Over the weekend we have had the steady drip of stories spun out of the Department for Education on the outcome of Michael Gove’s curriculum review. Sadly the Secretary of State is no longer listening to his instincts not to dictate from Whitehall, instead he is dictating times tables, compulsory languages and poetry recitals. This approach will fail while the rest of the world learns that school success is down to autonomy for heads, trusting teachers and innovative ways of engaging children.
Labour’s inheritance in 1997 was a school system that was rundown and demoralised. Literacy rates at primary had been stuck for 30 years. David Blunkett’s literacy hour dramatically improved things by demanding more teacher time on tackling the problem, but ministers soon learned that dictating the content of curriculum was not productive. With Alan Johnson, I agreed a less prescriptive secondary school curriculum and commissioned Jim Rose’s study to do the same for primary.
Michael Gove inherited a school system in 2010 where more money and more teachers were slowly improving things, but not fast enough. Labour ministers established independent quality regulators to ensure standards were maintained and to protect us from the charge of political interference. Academies were mostly working, as were extended schools and interventions like the London and Black Country Challenges. But the disadvantage gap was still too wide and as many as a quarter of school leavers had failed to be engaged by learning and are still woefully ill-equipped to enter the labour market.
This problem of a residual disengaged group has been a problem for generations, regardless of what tinkering with the curriculum successive ministers have engaged in.
The biggest problem is the gap between the best and the worst. The majority do well, a large minority go to university and most get into work. The best state schools are the best the world and we have great teachers and school leaders. We learned from academies that developing that teaching talent and then trusting them to decide what and how to teach works.
This primary curriculum review does not learn from what works. It is a curriculum designed to win plaudits with Michael Gove’s friends in the newspapers by reviving what is perceived to have worked in the 1950’s. That was a time when most left school at 15 to get work in factories, where your level of education was not a big issue. What worked then will not work for an economy where everyone needs skills.
Sadly we do not build the future by looking to the past.
Rather than prescribe what has to be learned when, it is time for politicians to stop meddling. It is time to trust teachers, to celebrate their success and build a culture akin to the most successful education systems, like Finland and Singapore, where teaching is held in the highest regard. That is why we started Teach First.
By contrast, no one has done more to demoralise and alienate teachers than Michael Gove.
We all want to end the disadvantage gap between education outcomes for rich and poor. We all want real social mobility. That is about more than rigour in the three r’s. It is about three other “r’s” – risk, responsibility and resilience.
The great teachers that I meet who are really changing outcomes are innovating to build an appetite for risk and responsibility and raising the capacity to persevere. These are essential for learning to take place and for success at work. These teachers are reintroducing reading for pleasure, rather than as a skill needed to pass phonics tests. Children are taking more responsibility for their own learning, doing more at home, involving parents and helping each other. Whilst their are effective technology tools to help with this, at its heart is teacher innovation. An over prescriptive curriculum, and an over emphasis on high stakes testing, stifles that innovation.
I think children should know their times tables. They should be learning other languages as early as is practical. They should learn to love literature, for life. Ministers deciding when they should do this won’t change anything, but will prevent those in classrooms that are quietly improving things for children getting on with the job they know best.