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The London Festival of Education: Good, with Outstanding Features. Part 1

London’s first Festival of Education roared into Russell Square this weekend, hosting the capital’s yoorban answer to Wellington College’s fragrant mother ship. The Institute of Education, which hosted the event, is a great college inside a building that makes the elephant house at London Zoo look like the tea rooms at Kew Gardens. Stalin would have taken one look at it and said, ‘Blimey, that’s a bit brutal.’

I’d been invited to do my monkey dance in a Q&A on behaviour which gave me the double pleasure of participating and observing. Apart from comedy support acts like me, the organisers had pulled their fingers out and hustled up the biggest names in education- Sir Michael Wilshaw, Adonis, Charlie Taylor, Hattie- and even the Lord of Sanctuary House himself, Gaffer Gove. The headline act opened the show, in an inversion of normal rock gig chronological taxonomy. Logan Hall was packed to the rafters in a manner that normally only happens when PGCE students turn up for their annual lecture on behaviour management, if memory of my own PGCE serves. This was a Saturday morning, remember. It was the edu-equivalent of One Direction signing arses in Bluewater.

As Marx once said, ‘You have nothing to lose but tiers of local bureaucracy.’

The mood of the crowd was…well, let’s be honest, crowd moods are usually variegated, aren’t they? It was the world’s biggest staffroom: a few angry Trots wearing Michael Rosen masks*; a sprinkling of old-timers, part-timers, time-servers and first-timers. Some stalwarts decided to spend their Saturday morning outside the IoE handing out pamphlets and wearily waving a fairly piss-poor effigy of someone. You knew was meant to be Michael Gove because there was a note pinned to its straw chest that said so, in the manner of a satirical cartoon in Punch.

Gove is famously personable and charming, and so it proved. He was interviewed by David Aaronovitch who promised to be a spiky and intelligent host. Aaronovitch’s father, Sam, was a prominent Communist. As a member of the 1975 Manchester Uni team on University Challenge, he answered every question from Bamber Gascoigne with ‘Trotsky’, ‘Lenin,’ and so on, in protest against Oxbridge colleges being allowed to enter the competition separately. Nowadays people just get pissy about voting protocol when the X-Factor judges go to deadlock, but back then, game show protests were cold war arenas for class struggle, it seems.

Aaronovitch offered a polite but firm rebuke to the Secretary of State’s vision of the educated student, homing in on the predictable, but important saws of access, privilege, entitlement and offer. But the Grand Wizard of Surrey Heath did not, it is fair to say, fall off the back of a turnip truck, and he cracked every ball back efficiently enough. He was even wearing a tie as red as the spilled blood of revolutionary martyrs. But his master stroke was pulling out a book on British Communism from the fifties and quoting appreciatively about the sacred shrine of books that every home should have. For a moment I thought he would extend a black-gloved hand out to a weeping Aaronovitch and say, ‘David….I AM YOUR FATHER.’

Every time Aaronovitch said something like ‘Isn’t it true that you plan to boil G-grade students to make soup stock?’ Gove would nod appreciatively and say, ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right, I agree,’ before then launching into his calm and careful refutation. It had the effect of making the discussion seem enormously consensual, and gave Gove the air of a man who was absorbing the interviewer into his own argument. All you have to do is leave out the word ‘but.’

Poland! The New Educational Drinking Game

There was a bit of Poland, which appears to be the new Finland (take a shot!); a bit of vocational banter (Gove, quoting Blair: ‘If you ever want to declare war on Iran, do so in a speech about vocational education.’); a bit of ‘Why do you hate teachers?’ and so on. One blade asked why Academies terms and conditions were so bad, and was sent scampering with the reply, ‘Teachers in academies earn more,’ which if true, is a Trump Card. He said ‘Once you go to an academy, I’ve never seen anyone go back.’

Of course, a dialogue is less scripted than a speech, and a Q&A less still. There were, of course, the usual sad sacks who somehow imagine that ‘asking a question’ means ‘tell us your life story and put a question mark at the end.’ It was also an opportunity for a bit of tub thumping. In his answers we saw more shooting from the hip. Some answers possessed his usual precision, others pressed the predictable buttons on a few in the audience who were wriggling for a fight and a sound bite they could hate properly.

He gave them it when he said, ‘You can’t have education without assessment’, and some of the crowd visibly quickened, taking their safety catches off. So far, so reasonable: what country would invest 5% of its GDP on something without a means of regulation and evaluation? Then, the House of Commons pugilist came out as he added, almost an afterthought, ‘Without assessment, it just becomes play. We need to know.’ Cue: Oktober Revolution. ‘What an idiot!’ hissed an unhappy woman behind me. ‘A fucking idiot.’ A great deal of rhubarb, rhubarb followed.

Gove was unbowed; instead of retreating he advanced. Answering the challenge that focussing on the Ebacc would kill off the arts, he replied that he hadn’t seen a single academically excellent school that didn’t; also promote outstanding arts and sports – which is probably true, although when asked if that was true in Singapore, his reply that they had lots of after school clubs prompted  snorts of derision from a lot of people who, apparently, knew the Singaporean school system intimately.  There was a question from a woman who rocked our worlds by saying, ‘Bonjour Monsieur Gove,’ and everyone clutched their partners and thought, ‘My God we’re somehow in France’. She wanted to know if Gove valued ‘Community Languages,’ and he scored points by explaining to Aaronovitch what that meant. He just emphasised how important languages were in general, sidestepping the whole ‘Why don’t you teach Urdu?’ argument quickly. Mainly because there isn;t anything you can say about the topic without alienating someone.

