London Festival of Education – Michael Gove

Yesterday I spent the day at the London Festival of Education. There were lots of interesting sessions and ‘fringe’ events. However I want to focus on the first session of the day which was an interview of Micheal Gove, the secretary of state for education, by  David Aaronovitch.

When Gove came on stage he was booed by the crowd. The theme of the interview was what does an educated person look like.

David Aaronovitch (DA) began by questioning Gove’s view of an educated person. He stated that he felt that Gove’s view harks back to his experence of 1970s Grammar School.

Gove (G) – View of an educated person was based on looking at the most improved education systems and what they value. He cited Poland (notable for its improvement and narrowing the gap), Singapore (east-asian nation), and Alberta, the  province in Canada with the best education system. The biggest problem of the English education system to sort people into ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’. He then went on to argue that more children are more capable; a well educated society of the future more people are educated academically for longer.

DA – Isn’t there are worry that the bottom end will loose out?

G – Some children, very few, are not capable to follow a full academic program. 80-90% are capable of following a full academic programme; they can achieve what only 25% of children achieved 40 years ago.

DA – What could 80-90% of children achieve by 2025?

G – 16 year olds would be able to:

  • Use the English language to interact, and draft business letters.
  • Read and appreciate English literature.
  • Fluency in foreignlanguage.
  • In mathematics students will be able to understand riks, probability, buy an insurance policy and understand reports by Robert Peston.
  • Understand broad scientific principals.

Its only if your ambitious wehre children can have scores of opportinuites they are capable of.

DA – This is an admirable aspiration; similar to that of the British communist party of 1950. Is your view of the curriculum not too based on knowledge and not allowing critical faculty?

G – Students are bored if teaching is not good enough. External assessment can ensure that critical thinking is embedded in teaching and the curriculum. Critical thinking skills can be developed by understanding how body of knowledges interact, however to do that you need to have the body of knowledge. Current system focus on exam technique over love of learning. There is also a need to make sure vocational work is examined, rigourous, timed, and based on skills.

DA- You don’t deal with the pain in failing?

G – If you say to someone they are a failure it can have a devastating effect. However students know when they have been given unwarranted success. Need to encourage and support pupils to improve, so they can make them do better. There is a need to change the difficult edge between C/D. The foundation / higher tier papers in some subjects are a hangover from the previous situation, challenging the system to remove them. 

We need to concentrate on schools that succeed. Concentration of C/D borderline students has meant that other students have been neglected. This is a point that I agree with!

There is a challenge of setting an exam that is both challenging and captures the majority of the ability range. However if you don’t set ambitious groups you risk the country treading water.

DA – What about vocational education?

G – Need to make changes in funding to make FE colleges more likely to offer challenging courses. There should be the same amount of money per student rather than per course; there needs to be clear information about employability of course. Both jobs and skills will become obsolete  but there is a sense of satisfaction of mastering a skill.

DA – When you have EBACC it creates a core / not core. Why is it more important to study Geography than Religious Education?

G – There are  passionate and brilliant people who make pitches for every subject. For example he has heard passionate pitches to add gardening to the curriculum and to separate cooking from technology. However RE is a specific factor, its already a mandatory part of the National Curriculum to 16. Geography and History are not, and there have been a decline in numbers taking these subjects. EBACC is an encapsulation of what other countries have done.

DA – What would we do without international comparisons?

The final 15 minutes of the interview was set aside for audience questions.

Question 1 – Why do you have such a disregard for the teaching profession, the academy programme has harmed teacher’s employment rights and pay structure.

G – Resistance to academies programme is by people who want to swim close to the edge of the pool, they should come to the middle the waters loverly and they won’t want to go back. I have never met an academy principal who wants to go back. But what about teachers?

Question 2 – How do you define success for school leavers?

Students should be equiped to be authors of their own life story. Success means someone is a master or mistress of a body of knowledge.

Question 3 – Why the focus on more difficult assessments – weighing the pig does not make it fatter? Harder exams don’t equate to higher standards.

G – Can’t have education without assessment. We need to know what you have learn’t, otherwise it is just play. Making exams harder is a sign of higher ambition.

Question 4 – Name one of these schools with an academic rout and 80-90% achievement.

Mossbourne Community Academy

Paddington Academy

Both have high aspirations for all students. Not every school has high ambitions for students, there are some schools that are inadequate.

Question 5 – Why have you excluded Arts from the EBACC?

Not including subjects in the EBACC does not mean that you exclude them from schools. I have never seen a school that is an academic success that does not take arts and music seriously.

Question 6- What about the inclusion of community languages?

It is important to recognise these languages but it is also important that students are introduced to languages beyond which they have grown up with; to help unlock doors for the future.

 My initial thoughts?

  • A number of times throughout this interview Michael Gove referred to consultation; how meaningful are these consultations? 
  • Gove made reference to international comparisons, how valid are these comparisons due to different contexts? In addition are these simply comparisons of convenience, picking and choosing international examples to fit his needs? 
  • My worry about Gove is many of his ideas appear sensible when looked at in isolation and superficially; however the devil is in the detail and they are damaging to the education sector if they are fully implemented.
I think attendance at events like this are important for all educators; we are often isolated in our own schools and classrooms and it is important to consider the wider field.


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