushing.

      > This failed to move people from where they were to being any better

      Again, I think you are talking about a bureaucratic type of system and I am talking about a set of digital tools which automate complex but relatively mechanical tasks.

      > Far from a one size fits all…

      Totally agree. It is bureaucratic approaches that create “one size fits all” solutions. I am advocating a market in education technology and markets (if regulated to prevent the emergence of anti-competitive monopolies) produce diverse solutions.

      > …magic bullet…

      This makes it sound as if what I am advocating is fanciful – but time and time again, technology *is* the magic bullet. Every 50 or 100 years, somebody says that we all going to starve, and every time so far, technology has come up with a solution. And if you look at what technology has done in so many different sectors, from transport to communications to science, technology has all the appearance to someone who does not understand it of magic. But in education, we still live, broadly speaking, in a pre-technical age. Why? Because the system has been run by bureaucrats, who cling to a romantic, pre-industrial, craft-based view of teaching. And that is why we have an education service that is clearly failing to deliver.

      > It may be these people aren’t there or it may be no one believes they can be trusted. I’m not sure more money or more accountability is going to discover which is the case.

      I don’t want to be contentious here (but I am!) It strikes me as a little chippy, when government asks for better accountability, for teachers to act all wounded and say that no-one trusts them. Any organisation needs to be accountable – and the old idea that “if only people treated us like professionals, they would believe us and not expect us to be accountable to anyone” doesn’t wash either. Unaccountable doctors are just as much a problem as unaccountable teachers.
      But I think the issue of accountability goes much wider than this narrow issue of the status of teachers. It is about the existence of management data which is the life-blood of any organisation. Sainsburys will order more low-fat spreads because they notice that these are becoming more popular at the check-out. But if there were a general problem in Y11 with basic arithmetic, there are few schools where the Head of Maths would be pick this up automatically and take remedial action. The only real-time data that schools monitor routinely is registration data – which corresponds to their function as baby-sitters. Better accountability means better internal management, better team teaching, better liaison with parents. And at scale, these are things that can only be managed by efficient, data-driven learning management systems that, for all of the billions spent by Becta, are still a twinkle in the eye.

      It seems to me, SuperCollision, that we are talking about “systematization” in different senses. Apologies for replying at such length – but it strikes me as an interesting conversation – and I look forward to seeing your further thoughts.

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