He explained why RS wasn’t in the Ebacc by referring to its existent state of being a statutory subject in all schools, out with of the National Curriculum, and he didn’t want to unpick too many stitches otherwise the whole tapestry would fall apart. Aaronovitch made a funny face and pointed out that Gove didn’t normally seem too bothered by tugging on the odd thread with all his might. But no politician wants to either drop RE completely, and lose the entire religious vote, nor defend it too openly, alienating the secular demographic. Leaving things alone and not talking about stuff is the safest bet for a man who answers to a ballot every five years.

Full Pelt

Somebody wanted to know why he insisted on demoralising schools by using critical language about some schools, and there were nods from a few; he responded by saying, ‘There are schools that aren’t good enough and my job is to point out that some schools are inadequate.’ Which seems fair enough. I scratch my pointy head at people who get upset when someone in charge of something criticises the status quo. What’s the alternative? Say that everything is great? Clearly it isn’t so, and if the Boss of Schools said it was, I’d think he was a bit simple.

By the end, he probably hadn’t won over any hard liners, but he probably didn’t make too many enemies either, and possibly showed a few that he, just like them, wanted the best for children and schools. Aaronovitch’s earlier point that he wanted to simply replicate his own school experience could be answered by saying, ‘Well, good: I wish everyone got the chance for such an education,’. The educational debate polarises so easily in this country that it practically shatters into two suspicious satellites, revolving around each other in perpetual enmity. The truth is that both camps have more in common than they think; there are no enemies of children in this discussion, simply two tribes, going to war.

Later on, I congratulated Chris Husbands on the Festival, and he replied, ‘It was ‘a hairy ride, but worth it.’

At least I hope he was talking about the Festival.

IN PART 2: Charlie Taylor; My session; Flirtgate; Pale Rider, Michael Wilshaw; summing up 

*not strictly true. Or even loosely

Train wreck: why lowering the QTS bar is a threat to education

T’was midnight in the classroom 
and all the desks were shut.
When suddenly 

the DfE 
produced a quiet ‘Cut-cut’

Said Gove to we
‘I don’t like T, 

or Q so close to S.
Academies have said to me
‘Our schools are in a mess.’’

The powers-that-be, the DfE 
 declared a novel route: 
not GTP nor ITT 
for schools now to recruit

So Gove was cheered by nobody
as schools snoozed on the beach.
The problem never seen before 

was teachers trained to teach.

‘DUDE! You are TOTALLY now a teacher!’

You will forgive my hack verse. Barely droll near-poetry seems as good a response as any to the bizarro-edict that has united almost every teacher: the announcement that in future, schools won’t have to hire teachers with QTS. Which means for the first time in several decades, state schools can recruit staff with no teacher training to teach, with no requirement that they eventually obtain such a novelty.

A DfE spokesman said that ‘academies had been asking for this freedom,’ to which my obvious response is, ‘Well, how about if we all start making requests about what we’d like?’ What is this, Christmas?  I’d like trifle. Can I have that? Some people eye their dusty cat-o-nine-tails with misty-eyed memories. Are they making a come-back too? 

Michael Gove, I am hugely disappointed (which will no doubt have him weeping into his Happy meal). So far, I had liked the look of a number of this administration’s policies more than half; where New Labour had gone so wrong was to pimp out their commitment towards the three Es of education to the fashionable, flimsy, Frankenstein orthodoxies of league tables, metrification and progressive flim-flam; this regime seemed to genuinely believe in driving up teaching quality.

But this is an Olympic somersault.

Your new Head of Music
Your new Head of PE

But stay; what value QTS anyway? Regular readers will know that I view much teacher training with the same sense of weary disappointment as the average Christmas Cracker toy (even the nice ones from M&S). There’s a lot of guff on some ITT programs. I learned a whole lot about EAL inclusion, but less than nothing about behaviour management, on mine. Brainless ideological dogma, witless mis-prioritisation and a national inconsistency of training are just some of the problems. Perhaps M-Gove was reverberating to the hum of this fork.

But the solution isn’t to drive an axe into the base of the bark; the tree needs pruned and treated, not ruined, harrowed, the land salted.

Some have said that in practice, this will mean little; that schools would be mad to hire staff who didn’t have suitable experience and education for the role of teacher, and that we should trust Heads and Governors and schools to recruit in their best interests. This market model of moral motivation- that by pursuing our own self-interest we ensure utility- is partially true, but ignores a more complex problem with self-interest. There is a huge difference between one’s interest, and perceived self interest. Exhibit A: crack addicts, doomed lovers, and other desperadoes. While many schools would never dream of hiring an unsuitable candidate, given the pressure of budgets, the attractiveness of cheaper staff, and the inexorable pressures of expediency, schools will, and I repeat, will, hire teachers with inadequate experience and ability to ‘fill gaps’, as temporary fixes that become permanent non-solutions.

Don’t believe me? Witness the rise of the Cover Supervisor as long term teacher and supply; witness the rise of HLTAs from classroom assistants to full time teachers. Hundreds of schools have already told me how non-teaching staff are already used as teaching staff, as cover. Some have even told me about office staff being used to cover lessons, and TAs. Fine, in a pinch; not as a rule. Is sort of expect my teachers to have degrees in their subjects, and some kind of formal instruction in the trade.

Another caveat: there are undoubtedly some excellent people teaching in schools who never experienced ITT, but have flourished in their roles; One excellent headmaster even told me he’d tried to fill vacancies at school, had no luck, and went for a non-teacher option; successfully. And of course non-qualified teachers are common in the private sector, so what’s the fuss, say some? If private schools do this, why shouldn’t we? And to be fair, this IS a good argument, and possibly one that moved Gove more than most. Critics of the scheme shouldn’t ignore this: it can work, in certain circumstances. Why not in the state sector?

