I suppose we should be glad that Michael Gove has retreated from the worst excesses of his plan for GCSE reform. The trouble is that what he has done remains deeply depressing. If his aim, in the words of supportive Tory backbencher Julian Smith is to prepare “British children for the fire and fury of the global competitive race”, then what he’s doing will have exactly the opposite effect, and it’s a mark of Gove’s own poor credentials in that race that he doesn’t seem to have the least inkling of this.
I don’t have any argument with his insistence on good basic numeracy and literacy skills by the time children are 12; in truth most governments for the last forty years have worried about this and most have seemed inclined to blame leftish teaching ideology. That those ideologies exist is not disputable, but while they don’t seem to have improved numeracy or literacy I’d question whether there’s any evidence that they have made it worse. I suspect that Britain’s literacy and numeracy levels have always been poor, but the aspirations behind the comprehensive system for the first time suggested they were unacceptable (nobody really cared about the academic performance of secondary modern schools). It’s all the more absurd then that reactionary right wingers should blame the comprehensive system itself, when the failings are happening at primary level (which has always been non-selective).
Gove proposes some refinement of the assessment systems for secondary schools which do seem a step in the right direction. However they won’t touch the numeracy or literacy problem, for the simple reason that the problem does not lie in assessment systems. No government has been prepared to embrace the obvious and only plausibly effective way to improve numeracy and literacy, because it would be colossally expensive. But there are no short cuts: if you want to secure good basic numeracy and literacy in all children before they are 12 you would have to halve (at least) primary school class sizes, so teachers could give more individual attention to their pupils. And while it would be expensive, it’s quite possible that the economic and social benefits could far outweigh that investment. This government is not thinking in these terms, and will achieve nothing.
It’s good that Gove has bowed to pressure to acknowledge the importance of arts teaching in the curriculum, but the general direction of that curriculum reform remains desperately misconceived.
The "fire and fury of the global competitive race” requires thoughtful, flexible and creative minds. That’s one reason why subjects like art, design (and the conspicuously absent music) are more rather than less important than ever. But even in traditional academic subjects like history, the focus seems to be on peddling a specious national story about Great British Men and (grudgingly) Women and their influence on the rest of the world. Even in my fiercely academic education (grammar school and Cambridge) it was clearly understood that the value of studying history was to develop open, analytic and questioning minds. Gove and his cronies seem to believe on the contrary that the job of education is to equip children with a set of “correct” facts. He would create a generation of children as narrow, unimaginative and unperceptive as himself. The abandonment of liberal educational aspirations could not have come at a worse time, because the global competitive race demands exactly the qualities that those liberal ambitions were supposed to create. The lunatics really have taken over the asylum.