Gove education reforms – Will we soon see the last of them?
Toby Marshall reflects on what a seemingly inevitable change of government might mean for what remains of Michael Gove’s education reforms…
Nothing is certain in politics. Yet, as I write these words, two things do seem relatively likely.
One is that we’ll hold the next General Election no later than 28th January 2025, because electoral law says so. The second is that after enduring many long years of Tory misrule, the British people finally seem to have had enough of their executive.
So where does that leave teachers? Should we welcome a now perhaps inevitable Labour Party victory? And is it fair to say that everything the Conservatives did to English state education was bad?
I’ve worked in schools occasionally. But for most of the past 20+ years I’ve taught A Level film studies in East London’s further education colleges. I pick up on young peoples’ education where local school teachers leave off.
I’m also a parent who has raised three children, all of whom have attended English state schools. I’m pleased to say that they’ve benefited greatly from the patient work of their teachers. Most importantly, I’m a citizen who, like many others, sees state education as a vitally important national asset.
Schools are uniquely responsible for systematically engaging the young, in what the poet and critic Matthew Arnold once described as ‘The best that has been thought and said’. No other institution performs this role, and at their best, state schools will regularly deliver on this duty.
Gove education reforms
Some years ago, the English academic Michael Young began to think through the role of the modern school. You might argue that he gave some sociological heft to Arnold’s position.
Young’s best known work, the book Bringing Knowledge Back In, was published in 2009. It saw Young argue that schools did more than merely socialise the young, and we ought to see them as specialised epistemic institutions.
The primary role of schools, he maintained, wasn’t to directly serve the needs of either the economy or politics. Rather, it is to provide the young with access to what he described as ‘powerful knowledge’.
Soon after the book’s publication, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed the 2010 coalition government. Michael Gove was appointed as Secretary of State for Education.
For a time, Gove and his team drew on Young’s ideas as a way of justifying a radical, knowledge-oriented shift in school curriculum policy. Some advocates of this new policy direction went so far as to call this the ‘Gove revolution’.
I remember the debates of the period well. While I supported this ‘knowledge turn’ in education policy, I found Gove’s style of argument often juvenile and counterproductive – especially when describing those with whom he had educational disagreements as ‘The Blob’. Such language wasn’t becoming of his high office.
Four years into Gove’s tenure, all the major teaching unions passed motions of no confidence in him. This prompted the then Prime Minister, David Cameron to move him on. A key lesson here is that you don’t win arguments for change by insulting those who must deliver it.
Ultimately, however, I agreed then, and still agree now, with Gove’s overarching arguments. His most significant achievement, in my view, was to lead the fifth full rewrite of the English National Curriculum, originally introduced back in 1988.
The latest version of the document makes clear that all students within English state-funded schools are entitled to access bodies of powerful academic knowledge, and that providing access to this knowledge should be the primary focus of teachers’ work.
A new focus
Following Gove’s dismissal, English state education policy under the post-2015 Conservative government continued to focus on knowledge for a while. 2019 saw the introduction of the new English Baccalaureate performance measure.
This encourages pupils to study a range of traditional, knowledge-oriented, academic subjects up to 16. These include English language, literature, maths, science and geography or history, as well as an ancient or a modern foreign language. All this seems educationally sound to me.
At the same time, a new Education Inspection Framework directed Ofsted inspectors to focus in particular on the curriculum, and on how well teachers’ structuring and sequencing of curriculum subjects fostered the acquisition of knowledge.
I remember being inspected under this framework. I had a useful discussion with a lead inspector (and former English teacher) about how I’d decided to sequence knowledge within my film classes.
It was a productive conversation that required me to justify my organisation of knowledge for students, to somebody sensitive to the particularities of my subject.
Sadly, however, in recent years we’ve seen England’s education policy start to drift. Under successive Conservative governments there’s been a growing focus on moral and political issues, at expense of knowledge.
The most notable curriculum change I can identify in this period has been the introduction of a new, mandatory curriculum subject called Relationships, Sex and Health Education.
This is a ‘subject’ which, to me, appears devoid of any actual knowledge content. Instead, it resembles an exercise in state-sanctioned moral and political indoctrination.
Opinions of the earlier knowledge turn in English education policy remain divided. Progressivist critics argue that Gove’s policy stance was old-fashioned, nostalgic, too focused on traditional subjects and attacked teachers’ professionalism by dictating what they should teach.
Some traditionalists meanwhile view the Gove education reforms as having failed to address the core problem – that state school teachers are implacably hostile to academic knowledge.
I’m not convinced by either criticism. It might be culturally (if not politically) conservative to suggest there are bodies of valuable knowledge from the past to which every generation should be entitled.
However, the cultural implications of this position are, in fact, radical. It’s only through engagement with established knowledge that successive generations can innovate intellectually.
Nor do I see state school teachers as ‘implacably hostile to knowledge’, or comparable to an unthinking ‘blob’. The young people that join my classes each year have generally been well-educated by their former teachers and are hungry to learn new things. That suggests that at least something is working within the English state school system.
Yet as of now, in 2024, it appears many are once again seeking to challenge the position of academic knowledge within compulsory state education.
A recent report from the (unelected) House of Lords’ cross-party Education for 11-16 Year Olds Committee, for example, states that education “Now prioritises a restricted programme of academic learning, delivered through a narrow set of subjects and teaching styles”. It also claims that it was told, “repeatedly that this approach fails to take account of wider societal and economic shifts.”
If, as now seems very likely indeed, we soon elect Labour into office, it has made clear that it intends to counter Gove’s revolution. The party’s recently published its ‘Let’s Get Britain’s Future Back’ mission document. This argues for a broadening of the school curriculum, the adoption of a more vocational focus and introducing content that “Reflects the issues and diversities of our society so that … every child is represented.”
I’d argue that we’d best meet the interests of every English child by providing them with access to powerful knowledge.
In this election, I therefore won’t be voting Tory, as they’ve made a mess of my country. And I won’t be voting Labour either, since in broad terms they’re proposing more of the same.
I believe that both the Lords Committee and Labour are wrong to devalue academic education, though unlike Gove, I intend to voice my opposition to their mistaken ideas respectfully, in the forthcoming election.
Those who devalue traditional forms of academic knowledge within education are acting from a legitimate, yet mistaken educational perspective. With knowledge being once more pushed out of our political discussions of education, its defenders will need to fight hard to bring it back in. The Tories are political toast, and quite right too – but we must renew the case for knowledge.
Toby Marshall is an A Level film studies teacher.