Your new Head of Broom Cupboards

The first answer is that, just because a strategy can work in exceptional circumstances, doesn’t mean it should be a freedom allowed to all; a system needs to cater for the blunt fact that its inhabitants will be largely within the norms of the bell curve of excellence. Some dedicated stalwarts would take this opportunity and honour its noblest possibilities and responsibilities; others will take it to the pawn shop and flog it for a bag of magic beans. And the race to the bottom gathers pace.

The second answer is that opening this hatch, however slightly, is an invitation to dilute the profession even further. There will be more and more teachers now who have never made the commitment to teach that an ITT course provides. Despite the current wobbly table of the national training situation, it is better than no table. Teaching isn’t something that ‘You just have a go at’ it’s a specialist skill. And yes, most of it is learned on the job; but leaving it to schools alone is a huge mistake. As recruitment can fall victim to expediency, so too can training- many schools train staff as poorly as they can afford, and concentrate on ticking induction boxes. Of course some don’t. But that’s the national situation. A formal process of training at least ensures a softer landing into the classroom, with built in time to reflect, research and review one’s practice.

I’ve just come back from Poland, a country where the minimum, mimimum time it takes to get from nought to teaching is three years, and that’s fast track. This is the educational tiger of Eastern Europe remember, pissing all over the PISA tables for literacy and improvement. In a few years time, we’ll no doubt be sending delegates of concerned investigators over there to find out why they’re doing so well in the international Top Trumps.

And we’ll notice that they train their teachers. And we’ll go, ‘No, that can’t be it. Maybe it’s the perogi?’

Shazam! Teacher training, Teach First, and Gove’s balls of marble.

‘The wisdom of Solomon! The strength of Hercules! The stamina of Atlas! The power of Zeus! The courage of Achilles! The speed of Mercury!’

In the old Fawcett comic strip, Captain Marvel, the eponymous Olympian, magically embodied the six greatest qualities of crypto-history’s six greatest heroes, which conveniently formed a mononymous acrostic in a way beloved of lazy english teachers setting homework everywhere. (Seriously: stop telling small children about this form of poetry. You condemn teachers to a stream of homeworks that look like this:

Brilliant
Intelligent
Lovely
Laughs
Yummy

You SEE what Billy did there? DO YOU SEE? Give me strength. I usually smile, and say, ‘Hahaha how long did this take you on the way in?’ And we all laugh about it years later when they’re robbing me on a night bus. Acrostic make wonderful mnemonics, and for fans of obsessive-compulsive disorders, and pedantry, I’m sure it’s a hoot. For twelve year olds: less instructive. I’m sure some will defend it as an entry-level introduction to poetry, which is why I always start my kids off with John Cage’s ‘4’ 33”, as an introduction to nursery rhymes.)

But I digress, like a turkey stalling for time on Christmas Eve.

I suspect our very own wizard, Michael Gove, has been at the educational pick and mix too, judging by this speech he gave at the National College annual conference this week. ‘The High Expectations of Singapore! The Success of Finland! The Exanple of Charter Schools in New York! The Transformation of London!’

Which spells ‘Heset’. Hmmmm. MICHAEL GOVE ARE YOU F*CKING WITH MY MIND? See, this is how loonies get switched on to the Bible Code, or hearing messages from The Horned One in the lyrics of Judas Priest, or Katy Perry (especially her last hit Natas evol I)

It read…HESET.

Of course, any announcement by an incumbent Education Secretary will provoke gales, raging from hurricane hysteria to squalls of support. So what’s the loveable rascal saying now?

1. Isn’t London doing jolly well?

Is it? He quotes the stat that 62% of London kids leave with 5 A*-Cs, compared with 58% nationally. So far, so what; a 4% lead won’t moisten any seats. But he ‘digs deeper’ to reveal that while nationally 35% of Free School Meal kids get 5 A*-C (including English and Maths) in London that figure is 52% Hooray! LET FREEDOM RING FROM THE HILLS OF HACKNEY ROAD TO THE SWAMPS OF HAMPSTEAD. He points to this miracle as being borne out of Academies, Outstanding schools supporting others, and ‘a focus on improving the teaching- including Teach First.’

Except that this just doesn’t follow. Regular visitors will know my pet saw; that in educational science, figures mean what you want them to mean, and linking cause and effect is as easy and  plastic as Playdo. If, every Saturday morning I wake up with a sore head, do I conclude that Saturday mornings cause sore heads? Or might I look to the pile of empty Talisker bottles that decorate my Ottoman? It’s telling that he points to a metric that he replaced- the 5 A*-C bar, because that success criteria was famously gamed by schools in a Darwinian scramble for better and better results. One way this was achieved was by the adoption of BTECs and other qualifications, with their massively disporportionate equivalence to GCSEs. And where were these qualifications targeted? The D/C boundaries, and below. More capable kids didn’t reap the same proportionate benefits, of course.

‘Oscillate you hip and don’t take pity
Me want fi see you get live upon the riddim when me ride.’

And schools aggressively targeted the C/D borderline kids, in one of recent educational history’s most vile campaigns of injustice. Did you think schools were for everyone? Not a bit- bright kids could swim already, the least able could go drown in a shitty barrel because they would anyway, and the nearly-there’s were VIPs, invited and goaded into interventions that must have made them feel, if nothing else, jolly special.

So while we can all pat ourselves on the backs for such a lovely FSM bottom line, let’s not ignore what the figures conceal. After all, the coalition has successfully argued that schools were gaming the system, and changed the rules. And schools will bend themselves to that new order, and what is not measured will ultimately be ignored, as it always is.

There is another debate about academies, but let’s not pretend that the figures show that they are grade-boosting engines of destiny. There are great ones and terrible ones, just as there are champions in the state sector, as well as chumps. The irony is that the more prescriptive the state system got (and let’s be frank, it was getting to the point where we were nearly having our urine tested), the more damage to teaching resulted. Try and make every teacher and school fit into the same cookie cutter and see how far it gets you. Oh, we have. Ah.

