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Thursday, 17 October 2013

Speaking Truth to Power: The need for political reform in our education system

Since Michael Gove “came to power” in 2010, politics has played a much greater role in my working life than I had ever anticipated. Gove’s name is mentioned on an almost daily basis by colleagues fed up with ill-thought through changes and confused about what we are actually supposed to be doing. Soon, a new curriculum will be in place, but we have only the vaguest notions of what it will contain and no way to begin preparing our students. I have already lost count of the times we have had to sit down and re-write lesson plans and schemes of work because the hyperactive Mr Gove has changed his mind about something, or decided that changes need to be brought in NOW, RIGHT THIS MINUTE, NO DELAY!!!

And yet, much as Gove provokes an unprecedented level of ire and exasperation from teachers, he himself is not really the problem.

Yes that’s right.

Gove isn’t the problem.

The system is.

You see, we have a system in which the secretary of state for education has almost unbridled power over our schools. On the 29th of September, mere weeks before our year 11 students were due to take their GCSE maths exam in early November, Gove sent out a tweet (no letter, or email, just a tweet) saying that exam re-sit results would no longer count towards league tables. This edict was effective immediately.

“Bravo!” I hear many people cry. “Teenagers have it easy, they shouldn’t be allowed to re-sit their exams and schools shouldn’t encourage it.” 

The awkward thing is, Gove himself has promised legislation that will mean students HAVE TO re-sit GCSE maths and English if they don’t get a C. So when he labels re-sitting “cheating”, he himself is enshrining cheating in legislation, making it mandatory for a significant proportion of teenagers.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of entering students in for November exams, this particular tweet at the end of September encapsulated the crux of the problem with our education system. The education secretary had an idea, he implemented it immediately, he scored political points for himself, and he generated agonising and immediate problems for hundereds of teachers up and down the country, with potentialy disastrous results for students.  

In our school, we waited a few days, hoping for a U turn, thinking surely, surely he can’t jeopardise our students’ results like this. But with no U turn seeming likely, we called an emergency meeting before school to decide whether or not to pull students out of the exam. We had to balance what was best for the individual students with what was best for the whole school (and the thousand or so other students that attend). We decided to keep most of the students in. They have been working hard since the beginning of September and they wanted to do the exam.  For our part, we wanted to shelter them from the political storm raging above their young heads.

Of course, this debacle should never have happened. We cannot function well in a system where the rules constantly change, where we don’t even know what is on the curriculum, where there is no clear and consistent leadership. We cannot function in a system where things can change at the whim of the Education Secretary. It has to stop.

These are the key changes I feel that we need at a political level:

The secretary of state for education should have no role in deciding the national curriculum. This should be discussed and decided by experts, including teachers, academics and representatives from businesses and employers. No single person should be able to stamp their individual preferences all over the curriculum.

The secretary of state should not be able to announce changes that impact on the current academic year. I do not say this because I am opposed to change; indeed I think it is vital. But if new policies could only be implemented in the next academic year it would give teachers more time to plan, it would make politicians think more carefully about what they are doing, and the resulting changes would be more effective and more successful.

Teachers need a professional body, which should be consulted over every major change. Currently we only have unions. Their job is limited to pay, pensions and working conditions, but I believe that the majority of teachers are more bothered about the negative impact that politicians have on the curriculum. We need a professional body to stand up for teachers and students over issues such as exams and the curriculum.


So there are my proposals. I’m not attacking Gove as an individual, I’m attacking a system that allows him so much power. His “crusade” mentality has caused teachers more problems than any other education secretary in recent years, but it is his position, rather than the man himself, that poses the greatest threat.

I have titled my blog post “speaking truth to power”. I don’t have a lot of power. But I am an intelligent, thoughtful person who cares passionately about the young people she teaches. I hope somebody listens.




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