When I were a lad

You may have seen the latest set of Gove madnesses over the last week or two.
Not content with a history of policy so crazy he got himself his very own poem here a few weeks back, the honourable secretary of state for education has set his sights on two new targets: teaching assistants, and GCSEs (again).

Now it’s easy to attack Gove, and don’t worry, I will, but first I’d like to take a look at why, at what’s behind his latest thinking, because I don’t think he hates children or teachers or education and I do believe he wants the right things, in a general sense, it’s just that in a specific, policy sense, he has absolutely no idea how to get them.

We’ll start with teaching assistants. The Daily Mail announced last week that a think tank had come up with an idea to phase out teaching assistants. Now the first thing to remember here is that this isn’t a Government announcement or a Department for Education proposal; the DfE may well have leaked it, true, but for now it’s just a Daily Mail story about a think-tank.

If you’ve stumbled into an English state school classroom in the last fifteen years, if you’ve had kids or got kids going through the system, you’ll probably think what most people seem to have thought about this proposal: it stinks. It’s stupid, it’s targeting useful people who generally do an important job without much reward (contrary to the bizarre numbers spun by our friends at the Mail).

But of course there is a logic to it, however flawed it may be. It’s the same logic that gave us the nursery ratio proposals, attacked by childcare guru Cathy Nutbrown and quietly shelved just in time for Mr Gove’s latest bout of frantic policy-making. Improve the quality of teaching. Pay more for the best teachers. But without more money (and one thing we can be sure of, there’s no more money), something else has to give. More kids per carer, more kids per teacher, it’s all the same: cutting TAs skews the ratios back where they used to be, when one teacher dealt with 30 plus kids in a classroom and there was no one else there to mediate, to check everyone had got it, to make sure no child was, in the jargon, left behind. Of course, Mr Gove would say, this won’t be a problem, because the money saved on TAs will be spent on teachers so good they won’t leave anyone behind.

I assume he’s talking about robots, because I don’t care how good a teacher is, they can’t stretch the gifted and help the strugglers and keep the middle improving on a class of 30, not by themselves.

And now we turn to GCSEs.
Something’s wrong with GCSEs. I think we can all agree that there is a perception amongst employers that they’re not worth what they once were, that grade inflation means an A* isn’t really an A* at all. It might be just that, just perception, but successive secretaries of state for education have done what they can to address it, and whatever they’ve tried, it hasn’t worked. So Gove’s trying something else. And putting to one side the question of whether GCSEs themselves have got easier, you’d have to be blind not to see the difference between an O level maths paper from the sixties and a GCSE one from last summer or twenty years ago. Rigour, Gove would say. There was more rigour. And despite how wrong he might be on everything else, on this one point, he’s right. It would be great if everyone was as good at maths now as those who got good O level results in the sixties.

So what changed? Where did the rigour go? Are children lazier, more stupid? Are teachers less competent?

No. And no. That’s my view, anyway. The rigour went because, as a society, we wanted it to go. The ones with good O levels, sure, it was great for them – didn’t do me any harm, as the old cliche goes. But what about everyone else?

We put aside that rigour because we chose to concentrate on other things, on a generation of teachers who knew about more than pure education, in its narrowest sense, who understood far more about the social and pastoral elements of their vocation than their predecessors had. We introduced GCSEs twenty-something years ago because we’d already made that choice, we’d already realised that a million well-adjusted children who had the basics and a few who had more was a better deal for society as a whole than a hundred thousand geniuses and nine hundred thousand on the scrapheap. We brought in TAs to make doubly sure that the kids heading for the scrapheap could get spotted before it was too late, and to help push some of those geniuses a bit further too. It’s a shame for the smartest, many of them would have flourished better under the brutal meritocracy of the past than they do now. But they’d have grown up not questioning that brutality and not noticing their friends slipping further and further behind them until they were nowhere to be seen.

Maybe we had to be like that, back then. Maybe the demands of Empire, and after that the need to prove ourselves as a nation once Empire was gone, maybe all that meant we needed a brilliant few so desperately that we could afford to overlook the brutality.

But we’re not like that any more. As a nation, we’ve learned to accept our place. There’s no Empire, we’ll never be an economic superpower or a military one. We don’t need the brutality. So let’s not bring it back.

When I were a lad, Mr Gove might say, the diligent and the able were rewarded for their hard work and their ability. And that’s true.

But at what cost?


If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.



  1. Moelwyn · · Reply

    Your best yet, I think.

    1. Thanks Moelwyn. I think the best that can be said of the DfE under Gove is that there are so many major new “reforms” getting in each other’s way day after day a large proportion of them will never get implemented. Hope all is well with you and Kate and the global status of the nation.

  2. Think I might have accidently burned my GCSE certificates along with my scant notes. Baby and bathwater spring to mind, but these were the days before recycling.
    Shamophiles, did you know the professors at Oxford wrote back to his school’s English dept after Joel applied, thanking them, saying it was the the most outstanding exam paper they had seen for 20 years. Sorry I had to keep that classified for 21 years, but rules are rules. This seemed an appropriate platform from which to divulge

    1. Goes bright red. And to think I’m no longer able to moderate your comments because I’ve made a habit of accepting them! Now I will have to dig out that postcard I came across a couple of months back, from Cyprus, with certain views you might not own today!

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