This government is often accused of being both tyrannical despots of dictatorialism AND dismantlers of a state system that unifies and directs practice. Which is it? We appear to be run by Bruce Banner. There’s an odd two-lane system in education right now- the national curriculum is being reworked at the same time as schools are being encouraged/ strong-armed out of the LEAs. The message seems to be ‘ACADEMY STATUS WILL SET YOU FREE FROM THE TYRANNIES AND INEQUITIES OF……THE THINGS WE’LL TELL YOU TO DO.’ What is going on?

Let me be clear- I think schools should have more autonomy; I think we’ve reached a point of synthesis in education- the internal stresses of the last few decades have to break something somewhere. But the argument that they result in better grades simply won’t do- there isn’t enough data yet; and claiming that they are the philosopher’s stone to low grades just isn’t scientifically tenable, when there are so many other possible explanations for grade improvement.

And that’s without even beginning to get into the debate of whether grade progression is, or should be the main way that schools are assessed externally.

I’M MICHAEL FUCKING GOVE, MATE

2. Teach First: better, faster, stronger, harder.

Then he claims that Teach First teachers have made a small but significant impact. I’m calling this one out, as I was involved in a similar predecessor program called Fast Track. Where’s the evidence that it’s building the teachers of tomorrow? The Fast Track was an expensive recruitment campaign, and most of my peers from my cohort have long since buggered off (or ‘taught first’, I should say…). The expectation seems to be that we’ll have better teachers if we aggressively recruit top-flight graduates and those with business experience. But while I always applaud any drive to ensure that teachers are as academic as possible, it’s not a sufficient condition of being a better teacher, above a certain level of certification. And as for business experience, I am reminded of the Troops to Teachers-style recruitment currently being rolled out. It’s not that great graduates, business managers or ex-soldiers wouldn’t be great teachers – I’m sure many would be, and are- but that the skill sets don’t overlap in a particularly meaningful way. 

Besides, I can’t find any data that suggests that TF teachers have done more or less to change education than any other cohort. Some, I bet, are total stars; some are Smeagols, no doubt. Funny that. Just like everyone else. And also, the training is punishing; all on-the-job, where the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s a route (like GTP) that suits some, but is a devilishly risky way to teach a teacher. Here’s some deep water, dive in. Oh dear, etc.

Oh, and I gather the drop-out rate for TFs isn’t too impressive, which isn’t surprising given the incredibly stressful way they’re introduced to teaching. Yet the GTP route is being fazed out, which had many of the same stresses and strains.


3. Bursaries for highly qualified teachers to train.

I have no complaints about this (surprisingly enough), as I see no harm with putting incentives in front of prospective teachers with better degrees. Which isn’t to say it’s a necessary condition for a great teacher (see previous), but a good asset to have rather than not. Especially in shortage subjects. Eeh, I’m old enough to remember when there were bursaries for RS teachers, ah… good times.


4. Teaching Schools.

An aim to have 500 of these by the end of Parliament (I presume he means this session, but you never know; they might be dismantling the Old Lady or something. The Queen’s been looking shifty lately, that’s all I’m saying). The Teaching School Network: applications of this were so high, sayeth Gove, that he was ‘blown away, man’. I applaud and fret about this: too many teachers enter the profession knowing more about Learning Hats than practical teaching skills, and there have been many, many members of the training establishment who were so out-of-touch with classrooms that they could barely remember which way up kids the USB went into the kid. But what they do provide is a useful reflection point on the training, and structured interpretation of the the teaching experience.

Training schools- they MIGHT work, but I’m curious: the quality of provision would be crucial, and that depends on people, not policies. Get a great teacher-trainer and you get great teacher training. Get a mug, and end up swimming in ordure. These schools would have to work their knackers off keeping great teacher-trainers. And how do you assess that? By other great trainers, I would suggest, although given my experience of the marketised school system, it will probably be moderated by an Ofsted-style tick sheet. Plus ca change.

What proportion of staff could be trainees? There’s a tipping point where the training experience could damage the learning experience, unless the kids were very biddable. And if they were so biddable, then teachers won’t learn much about behaviour management. We already have training hospitals, but at least with them you get a grown-up to make sure no one gets their frenellum stitched to their chins.

So: if Training Schools are just a cheap way of churning out exhausted, nerve-wracked cannon fodder who have no idea why they’re teaching, or any sense of different styles of pedgagogy rather than ‘what I saw from my trainer’ then this could be a disaster. But then any scheme could. It could produce teachers with their eyes firmly on the classroom, and not on Dewey or Rousseau or any of a hundred romantic education wreckers.

I’ll say this for the Goveinator; he has balls of purest marble. He really, really couldn’t give a monkeys what anyone else thinks. Now that might be seen as a weakness by many, but to some extent this is a necessary quality of someone in a position of power. It has been famously observed that decisons made by committee are usually those those that offend the least number of people. Sometimes decisive action needs to be taken, and it takes a hard-ass to steer them through. You may criticise MG’s policies, but I really don’t have a problem with the fact that he isn’t a big listening teddy bear. EVERY education minister drives through their own policies, and let’s not pretend that any politican has any kind of duty to listen to everyone, stroke their big politician chins and pick the decision everyone agrees with. I like decisiveness in a politician: kind of makes a change.

Of course, his content can be challenged. But don’t damn the man for sticking his flag in the sand.  Too many people have decided, ‘Oh he’s a Tory, so everything he says is evil and bad.’ Well, from where I’m standing, I’m not seeing any smoke signals more inspiring from the Labour camp either, as they adopt the arse-in-the-air position of trying to please everyone, so beloved of politicians hungry for votes everywhere.

Gove then finished with a live set that included poetry readings from Michael Rosen,  and a punk acappella tribute to Tupac entitled ‘Only Dave can Judge me.’ Hollah.

