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The truth about those Gove reforms

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‘THE Gove revolution must continue.’ This is the opinion of Jon Moynihan, chairman of a pressure group established in 2016 called ‘Parents and Teachers for Excellence’ (PTE). He was writing recently in the Daily Telegraph. The evidence, according to Moynihan, is clear:

‘Bit by bit, and over the past three years especially, the number of children leaving school without Cs in Maths and English has dropped so significantly that over 100,000 more English children are now leaving school with these basic qualifications than would be the case had the same percentage failure rates persisted.’

Moynihan applauds what Michael Gove achieved as Education Secretary (2010-14) and claims that some young people are now reaping the benefits. True, Gove achieved toxic status amongst the educational Blob, but surely this only confirms that he must have been getting something right. By sacking him, Prime Minister David Cameron was accepting some political realities, but has the time now arrived to re-charge the Gove revolution in education? Is Moynihan right?

He certainly provides an accurate diagnosis of educational malnutrition and sickness in our schools. ‘The situation is beyond dire,’ he argues. There are ‘hundreds of thousands of children leaving school each year illiterate and innumerate’. For this catastrophe he correctly blames ‘doctrinaire, nonsensical, evidence-free theories peddled by progressive educationalists’.

So far, so good, then! Mr Moynihan recognises the problem. That, though, is the easy bit; rather like working out that blackened skin, buboes and fever are symptoms of bubonic plague. Nonetheless, most educationalists, aka ‘charlatans’, according to Moynihan, have not been inclined to accept this diagnosis of what is staring them in the face.

Moynihan’s admiration for Gove seems to rest on the fact that the Education Secretary acted on what he found by putting in place a mechanism for reform. This included an expansion of the academies and free schools programme. More importantly, it involved a restoration of academic rigour to the national curriculum and to public examinations.

Did Gove believe that, by putting in place a mechanism for improvement, his job was done by the time he left office? If so, he was mistaken. A mechanism for improvement is necessary, of course, but to be able to exercise some control over that mechanism is equally important. In this area the Gove revolution has already been significantly undermined. 

Moynihan clearly senses that something is going wrong but is struggling to understand what and why. A venture capitalist and prominent backer of Vote Leave, Moynihan doubtless had his heart in the right place when he helped set up the PTE group. 

The declared intention of PTE is to provide all children with ‘an excellent education’ and to achieve this ‘by putting teachers and parents in charge of schools’. Significantly, perhaps, this does not extend to meeting the wish of a majority of parents for an expansion of grammar school provision. In the interests of fairness and social mobility, an end to our postcode selection for the best comprehensive schools would be too radical a step even for these revolutionaries!

More worrying is the failure of Moynihan to see that the claims he makes for the achievements of the Gove revolution are at best lacking in credibility and at worst they are delusional. Gove’s tougher examinations may have been accompanied by more ‘passes’ but the true reason for this remarkable success appears to have escaped Moynihan. And it is certainly not the reason provided by the boss of the examination regulating body Ofqual that ‘All our kids are brilliant’.

It is a reflection of the fact that we can have any pass rate we desire. This is engineered via a piece of exam board chicanery known as ‘comparative outcomes’. The difficulty of the questions is irrelevant. Last summer, a so-called ‘pass’ (grade 4) for GCSE maths could be achieved with just 18 per cent of the marks. 

Nor is the examination currency any less devalued at A-level. The Times summed up the collapse with this headline: ‘A-level maths pupils need only 14 per cent to pass this year’. It reported that: ‘Grade boundaries for the Edexcel exam, which emerged a day before A-level results  go public, showed that the board had also awarded an A grade to those who got 55 per cent of the answers right. Students with 45 per cent have been awarded a B, and those with 34 per cent will get a C.’

It is difficult for those who spend most of their time outside an institution to understand what goes on inside. This is true, above all, of education. I admire Jon Moynihan for trying to breathe some life back into Michael Gove’s moribund school revolution. Parents may be rather thin on the ground on his PTE Advisory Council but it does include some well-intentioned educationalists and a few insightful ones, too. 

Through no fault of his own, however, and like so many others, Moynihan is somewhat out of his depth in understanding Gove’s revolution. He has not spotted that the emperor never had any clothes to show off and his PTE advisory group are either unable or unwilling to put him right.

According to the Schools Week website, the PTE campaign ‘has been orchestrated by James Frayn, communications chief at the Department for Education under Michael Gove, and Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to David Cameron’. 

Such a pedigree is unlikely to be overlooked by the teaching profession. 

According to the OECD, after all, our teachers still have to deliver school improvement to match pre-Gove attainment when, for example, the UK came eighth in the PISA international maths tests.

Rather like Gove himself, there is a becoming naivety about Moynihan with regard to school reform. One so much agrees with so much of what he wants. For his ideas to take off with most teachers, however, he and his PTE group will need to get more ‘real’ and more streetwise.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
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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