Saturday, 30 June 2012

The worst minister ever?

This article appeared in the Yorker June 2012.

Objectivity is a dangerous thing in politics. The notion that your ideals and beliefs are factually, irrefutably superior to those of your opponents, that they are scientifically correct, has been the grounding of all the great evils of political history. That is why I have always opposed the extremism of those who claim the world can be reduced to a series of equations or policies which will guarantee prosperity if followed to the letter. This is because such thinking promotes the idea that those in opposition to such ideas are factually incorrect and thus barriers to goodness and progress. Indeed this is why I oppose the use of the word 'reform' for what is essentially privatisation and austerity.

However the past two years have slowly made me feel that an exception needs to be made to this rule; Michael Gove. Our beloved Education Secretary is plain wrong. Almost every one of his policies has been objectively incorrect. Take his views on reforming the teaching of history- replacing thematic and conceptual frameworks with mere repetition of facts and tales of “Our Island Story”. No. Just generally no. This is not what history about, remembering facts and dates, kings and queens is the exact type of history parodied in the famous “1066 and all that”. For well over 50 years it has been recognised that this is an non-constructive and pointless method of teaching history. The nationalistic connotations of “Our Island Story” are also worrying, implying a reversal in the appalling slow rate at which British history teaching has come to terms with the crimes of war and Empire. Ultimately for a long time it has been understood that using history to answer questions of who we are and how we got here is objectively better than teaching it as a pub quiz style patriotic fact-fest. What next? Chemistry without the periodic table? Biology without evolution? It just doesn’t make sense.

Free schools and academies are also flawed policies. The former will give more leeway to middle class parents with the time and resources to create local schools and further marginalise the poorer sections of society in the education system. The images of Toby Young planning a school to teach his little darlings Latin whilst drinking red wine in plush kitchens with other yummy mummies and daddies is just as chilling as the thought of evangelical or similar interests corrupting the minds of the youth from their minority standpoints. According to the NUT only 25% of parents want free schools, those that shout the loudest will always divert the scheme into one of unaccountability and fringe control. As for academies, it has been hinted by Gove that reforms will aim at brining even more corporate funding into the composition of such institutions. The free market and private sector are indeed much more efficient and able distributors of certain goods and services. However this does not apply to education where non-profit goals are key and thus the market can only serve to disregard the best interests of the young in exchange for greed and usury. This is already illustrated by the regression of years of pro-health food programmes in schools and the return of junk food and vending machines in 90% of academies.

Then we had the infamous bible scandal. Sure, there may be educational value to promoting a reading of the bible from a cultural or linguistic perspective. But this was largely already in place before 2010. Most children are aware of the basic cultural influences of Christianity via early school teaching or other sources. Hymns, RE, interest groups and so on already fulfil this function without parading Gove as the great patriarch of the nation's young. To waste £370,000 on printing a load of new bibles with the fact that they are from Gove himself paraded on the covers in golden sycophancy, was clearly the worst idea any one has ever had. Moreover, trying to demand schools teach more about religion will inevitably lead to further religious indoctrination of the youth, before they have the freedom to choose their religion. Something that any rational being should oppose.

And now, he is trying to scrap GCSEs with a return to O-Levels. The problem with this is that it is self-defeating for Gove, who has long argued that the overall vision of his education policy is to replace exam centred teaching with a broader and deeper mode of learning. Yet by creating even tougher exams, with fewer retakes so that the stakes are much higher, children and teachers will simply be increasingly obsessed with passing the exam rather than any constructive learning. We all know exams have gotten easier but the solution does not lie in suddenly cranking up the difficultly in a all or nothing exam sitting. Instead we should value learning on a much longer term scale based on classroom interactions and contributions.

The seemingly regressive nature of such policies illustrates the simplistic nature of Gove's weltanschuung. Other government policies are more arguable and potentially justifiable even if I personally disagree with them. In contrast Gove's education agenda is based on a blinkered view of live and a desperate attempt to reverse the progress of modernity.

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