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Published on July 16th, 2013 | by Robin White
Image © 2010 Paul Clarke


Michael Gove: The Ambitious Educationalist

The latest in a string or educational and/or school reforms were floated by education minister Michael Gove’s this week. Essentially he thinks that the current school holiday needs a shake up to bring it in to line with 21st century life. Namely he thinks schools should have the option to set when the holiday will be for their school, the idea being that this will mean parents have the option of taking holidays at different times of the year and, therefore, saving some cash. This is, however, simply another example of Mr. Gove’s attempting to implement ideas that fail to understand the current educational system. For example by allowing individual schools to set their own holidays it means that parents with children at different schools may actually find themselves with two distinct summer holidays, thus compounding the usual holiday problems of childcare and entertainment by making the period longer. Gove seems to lack a fundamental understanding of what is best for the nations schools and, therefore, I am inclined to question whether an improvement in education is actually his primary motivation.

The vast majority of Gove’s reforms have simply been a waste of time, money and effort; his attempts to overhaul the history curriculum, for example, have been responded to badly. The system would essentially be a chronological curriculum leading to children leaving school with a 15 year olds understanding of WWII, a 12 year olds of Henry VIII but a 5 year olds of 1066. Put simply it would not work and rather than accepting this and taking advise from teachers and historians Gove has decided to stick belligerently to his guns. Therein lies much of the problem, Gove’s it simply unable to accept alternatives to the policy his department has; despite public disapproval, despite teachers hammering against him, he maintains that his ideas will work. This kind of single mindedness with regards to policy and implementation has no place in a minister for education. His job is to ensure that Britain’s children’s receive the best possible schooling and are given access to the best possible opportunities, something he is simply failing to do.

Coming back to the idea of new school holidays it seems to me that Gove’s policy team have overlooked one vital aspect, the travel agencies. If schools chop and change their school holidays it won’t be a secret and the travel agencies will see what is happening. If more people want to take holidays before or after the current high period then the agencies will simply extend the high period. Rather than saving money some families who, previously through lack of children, saved money on holidays will find that this is no longer the case. The travel agencies will almost certainly react by ensuring that the vast majority of school summer holidays still fall within the high season. In reality then it seems that the negative aspects of changing school holidays far outweigh the positives. This, though, seems to be characteristic of the educational reforms that Michael Gove has become well known for; recently the changes in the structure of GCSE examinations met with opposition, prior to that there was opposition to the reforming of the national curriculum, and now we will almost certainly see widespread opposition to this latest idea. When the word opposition can be used quite so frequently with reference to one individual in government it beggars the question of why Gove is not adapting his policy?

I believe the answer lies not in Gove’s ideas on education but rather in his plans for the future of his parliamentary career. It has already been widely reported that a failure in the next election will almost certainly mark the end of David Cameron, thus, a power vacuum will be created into which someone needs to step. Gove knows he has the backbench support to seriously challenge for the leadership. Whilst Boris Johnson would undoubtedly be the populist public choice the Tory MP’s are likely to back Gove instead for the leadership. Much of this support comes from the idea that he is a reformer and a man of conviction; ideas that have essentially grown out of his work as minister for education. His reforms, and his refusal to back down in the face of opposition demonstrate to the backbenches a strength of mind that many think Cameron has lacked in.

Yet the situation at the moment concerns me far more than a future situation in which Gove might challenge for the Tory leadership. Currently he is not the Tory leader, he is not even currently contesting the Tory leadership, he is the education minister. As such his primary concern should be ensuring that the best possible education system is in place for the majority of students in the country, and unfortunately I think he is currently failing. The answer, for example, to reforming GCSE examinations was not creating a single examination to be taken at the culmination of the course.

A solitary examination taken on a single day is in no way representative of what someone has learned over two years. The fact of the matter is that predictions from educational organisations suggest that exams still lead to a third of children receiving the wrong grade. If exams are leading to the wrong grades being received then completely removing coursework and focusing on a single examination lacks any form of sensibility. The answer to improving grading was very simply to increase the number of exams taken over the entirety of the course rather than taking a single exam at the end.

Ultimately I think that Gove is falling into the trap of reacting to expectation from the backbenches. He is well aware that in order to challenge successfully for the Tory leadership he will need to portray an image of strength and show an ability to stick to his ideas and convictions. Unfortunately in attempting to do this he is running the risk of using education for his own benefit, rather than working properly towards the improvement of the system. The reality is that whilst he may please the backbenches through this latest string of reform he will alienate the electorate as more and more education experts come out in opposition to the ideas his department is producing. Maybe his strategy will indeed pay off for him but he should decide whether education is really the department to be using to demonstrate his aptitude for the leadership.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Robin White

Robin is a second year undergraduate at the University of York studying History. He's interested in a variety of things from travel and sport, to politics and I'm hoping to work in either PR or political analysis and policy after graduating. He likes to blog about current events, politics, and travel primarily although he has been known to diverge into other things when his interest is piqued... which actually happens fairly regularly.

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