So, Michael Gove has caved in to the parties of reaction. The teacher unions, labour and the liberals are all committed to the god of equality which, in their view, proscribes any action that fails to treat all children exactly the same. Children are not the same; their mental and physical capacities will differ on a scale with no real ends and they need to be treated as individuals and helped to reach their individual potential, not forced through a lowest common denominator sausage machine.
If anything is obvious it is that our education system will continue to fail the nation’s children with poor exam results and dreadful career prospects unless there is drastic change. The fact that far too many children emerge from ten years (shortly to be 12 years) of schooling functionally illiterate is a damning indictment on years of educational failure and malaise. It is stunning that 40% of children emerge from school without five GCSEs including maths and English and that this dreadful percentage rises to 63% among children on free school meals.
What has gone so wrong for so long? I don’t think there is a single answer or a simple one but I think there are plenty of clues:
- too many people, including some teachers, assume that children from poor backgrounds cannot thrive and do well. They are wrong;
- too many teachers have been put through a left-facing teacher training system that has inculcated equality rather than excellence; that has opposed elitist aspiration and promoted dumbing down to ensure no disappointment;
- politicians have allowed our examination system to be debased and lauded apparently improved examination results without a murmur of challenge;
- we have sought to send too many children on to a university education for which they are hopelessly ill-prepared.
Two more issues fascinate me. They are one issue on which the media are vocal and another where they are silent:
- Newspapers like The Daily Telegraph applaud the fact that “schools are being released from the dead hand of local government”. This is arrant nonsense. Schools have been autonomous for a dozen years now with local government increasingly powerless to influence the head or the governing body who have become increasingly sovereign. I do not oppose this as a concept but I wish newspapers would realise it is a decade since local councils had any effective influence over schools in their area. At the same time, local councils have a residual responsibility when the schools market fails and increasingly have fewer resources to handle such failure.
- The words that are never spoken by the national media are the issue of parental support. Children spend 13% of their lives between age 5 and 18 in school and 87% in their home environment. If that home environment is based around a culture of drugs, booze, bookies and telly where reading is despised and learning is laughed at, there is little a teacher or a school’s management can do to counter this negativism. There are politicians who would concentrate on preventing middle class parents from supporting their children with private tuition or a move to independent schools rather than tackle the much more difficult culture change of putting a good education at the heart of every parent’s ambitions. It is that terrible taskmaster of equality bearing down on our children again and creating lasting inequality of achieving potential.
So, I say “full marks” to Michael Gove for the changes you are making. We need a schools market that responds to parental pressures and we need parents who universally care about the education of their children. I can see Michael Gove moving strongly on the first of these aims; I am less clear how he plans to change the culture of parental expectations and ambitions that impact on 87% of their children’s lives. That is the challenge he still has to meet.