AND FINALLY

‘And then the Phonics Monster gobbled him up!’

Phonics. I’m a secondary teacher, specialising in Philosophy and RS. What I have to say about the acquisition of language is loaded towards fuck all. And yet LO: it appears that everyone is now an expert on it. I’m serious- everyone and their maiden Auntie has become a child psychologist, a neuroscientist, and a philologist. Holy Smoke, where can I get me some of whatever they’re drinking?

It’s odd, this sudden expertise everyone has. In fact, no it’s not; listen to any pub full of gym-dodging lardies when the Euro’s on, and you’ll see this punditry in action. Do phonics work? Do phonics decimate language acquisition? I don’t know- and neither, I suspect, do most of the people talking about it. And not just talking, but getting REALLY RED UNDER THEIR VESTS about it. It has become a Shibboleth- are you FOR us, or…..*beady eye* *fingers cutlass* AGINST US, YE DOG? Both sides are apparently convinced that the other side will liquidise the minds of children with their devilish, continental ways.

There is, I’m sure, a decent debate to be had about this, but if your mindset is ‘Gove versus Rosen….to the DEATH, and to the victor the spoils, arrr’, then you need to adjust the contrast on your conceptual telly, because it is set way too high.

The Sunday Times Festival of Education Day 2: Babylon! Nuh ramp wid mi!

