Friday, 8 October 2010

Michael Gove speaks to the Conservative Party Conference

On Tuesday Michael Gove stepped back into the political spotlight to deliver a rousing speech to delight the delegates at the Conservative Party Conference.

Proceeded on stage by Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a influential American Charter School group, Mr Gove sought to position himself as a great education reformer set against a backdrop of entrenched interests. “The Conservative party is now the party of the teacher, the party of higher standards, the party that is driving the reforms” he said.

But the speech, which received two standing ovations, was also highly critical of the past government and so called “bureaucrats and ideologues” who Mr Gove insisted bore responsibility for “[crushing] the spirit of the best in the profession.”

In damning language he insisted that“these ideologues may too have been inspired by generous ideals - but the result of their approach has been countless children condemned to a prison house of ignorance”.

For many this was a thinly veiled attack on the unions and pressure groups which have sought to block the progress of his academies bill. This message was reinforced by key note speaker Geoffrey Canada, who used his address to suggest that unions “kill” teaching innovation.

However there were very obvious mixed messages in a speech which on one hand praised teachers as heroes and on the other claimed that drastic reform was needed to “free children from a culture of limited horizons, levelling down and low expectations.”

For the Education Secretary, the world is inhabited exclusively by passionate hard working teachers and outdated establishment dinosaurs who are hell bent hobbling him at every turn. In reality the situation is much more complex than that. It suits the coalition narrative to frame the debate in this way, but in reality much of the objections to the academies bill have come from teachers. Teachers who are dedicated not just to their pupils but to the education system as a whole.

Mr Gove must acknowledge the passion that education practitioners have for what happens in their school is not driven by a nefarious desire to maintain a unjust status quo, but by a real passion for pupils outcomes. Teaching groups represent those interests and teachers must be engaged and involved in this period of transition. To attack the broader education establishment in such strong language, as parts of this speech did, runs the risk of ostracising the teachers the coalition wish to engage with.

This apparent unwillingness to see the multiple shades of grey which define the realities of education policy was a theme which ran throughout this speech.

Mr Gove claimed that by “scrapping the curriculum quango” he is giving a 'new deal' to teachers and the freedom they deserve to influence the curriculum. This seems to contradict his claim that he wants to put classical literature such as Swift, Byron, Keats and Shelly at the centre of English teaching. Nor is it in line with his recent centrally issued diktat on music education. No one would argue against the benefits of either argument, but it is not possible for Mr Gove to inhabit both places. The coalition must be either in favour of a classical traditional curriculum or in favour of freedom for teachers to do what is best for their learners.

There was also confusion over his announcement that teachers would be given increased powers to intervene in events outside the schools gates, with the the NUT insisting that "pupils are already subject to disciplinary powers when outside of school grounds. Michael Gove's sweeping pledge is presently without substance." Schools minister Vernon Coaker was also critical stating that “teachers already have very clear powers to use reasonable physical force where necessary and to discipline pupils for bad behaviour on the journey to and from school. To imply otherwise is misleading and undermines the confidence of teachers.”

But there was no doubting Mr Gove's passion for his brief, as he spoke of his desire to push through his reforms at pace, claiming that he couldn't live with himself if he didn't move quickly with his reforms, “children only have one chance. Five years for them is their entire life at secondary school.”

This was a speech in which Mr Gove sought to regain his title as one of the coalition’s high achievers and reassert the control of his brief that was lost during the fiasco over the cancellation of BSF. And there is no doubting the Secretary of States passion for his task.

Whether or not this passion reflects a willingness to engage dissenting voices will come to define Mr Gove's time as Education Secretary. In the face of controversial reforms, it will be crucial that teachers unions and education practitioners are engaged at the highest level of policy making, rather than excluded as barriers to change. The teaching community is a diverse and passionate body and to ignore its views is to deny its strength in diversity. A new curriculum or 'new deal' that does not draw on our full gamut of skills will be no more uniting than the work of the “bureaucrats and ideologues” maligned by Mr Gove.

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