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Chris McGovern: Gove’s adviser is right to blow the whistle on sloppy school standards


Michael Gove’s ‘confidante’, Dominic Cummings, is much in the news. Having resigned the formal position as ‘special adviser’ to the Education Secretary he is free to speak out publicly. Many in the educational establishment and, indeed, within the political world, will not welcome his message. It presents an inconvenient truth that many will wish remained unspoken.

His ‘insider’ view that the Department for Education was a “madhouse” when he arrived in 2011 is an alarming confirmation of what some of us have long been pointing out. It is only partly reassuring to know that Michael Gove “wants to do what he can for schools in five years” even if “that means being carted off in a body bag at the end”.

Back in the 1980s, myself and a teaching colleague at Lewes Priory Comprehensive School in East Sussex were lone voices of opposition to the dilution of standards represented by what was, then, the new GCSE examination. One of the exam boards described us publically as an “aberration”. Inevitably, loss of job followed and neither of us taught again in the maintained sector. Even Margaret Thatcher, whilst personally supportive of us, was a spectator to what was going on.

Now, we have Dominic Cummings, at the heart of educational policy making, declaring that the current Government’s biggest failure was not ‘binning” GCSEs. He boldly admits that exam results have been fiddled for too long and that, “Ministers and the education establishment felt, ‘We need to look good, therefore we will dumb things down and we will cheat the exam system to prove we’re all doing a good job’.”

For too long, those in power have not only been in denial of failure, they have claimed failure to be a resounding success. Dominic Cummings is doing us all a great service by telling us the truth.

Successive secretaries of state for Education have been appeasers of the educational establishment. My own involvement goes back to Keith Joseph who, for all his Thatcherite credentials, was duped into giving the go-ahead for the introduction of GCSE in place of O-Level. Shortly after he left the education department I think he understood something of the error he had made.

In the House of Lords he supported an amendment to Ken Baker’s 1988 Education Bill. That amendment was written by myself and by my teaching colleague from Lewes. It would have provided choice within the exam system for O-Level to be offered alongside GCSE. Although the amendment gained some significant cross-bench backers it was voted down by a Tory-Labour-LibDem phalanx of opposition to choice.

Cummings is now blowing the lid off this cosy arrangement whereby so-called education experts play puppet master to politicians of whichever political party. He is correct to point in the direction of politicians as the ‘guilty’ men and women. Ultimately, the buck stops with them. For too long, they have been willing collaborators with the educational establishment.

Influenced by Cummings, Michael Gove has shifted the direct of educational travel in the right direction. Surprisingly, his failures stem more from naivety than from design. Even now, he does not fully understand what he is up against.

How else can one explain his tendency to pursue reform by doing the same things, with the same people, in the same way as in the past? Hence we have the outpourings of Russell Grant and Dizzy Rascall being proposed for the new toughened-up A-Level English. We have a revised History National Curriculum that makes landmark events and personalities optional.

Michael, stick with Dominic Cummings but get more ‘street wise’!

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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