‘Fyah fi yuh, fassy Burnham clat.’
This is part two of a feature about the 2011 Sunday Times Festival Of Education. If you’re a fan of Tintin, this is the Prisoners of the Sun to part one’s Seven Crystal Balls.
Day one was closed by the Big Banana of Education himself, Michael Gove, who took to the stage of the humid, sultry Marquis in his bluest ‘Call-me-Tony’ shirt, opened with Russell-Brandian abandon to the second button like some kind of crazy man. Clearly he was in the mood to party down, bump and grind, and engage in a meaningful and fruitful with with stakeholders. Anthony Seldon leapt up to introduce him and they bantered like old chums in a slow motion impression of Jeeves and Wooster: Michael plugged Anthony’s book on Brown; Seldon batted it right back at him with the punchline, ‘It was meant to be a comedy’. It was very convivial. And I was still wondering, where’s your tie, mate? This isn’t a Masonic initiation. Gove responded by fist-bumping Seldon, pulling one side of his shirt open, slapping his chest and shouting, ‘Cha! Yuh wan man fi dig yuh battyhall!’
No he didn’t. Unfortunately.
Seldon, possibly realising that I was in the audience (unlikely, given that I only have one brain) decided the best way to wind me up was to invoke Student Voice; ‘Here at Wellington we like students to have a voice,’ he gravely warned us, as he summoned a trio of our future masters from the wings, immaculate and presentable. And wearing ties, I’d like to add- Mr Gove, take note. 
The first one, a charming year nine, presented himself with only a hint of nervousness (pull yourself together, sonny). His question escaped me, as I was too busy boggling at his terrifying articulacy and the general thrust of his statement, which revolved around the idea that he had started up a charity to help fund a school in some third world hell-hole- probably just after he designed a way to irrigate the Sahara and harvest free  energy from starlight. He really was that good.
Gove replied in a way that simultaneously suggested that he was taking the child’s point of view very, very seriously indeed, while also adopting the  slightly sinister sing-song register of a children’s presenter, which suggested as he spoke to us that he really was addressing a room full of special needs children. It was a slightly strained dichotomy, as this nod to the Satanism that is student voice took up half of the session, and was really designed as a way for Gove to present his views in a slightly odd way, using the device of children as interrogators. 
The idea of it being in any way a student voice was of course dispelled by the way in which any stuttering or deviance from what I presume was the intended question on the part of the student, brought Seldon back into the spotlight as he prompted them back onto straight street. 
‘So what you mean to ask the Secretary, Amanda,’ he would begin, pretending it was a question on his part, ‘Was why do we focus so much on exams, isn’t it?’ And Amanda would nod, with a slightly scared look on her face as she wondered if she had missed a syllable, like the Silver Medal winner in a spelling bee. In fact, Seldon was doing no worse than many other advocates of student voice- I typed ‘vice’ there, because the silent mind understands when the conscious one does not- do already. Presumably the questions were farmed from a reservoir of questions generated by the students, which of course gives control to the person who sets the task and selects the speakers. In this way, the illusion of student voice is maintained, but in reality, it acts in exactly as coercive and prescribed manner as any teacher-led activity; only now it has the gloss of the student stakeholder. Frankly, I prefer my behaviour management to be out there in the open, not hiding behind the actions of children. It feels more honest.
Head Boy and Girl.
The second student was a young lady, and her question led Gove into an exploration of the relative value of exam systems, and why couldn’t we have one national, semi regulated board that issued and controlled them all? Gove batted cleanly, and replied that he valued diversity, and it was perfectly right that there should be a range of certifications and examinations that students could take, in line with his support of a market model of education. But he also said that he was taking very seriously the problem of grade inflation, and the ways in which he could tackle it. In common with most of his speech, there was a noticeable lack of meat on the bone; nothing new was announced, no great initiatives that would swarm their way onto the late night news or the early papers. In that respect at least, it was disappointing.
But that’s a churlish complaint in some respects. I was struck, perhaps stupidly, by his confidence and articulacy, even a hint of wit at times.  His best comment (a mistake, I sincerely, SINCERELY hope) was when at one point, he was discussing the need for teachers to have a work/ life balance, and he made the following rather beautiful admission:
‘Of course teachers need to be able to eat sleep and procreate- three things I’d like to see them doing.’
And a thousand buttocks clenched as the crowd gave a collective, ‘Aw, gross…’ It is an image I will never be able to erase from my traumatised inner eye. Thank you, Michael. You kiss David Cameron with that mouth? 
The third student voice was the greatest and most terrible of them all, like the level boss in a tripartite computer game, or the last guardian faced by an Arthurian hero in a three chambered castle from a fairy tale. His name was- actually, his name doesn’t matter, and I have no truck with picking on students, only their masters, so I’ll call him Orpheus. Orpheus was…well, if I tell you that he turned down a place at Oxford University (yes, that one) to take up a place at Harvard, I think you’ll get a pretty good impression of Orpheus. He was tall, handsome, and looked every inch the Captain of his Destiny. The next time you see him, he’ll be planting a flag on the tallest mountain of Mars and inventing a cure for Diabetes. The only correct response to encountering an Orpheus is to run away, slapping yourself on the head and wailing like a moron.
Orpheus wanted to know- and by God, he would find out- what Gove was doing to prevent people like him from being seduced by the lure of better funded and more agreeable universities like the Ivy League. And I thought, My God, that’s the first time I’ve heard  Oxford University described as underfunded and second class. Ten points to Slytherin.
Snape, sorry, Gove, fielded it with acumen, and turned the implicit criticism into a challenge for Universities to look at ways they could better fund themselves in order to provide first class (or was it world class? I forget the comparison) facilities for their clients/ students, to whom they were ultimately responsible. There was a lot of that kind of thing. A great deal of ideology, but without many specific policy attachments, merely hints and nods towards great things in the pipeline.
‘There’s a storm coming, so you’d all better watch your f*cking ‘p’s and ‘q’s,’ he said. 
OK, he didn’t.
‘Crumbs! This White Paper seems a bit queer!’
It’s also telling that he reiterated that British teachers were alternatively tireless, top-quality, sensitive, caring and professional throughout his speech, by which pioint I was getting slightly teary and grateful. Interestingly enough he was talking to Andrew Marr a few hours later and telling parents to get stuck into strike-frozen schools and see if they couldn’t do any better than those pesky teachers. Funny; he didn’t mention that at the time. 
Nice question from some gallant: ‘Can the speaker tell us if successful state schools will be allowed to take over failing independent schools?’ Simple and straight to the bullseye, the man was a hero. Fifty years from now they’ll find his skeleton buried under the new block at Wellington with a hole in his skull.
Gove also dug up the old saw about education coming from a Latin root, meaning to ‘lead out,’ implying that the education is within the child, as is apparently boundless curiosity and a desire to better oneself. This kind of child-centred witlessness stems from Rousseau, that old French trouble maker who, I am assured, used to ask his nanny/ housekeeper to tie him up and treat him like a Big Baby. You heard me. 
While that doesn’t exclude his pedagogy from the big table, it puts his value system under a slightly harsher spotlight. Besides, it rests on something absolutely unproveable either way, and therefore meaningless- the idea that this is what human nature s really like, and if we were only to remove the beastly influence of teachers and society, we would all be raised as noble savages and ideal men and women. This paints teachers as a corrupting influence, and paves the way to utopian moronism that ultimately leads to Montessori schooling and the Steiner method. Yeah, try that on a few million teenagers, and see how many of them decide that art, poetry and brotherhood are the way forward for them. 
Besides, who the Hell cares what the root of the word education is? Gove’s conversational gambit was the pedagogic equivalent of starting a wedding toast with the words, ‘Webster’s dictionary defines ‘marriage’ as…’ Man, who farted?
Education could come from the Armenian stem ‘Educaca’, meaning ‘the feeling you get when you work out how to turn string into chocolate biscuits in a dream, but forget it when you awake’, and it would have no bearing on what teaching is, or should be. It neither supports the argument, nor defines the terms of the debate. My ancestral roots may well be in Hibernia, but I’m not forced to live in a cosy olde worlde theme park, lashed to unsustainable debt. 
‘Come on Snowy! Education needs us!’
Other things he mentioned, in response to the audience questions (I might add that the Wellington students were beetling around the room, efficiently dispatching microphones throughout the crowd. I was reminded of the agents in The Matrix, and feared to catch their eye): the need for successful private schools to adopt, in the manner of a benevolent Victorian philanthropist, struggling state schools, turning them into academies. The danger of this enterprise is that, as they say, when you win, they call you a winner. A successful private school might not be the best answer to a state school’s needs, at least not in any simple sense. I’ve written before about the dangers of assuming that what cures one patient will cure them all; that some of the no doubt excellent practise I’ve seen in public schools would simply turn to offal in some comprehensives- exhibit A: happiness lessons. God. Save. Us.
There was a compliment for Seldon, the Host and Master of Wellington College, when Gove slapped his back for doing exactly this with some working-class school of sooty-nosed urchins, and a back handed dig at Eton (‘the other private school, also in Berkshire’) for not doing so. Ooh, you bitch. I remember a lovely story about a Goose that laid a Golden Egg. The success of an institution might very well not be something that can be replicated by extension; in fact, over reaching might cause the whole thing to fall apart. If you stick your arm too far up the Golden Goose’s ass, eventually all you’re left with is avian hand cream, a feathered bracelet and no eggs. As one private primary school teacher mentioned on the news this week, if he took over another school, the excellent staff he now has would be spread so thin he couldn’t guarantee the kind of success he had previously been achieving.
Like I say, when you win they call you a winner.
And with a ‘Shucks, that’s all we’ve got time for, Gove fluttered off the stage, moist of armpit and wondering which news outlet to turn to first so he could moon at the striking teachers. The Labour wallah staggered into the spotlight like an awkward, embarrassed giant child, fully realising he wasn’t who we’d come to see, and that he had a thirty-second slot before everyone piled into the Pimm’s river being laid out behind us. It was awful. No one could even remember what he said. It was like some angry drunk, pervert uncle had insisted on taking the mike at a wedding to toast the happy couple, and no one had the heart to say no. At least he was quick.
Finally, Gove ran back in with no shirt on, threw up a gang sign and shouted, ‘Nuh ramp wid mi! We be gettin’ crunked onna lawn wit’ my man Pimms and Hennessey. Cha!’
He didn’t do that either.
And that was day one.
Next: Explorers on the Moon.

