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Thursday, November 25, 2010 

I'm still your fag (or the importance of being Gove).

(Apologies to Broken Social Scene for the title.)

The Guardian
opens its editorial on the schools white paper with the assertion that, if nothing else, it's palpably clear that Michael Gove cares about schools. Perhaps a more accurate line would be that he palpably cares about some schools. Someone who palpably cares about all schools would have made certain that the lists his department released concerning the abolition of the Building Schools for the Future program were accurate the first time. Instead, numerous schools were told their new buildings would still be constructed only to then to have the news broken that in fact they wouldn't. One of the Tory jibes against the Labour was that despite spending so much, they still failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining. For those now sitting in freezing cold or leaking classrooms or portacabins, safe in the knowledge that they'll be doing so for a good few more years to come, such criticisms ring rather hollow.

Labour's attack line on Gove's reforms, that they'll create winners and losers, is in fact better than it looks at first for Gove has created an at times truly bizarre concoction of changes and new measures which often contradict each other. He wants to increase freedom and autonomy for all schools, while at the same time imposing new edicts on them from the centre. He's cutting the number of modules to GCSEs and ending the practice of students repeatedly re-sitting parts of A-levels in an attempt to get a better grade, while at the same time setting up an independent review of the key stage two SATS even as he adds yet more components to them in the interim. He wants to free teachers from the worst constricts of the curriculum while, to quote from the executive summary of The Importance of Teaching, "specifying a tighter, more rigorous model of the knowledge which every child should expect to master in core subjects at every key stage", the number of which incidentally is increasing.

That's the really odd part of this white paper. For all Gove's emphasis on the freeing of schools, not only from central but also local control, encouraging all to become academies and clearing the way for his pet "free schools" program where anyone who has the time and money can start up a school and more or less anyone can also teach there, there's also much that he thinks has to be encouraged, if not demanded of these new autonomous educational establishments. Although it goes unmentioned in the executive summary, we already know of his quaint if not slightly unsettling affection for uniforms, especially blazers and ties, coming just as politicians increasingly abandon the wearing of the latter. He also favours the reinstatement of the house system, something bound to send a shiver down the spine of those of a certain age, with their children now being urged to care about the most meaningless of distinctions between peers as they were once meant to.

Alongside this real-life renactment of Tom Brown's Schooldays is an emphasis on an academic curriculum at the expense of vocational training of almost any sort. While Gove wants to introduce his English Baccalaureate,
noted by Simon Jenkins as surely something of an oxymoron, which will include the usual English, Maths and Science along with a foreign language and a "humanity", vocational qualifications merit only a single mention, where they'll be overhauled to "ensure they match the world's best". Those that despair of being forced into taking subjects they despise, knowing full well already at 14 that the academic path isn't for them are going to be in an even worse position than now.

Such changes wouldn't be complete without the also long heralded return to common sense on behaviour. A month back Gove announced an end to the "no touch" rule, a rule which it almost goes without saying doesn't exist. Likewise, it's almost equally certain that if a teacher wants to search those under their care for something then they'll do it, and if they're that concerned they'll even call in the police to do it for them. Gove's plans to restore this right will probably not then quite inspire the dread it might, yet it's still the kind of measure which is almost actively designed to make school an even less pleasant place than it already is. Much the thinking seems to be behind the bringing back of same-day detentions, indeed if they have also disappeared. The main reasoning behind giving notice of detentions was so that parents knew their offspring were being punished and thus ensure they weren't doing something with them immediately after school that day, which believe it or not tends to annoy them regardless of what their child has done to deserve the punishment in the first place.

Not quite as draconian as first advertised are the changes to the appeals panels for those who have been excluded, which were at one point wholesale threatened with abolition. Instead the process will be speeded up, while those who have committed a "serious offence" will no longer be reinstated against a headteacher's will. Teachers will still however get anonymity until proven guilty of accusations made against them, something not afforded to those in the criminal justice system, or anyone else in the public sector going through a disciplinary action. Also worthy of mention is how Ofsted will focus more strongly on behaviour and safety, including bullying. Quite how they'll be able to accurately identify the level of bullying in a school over the usual week long inspection is anyone's guess.

One thing that is clear is just how little influence the Liberal Democrats have over Gove. Apart from the intro from Dave 'n' Nick where they already seem to be settling into aping the Private Eye caricature of themselves, which only seems to be there for the purpose of Clegg emphasising the piss-poor pupil premium his party demanded, the rest is straight out of the Conservative manifesto. Granted, their proposals on education were always vague outside of their promises on tuition fees, yet you'd have thought they might have had something to say about Gove's curious glorification of prefects and other favoured aspects of private schooling which comprehensives for the most part long ago abandoned. Then again, Clegg went to Westminster; Gove coming from a Labour background, only won a scholarship to the far less exclusive Robert Gordon's College.

Every education secretary wants to leave some sort of lasting legacy behind, and Gove is no exception. Somewhere, hidden deeply in the white paper is his passion for making our current failing system world class again. It's sadly buried by the myriad of oddities outlined above, along with the baffling commitment to outdated methods which he either really does believe in or he thinks he has to include to convince his party that he isn't just a Blairite in Tory clothing. How else to explain a white paper which will deny state funding to those who only get thirds, a move which puts elitism and qualification ahead of the actual ability to teach, yet also advocates the construction of "bespoke, compressed" undergraduate courses for those from the armed forces without degrees whom they seem to think can't wait to get into the classroom? Bending over backwards to help some while shutting the door permanently on others is exactly what Gove seems destined to do.

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