Tilly is very angry with Michael Gove.
For those of you who do not live in the UK, Michael Gove is our Secretary of State for Education.
He is not, on the whole, a very popular man.
In a nutshell, it is his belief that in order to make the children of Britain brilliant students and restore Britain to its glory days of Empire, we must reinstate the educational methodology of the Nineteen Fifties.
This is despite the fact that the Empire, at this particular point in our history was dissolving faster than sugar lumps in tea, but with more bloodshed, hatred and vitriol. This is also despite the fact that the children of the Fifties are the people who are now mostly fat cats in industry and government and banking, and have been responsible in large part for the total and utter mess that we find ourselves in as a nation today.
But at least they can recite large chunks of Chaucer by heart and know what 4×3 is without having to take their socks off to count their toes. So that’s a relief to us all.
My understanding of it is that the evidence that we were all brilliantly educated in the Fifties, is purely based on Gove’s nostalgia for his own education in which learning The Lady of Shallot by rote at the age of five, regular canings and jumpers for goal posts made him the man he is today.
The fact that he seems to be, along with Nigel Farage, one of the most despised men in Britain, does not make him question this thinking at all. What matter if people spit on you in the street and jeer at you when you take the public platform, as long as you’re in regular, paid employment?
I suspect he is one of those men who endorse things like pulling your teeth without any anaesthetic because it is for your own good, etc, etc.
Let us be clear here.
I do not think that the education system we have today is perfect. There are many things which could be done better, and I think that some of the things that Gove is picking up on are valid. We should not, for example, be sending children to high schools who cannot read fluently, who cannot comprehend what they are reading and who cannot do basic maths without the aid of a calculator. It would also help if children could write sentences effectively. This does not always happen under the current system. On the other hand, forcing the children to learn how to construct the future perfect tense under test conditions is not the answer to everything either Mr. Gove, unless they know how to apply it in real life and can build a career on it.
I do not think that the ways that Gove wishes to solve the problems our children face are particularly effective. In some cases I believe that what he is proposing will simply widen the gap between those children who are able and those children who are not, and make those children who are not able more dis abled in terms of encouraging their learning.
My understanding of current changes for primary schools is that Gove wishes to have even more control over what is and isn’t taught in terms of curriculum and methodology. This is in spite of the fact that different schools may benefit from being able to shape their curriculum and methodology according to the needs of the pupils within the schools. Gove’s system makes no allowance for the individuality of children, or tailoring learning to ability to try to ensure that as few people as possible get left behind.
Other changes include cramming in more to the school day, which is already time tabled to bits, so that learning chunks become smaller, and there is even less chance of being able to run with a subject your children are enjoying, and pack other learnings into that subject for example. There is even less opportunity for revisiting things that children struggle with, because there is always the need to push on to the next, proscriptive fifteen minute segment.
Then there’s the learning by rote issue. I don’t have a problem with learning by rote, per se. I do have a problem with learning by rote for the sake of learning by rote. It is no good being able to stand up and recite the entirety of The Ancient Mariner if there is no time to discuss what it is about, and what it might mean. Will there be time for this? I don’t know. I suspect not.
Then there’s the continual testing from the time a child enters school. Children in the UK start school as young as four, depending on where their birth date falls in the academic year. Are you really going to tell me that it is perfectly acceptable to continually test children from this age, and for children who struggle to be constantly told that they have failed? How is that going to motivate a child to do better, try harder? I do believe we are too free with praise for children these days. Children should not be applauded for anything and everything, but by the same token they should not be denigrated for anything and everything either.
In secondary education Mr. Gove is rearranging the history curriculum to make sure that we are effectively excluding most history except the glory days of Empire and the Raj. He also seems keen to make it somewhat offensive to anyone other than middle class white males who speak English. I believe that this kind of isolationist, superior thinking is retrograde to ensuring that Britain has the glorious future Mr. Gove envisions. We are part of a global community now, whether he likes it or not. All the evidence from business, internet, social media, communications support this inclusivity. We seem to be one of the few countries who think it might be a good idea to look backwards rather than forwards. How is that going to help our children build a better future?
Tilly is angry with him because he is removing certain classic American texts from the literature curriculum, namely; “Of Mice and Men”, and “The Crucible” for example. This particular political hot potato has been running for about a fortnight now. Mr. Gove has said he is not removing them, because that would be wrong, he is simply suggesting that the focus be on texts by British authors etc, etc. He has a particular fondness for the 19th Century it seems. Probably what he himself studied and enjoyed, as it is widely believed he has taken against “Of Mice and Men” so violently, because it is well known that he studied and hated it at school.
Here’s what I don’t really understand. Gove is also banging the drum for students to study whole texts. The fashion in recent years has been to assume that nobody under the age of sixteen has an attention span of more than five minutes, and so cannibalising texts and turning them into acceptable, gobbet style lessons has taken precedence. This bothers Gove. To be honest, I am in agreement with him here. It bothers me too. On the other hand, suggesting that students might get more out of studying Villette (for example), which is a 300 page triple decker Victorian novel, rather than Of Mice and Men which comes in at just over 100 pages doesn’t really add up. Particularly not with all the extra testing and measuring that will be required to go along with all these new changes.
I don’t like John Steinbeck’s novels. He is a miserable bugger. But regardless of this, ‘Of Mice and Men’ is a perfect novel with which to teach what makes the perfect novel. It is full of devices, ideas, and structures that make understanding what novels do and are for accessible and easy to grasp. To exclude it because it is basically not British, is like throwing out the baby with the bath water in my opinion. By all means, teach classics of English fiction, but don’t exclude classics of other countries in some misguided attempt to big up the failing ego of a nation.
Tilly has been studying Of Mice and Men this term, in its entirety, I might add, along with Hamlet, also in its entirety, and in the process has totally fallen in love with literature and the power of what literature can do and say outside of the simple plot and narrative. She has decided, on the strength of studying ‘Of Mice and Men’ that she wants to go on to take English at A Level, because it excites her so much, and she is outraged that someone is trying to take that away from students in the future.
She has written Mr. Gove a letter about it, she feels that strongly about it.
She came home on Friday fizzing with indignation. It appears that Michael Gove will be visiting her school before the end of this academic year. Her English tutor has told them that because they are top set English, that he will be coming along to observe their lesson.
I asked her what she felt about this.
She said: ‘I hate him. We all hate him. We have all decided that we cannot be outright rude to him, but it would be perfectly alright to be majorly passive aggressive to him though.’
I asked her what this would entail. She is unclear on the details but very sure that it will be excellent.
I asked her whether she thought he would be clever enough to notice, given that he has the hide of a rhinoceros and an ego the size of Mars.
She looked a bit deflated for a moment, but soon perked up. She is going to go back and discuss it with her class mates. They are bound to come up with something.
She is very fond of the idea of throwing pickles at UKIP posters. I wondered if I might suggest a bit of pickle throwing Mr. Gove’s way.
I have shelved the idea for now, but it is tempting.