Atten-HUT! Troops to Teachers sees battlefield promotions lauded- but is the science solid?

 I enjoyed Panorama tonight; I always do. There’s something so intuitively respectable about the BBC’s venerable investigative magazine that I would default to unqualified admiration even if it were to tell me that spaghetti grew on trees. This week: Troops To Teachers (TTT)- Michael Gove’s drive to inject a bit of military discipline back into classrooms by aggressively recruiting and retraining ex-military servicemen. It apes the Troops to Teachers program in the US, launched 18 years ago after the first Gulf War, and since then it’s seen over 15,000 men and women swap green berets for cardigans with leather patches (or whatever the symbolic equivalent is in America).

If you watched the program you would be forgiven for assuming the the program is an unqualified success; we were treated to the example of Lordswood Boys’ School in England, which entertains no less than 1 in 12 staff from  military backgrounds, which shouldn’t really be a surprise seeing as how the smallish Birmingham comprehensive has an assistant head who used to be in the Infantry, an ex-Sergeant from the Territorials, and a former sergeant major acting as a shooting instructor. Quite. Still, variety is the spice of life, and one thing that schools have to be praised for is diversity of strategies, trying different things, and adapting tactics to meet the needs of the local community. Looking at the prospectus and the Ofsted report, it seems a bit of a success story. Students like Hakeem Nawas spoke proudly of how it had transformed his self-esteem and motivation to be involved in Cadet activities, and Neil Macintosh, the aforementioned Assistant Head proposed that ex-military were ‘more resilient…less down-hearted…and more robust.’ As Mandy Rice Davies, said, ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he.’

Actually I have no issue with this: in fact I admire many of the principles that inspire it. I particularly liked how the servicemen spoke about how they maintained order- they didn’t have to raise their voices, they said. The students agreed. ‘They just look at you,’ one said. I know what he means. Screaming your head off is usually a sign that you’ve blown your stack, and for most kids it’s better than telly. Speak silently, they say, and carry a big stick. I couldn’t agree more. Who do you respect more- the small dog with the big bark, or the silent dog with the claw hammer behind his back? Exactly.

Troops to Hogwarts

Then we were off to Huntingdon Middle School, in Virginia’s Newport News City (honestly- I wouldn’t make up a name like that because you wouldn’t believe it), where a clutch of ex-military had taken over their classes like Desert Storm. The story here was the same, it seemed- lines of biddable, disciplined and enthusiastic students queued up to enter classrooms, and we were presented with crocodiles of marching students who were noticeably not selling crack pipes to grandmothers or auditioning for The Wire. Glee, maybe.

Geoff Lloyd, the poster boy for this school’s TTT project spoke proudly about bringing ‘discipline into an undisciplined world,’ and frankly, I couldn’t agree more. His robust, direct attitude to being a responsible adult in a classroom full of students who need clear boundaries and someone they can rely on was more inspirational than a dozen Dead Poets’ Societies or Dangerous Minds. I would put him on my fictional Heroes of Education list, but unfortunately he’s a real person, so he’ll have to content himself with a notional award instead.

So far, so good. As I say, I actually applaud many of the aims of this program. I think that what many of the ex-servicemen said made perfect sense- courage, responsibility, discipline and carrying your own water. Amen to that, brother.

And then- with the inevitability of the Sun rising- came the research. Because that’s what we do whenever we want to justify something: we wheel out the academics who biddably endorse whatever is being flogged to us. And that’s when it got interesting for me. William Owings of the Old Dominion University sat in an agreeable, respectable setting and enthusiastically waved the flag for the TTT program, his eyes twinkling as he did so. He twinkled a lot. ‘Ex-military stay in the profession twice as long as non-servicemen,’ we were told. ‘Troops in the T2T program outscore all other teachers,’ it was said. Owings also provided my favourite quote of the show- T2T had provided a ‘stellar performance,’ he said. Twinkle, twinkle.

Now that didn’t strike me as the careful, cool, neutral perspective of the scientist, I thought. And as soon as someone starts to mention educational research, my spider sense starts to tingle, and frankly I start to sweat a bit. Because, as regulars to this blog will be painfully aware, I’m allergic to the way that some educational research is used to hustle strategies and big ideas that are composed, it is eventually seen, of equal parts moonshine and optimism. As a teacher of some years, I’ve been making a list of the Initiatives and Great Ideas that the hucksters of education try to flog us, and my hackles start to mambo whenever someone calls along and says, ‘Hey, you guys! I have a great new idea for turning schools around! I just need your credit card number and your uncritical commitment…’ I’m just funny like that.

So I did a bit of, rooting around on t’interweb. Just what IS the Old Dominion University, anyway? It sounds awfully grand. And it is, I am sure, a paragon of academic vigour, rigour and propriety, even if its mission statement does say that ‘Our philosophy is simple: Knowledge should be productive. Research-driven solutions that make sound business sense.’ Which isn’t really a philosophy, is it? More of an admission that if something is worth something, it has to be worth money. Ah, it brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it? .

As I say, I’m sure it has the noblest intentions. It also has an interesting link to the Troops to Teachers program, as its website says: ‘The state office for Virginia TTT is located on the ODU campus.’ That’s the state office. Of course, that doesn’t suggest that the Old Dominion University might be a less than partial witness to the efficiency of the TTT program. I’m just saying, that’s all. Isn’t that a marvellous coincidence, though?

