It’s not about the curriculum

I read Michael Gove’s recent speech with a great deal of interest, partly because of the Mr Men thing but mainly because he mentioned one of my favourite bloggers, @oldandrewuk.  To me it shows the importance Gove places on argument and debate.

I’ve already poked a bit of fun at the Mr Men debate, because I think some people are missing the point. While it might be unfair of Michael Gove to single out one particular lesson, I think he’s making a general point about the need to raise expectations, or at least about the need for a debate about how expectations can be raised. My chosen Mr Man for Gove is not as others have suggested Mr Wrong or Mr Grumpy, but it’s Mr Tickle, because I think he’s trying to prod us and provoke us into debate.

When we debate education, it makes us more sure of our purpose and so we become better educators. I might fervently disagree with Gove or I might completely support his views. Either way, when I debate them, I become more dedicated to my chosen pedagogies and the children benefit – standards are raised. I know from this from my own personal journey – since starting blogging and tweeting about education I have become a far better teacher – I am more sure of what I am doing and more competent at doing it.

It’s tempting to hear Gove’s speech and think that he’s talking about his new curriculum. The history curriculum is one example that has been in particularly fierce debate (in what seems to me a bizarre reprise of a Mary Whitehouse’s experience’s 2 professors sketch).  Concerning history, Gove says:

And while some good individual points have been made by constructive critics of our draft, I have to record that, amidst all the debate which the draft history curriculum has stimulated, no coherent single alternative model has emerged as a superior rival.

From this one might suppose that it is Gove’s purpose to create one superior and coherent single curriculum for all students to benefit from. But this is not the case. Gove’s purpose is to raise standards. His strategy for doing this it increase autonomy for schools and the process he has chosen to do this is ‘academisation’. If Gove really believed that his new curriculum would raise standards for all, then he would make all schools do it. But no. The intention of the DfE is that all schools become academies, and academies do not have to follow the National Curriculum.

You might think it is slightly disingenuous, insincere even, for Michael Gove to spend so much time talking about curriculum stuff, when actually his key policy is academies. It could be that he thinks the academies debate is already won – academies will happen – it is just how we get there that matters now, and perhaps the new curriculum is just another tool for moving more schools to academies.

Gove says lots of things in his speeches that we can get terribly pedantic about. That is our job after all – some dictionaries say that ‘pedantic’ is defined as ‘school masterly’. For example his claim that infantilisation happens at primary schools is somewhat laughable, given that the bulk of primary school children are infants. However to focus on Gove’s mistakes can distract from the real debate.

This debate is not about Gove’s mistakes, nor is it about the new curriculum. It was, and it still is about academies. Should we have an education system of ever-increasing autonomy, or should we have a more one-size fits all approach? Academies offer the former; maintained schools offer the latter. Which is best for our society, our economy, our children and their futures? Don’t be distracted by the curriculum.

5 thoughts on “It’s not about the curriculum”

  1. I wish you were right. I wish that MG was trying to provoke debate to get us all to thing more clearly about what we are trying to do. Sadly the evidence stacks up against this.

    Anyone who opposes his academy plans are labeled as enemies of promised, Trotski-lefties and no debate is available. Bang, school closed, Harris group inserted. Maybe this is what a school needs, but it is certainly not about listening.

    Then there is the issue of curriculum design. When an outcome is against MGs ideas he ignores the expert team he himself put together – hardly the act of one who is trying to seek debate.

    You must remember his dreadfully rude Yadda-Yadda reply on newsnight… It does not matter what the context was, his best response was to ridicule and dismiss.

    So I don’t really think he has any intention of provoking debate. He has dogma and ideology, who needs more!

    1. I guess deep down I’m questioning whether his goal is about improving education or saving money for the state.

  2. Thanks for this. I was a head for ten years within the independent sector. Independent schools also didn’t have to follow the National Curriculum but, in my experience, most did (though they didn’t necessarily complete the KS tests). Many independent schools would argue that they followed the NC as a minimum but then went beyond it. Is there any early data on whether most academies are doing the same?

    1. I’m not sure. I know of headteachers who are changing to academy this September and are terribly excited about new ‘alternative’ curricula – so from my subjective perspective it looks like curriculum is a factor involved in the decision to change, but I don’t have any national data.

  3. I write as a retired KS3 History teacher, in quiet despair over Michael Gove’s plans for History. There is yet to be a debate: there has only been an unseeming row, which if Michael Gove has not initiated (which I believe he did) he has certainly made no effort to quieten down. The ‘Mr Men’ controversy is yet another example of the way he confuses the issue:and by attacking a respected History teacher he has once again injected a disturbing element of fear into the ‘debate’.
    Michael Gove’s original claim that History teaching needed to be reformed seem to be based on anecdotal evidence rather than serious research. A recent Historical Association survey concluded that the vast majority of History teachers dislike his new syllabus.
    Why is this the case? I would suggest the main reason is that many people admire Michael Gove’s ideas and aims, and have not looked at the detail. The detail is more interesting to teachers, but perfectly comprehensible to anyone else if you take the time:
    The thinking behind the current Key Stage 3 History syllabus can be found here:
    http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/secondary/b00199545/history
    The actual syllabus can be found here:
    http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/h/history%202007%20programme%20of%20study%20for%20key%20stage%203.pdf
    Incidentally, Mary Seacole and William Wilberforce get special mention simply because OFSTED inspectors thought many schools were ignoring aspects of History associated with these two personalities. It’s what happens when you have a permissive syllabus.
    Michael Gove’s Programme of Study can be found here:
    https://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/h/history%2004-02-13.pdf
    Note that the Aims are widely accepted (several of them being the product of ‘The New History’), but the topics are simply a prescriptive list. The list has far too much military and political history, has no suggestions about instilling a sense of chronology into children, other than being set out in sort of chronological order, it reads suspiciously like a list of headings for tory history, there are far too many topics to cover, and no indication is given about how it will be assessed, or, given teachers’ almost universal criticisms, policed.
    I don’t for one moment think that History teachers should decide among themselves what should be taught without reference to government or society. But they should be listened to.

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