So I did what few civilians have done before: I had a peek at a couple of the papers quoted on their website as showing terrific, supportive data that confirmed the TTT program as a winner, and the ones that William Owings was quoting so freely on Panorama. You can find two of them here and here. They are, as most social science papers are, a thrill a minute, and I heartily recommend you print them off and read them on the way to work tomorrow. Unless you drive. Or listen to Coldplay while you read them.

The 2005 study was, broadly speaking, a survey of Teachers who had gone through the program, and of their supervisors. It asked if they felt that they had been appropriately trained to approved standards. It also asked supervisors of these teachers if they felt they were as good as, or better than teachers of similar experience who hadn’t come through the program. The answer was strongly in favour in both cases. How many were surveyed? A fair few. Over 2000 teachers and their supervisors were sent surveys. That’s not a bad study by any standards. Except that the response rate was 65%. We don’t know why the other third didn’t reply. We don’t know what attempts were made to convert those no-shows. We don’t know on what basis the surveys were sent. We can probably assume that surveys weren’t sent, or at least answered, by teachers who had dropped out of the program.

And it’s details like that, that make this kind of research so hard to value meaningfully. Big numbers are good, but without transparency about who answered, what their motives were, and show inaccuracies were avoided, the purity and reliability of this kind of data is always going to be hard to measure, let alone accept. I’m certainly not impugning William Owings, or any of his co-writers, but these are substantial, significant impediments to the development of social scientific research credibility.

Another problem is that this paper relies on perceptions- ‘how well do you feel …’ questions. These questions fall short, IMO of the clinical precision and neutrality of the genuinely inquisitive, and stray into the territory of market research. When did you stop beating your wife? Who’s to say that the TTT candidates were actually trained properly? What’s to prevent the supervisors betraying their own inclinations, preferences and prejudices through their own opinions. Nothing. Nothing at all. This isn’t the same as measuring the temperature at which mercury boils- it’s like interviewing a series of marathon runners at the finishing line and asking if they feel out of breath.

The paper does acknowledge some of this. Actually, it seems to acknowledge all of this:

‘the study does not provide evidence of T3’s self-reported or actual teaching behaviours. Neither does it provide empirical observations of school administrators watching T3s’ actual teaching behaviours. Nor does it provide evidence of students’ learning gains as a result of working for a period of defined time with T3s as compared with other teachers of similar experience. Further study of the actual teaching practices from T3 self-report or assessment of their students’ measured achievement, although very complex and difficult studies to undertake, would provide important information about T3s’ quality as well as feedback about how to strengthen T3 preparation.’

In other words, we know it’s all just opinion and self analysis. But we don’t think it’s a problem. Of course, opinion and subjective experience have a place in analysis; but it’s not the same place as objective, viewer-independent data. It doesn’t prove anything more than the people who responded felt the way they felt. It’s not corroboration that these teachers are better: it is what it is.

The other paper I looked at, from 2010 (and also by our hero from Panorama), focused on TTT candidates who went on to become Principals. This time it was 107 subjects; ah, boo, much smaller. Their supervisors (I didn’t even know Heads had supervisors) overwhelmingly (90% plus) said that they thought such principals were better on a variety of scales than similar, non TTT Principals. Yes, you may also find it unsurprising that supervisors, who I assume are involved in the selection and support of these principals, overwhelmingly thought that they were doing a jolly good job, and hadn’t they made excellent decisions hiring them? Again, we don’t know the conversion rate, the response rate etc.. I’m sure it was fabulous, given that 107 is a very small number. Still, the data comes out rather well, doesn’t it?

So is there nothing concrete at all to support the view that TTT candidates have a, if you will, tactical advantage over their civilian counterparts? Not a bit of it. Here it is:

‘In a 2008 Florida study comparing measured academic achievement of elementary,
middle, and high school students taught by TTTs, results indicate that compared to all
teachers, students served by Troops teachers performed about equally well in Reading and
achieved a small but statistically significant advantage in Mathematics. In comparisons
where each Troop teacher was individually matched to another teacher, teaching the same
subject in the same school, with approximately the same amount of teaching experience,
students served by Troops teachers achieved substantially and statistically significantly
higher in both Reading and Mathematics (Nunnery, et.al, 2008; Nunnery, et. al., 2009).’

Call me a gutless limey cynic, but ‘equally well in Reading’ and ‘a small but statistically significant advantage’ in Maths doesn’t exactly strike me as cause to start popping the champagne for the cause yet. Incidentally, the Nunnery paper mentioned above by Owings is co-written by…..yes, William Owings. And it wasn’t published in an academic journal, but, as the report says, ‘submitted to ‘Educational Administration Quarterly
October 2008′. I can submit a poem written on bog paper to the Sunday Times. Does that mean I can say it was printed?   Have a look at the front page. It’s got a lovely ‘Troops to Teachers’ logo all over the front. I’m don’t have a Ph.D. in this exact subject, but I suspect that means they might have something to do with the report….

(I stopped reading it at that point, because I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I value every precious minute I possess.)

In fact, so do the previous two papers I mentioned, both of which are prefaced by the sentence, ‘A Report Prepared for Mike Melo, Director, Virginia Office of Troops to Teachers,’ and ‘Report to Dr. William McAleer, Executive Director, Troops to Teachers, Pensacola, Florida.’ So all of the reports mentioned were written for (can I presume commissioned?) the TTT itself. Hey, waitaminute…..

It’s not that I’m against the idea of ex-military training for schools: good luck to ’em, I say. And I think that there might be something in the idea that men and women who have experience with leadership, developing self-discipline and oiling rifles might have something useful to teach children (sniping, for instance). But it doesn’t do anyone any good to use research like this that seeks to support proposals with empirical claims that can at the very least be contested as meaningful or verifiable in any real sense. Michael Gove needs to look elsewhere for better arguments, and maybe we might start to take research based policy more seriously.