Give over, Gove

In Opinion on January 18, 2012 at 12:16 AM

Education Secretary, Michael Gove, once again talked of desired reforms to the education system this week. Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he talked of increasing from three hours (per teacher) headteachers’ inspection time and the need to sack teachers who cannot control classes and get them to succeed. And, on ITV’s Daybreak, he spoke in favour of longer school days and shorter holidays, and the consequent need for teachers to work for longer.

These comments follow other controversial diktats and proposals, such as the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (the ‘Ebacc’), his push – financial and otherwise – for former troops to become teachers, and his failure to consult relevant bodies before axing Building Schools for the Future projects in six local authorities – deemed unlawful by a Judicial Review.

First, a disclaimer. I have done a PGCE, in which I did two placements in (secondary) schools nine to five, but I am not in teaching now. So I would like to say I can speak with at least some experience and authority about teaching, while having little to no vested interest or bias.

It is not the first of Gove’s suggestions – sacking poor teachers – that it is particularly misguided. It is certainly true very few teachers are sacked, and often this is for reasons of unprofessionalism rather than the teaching standards to which Gove primarily refers. So, allowing heads to inspect their teachers for more than three hours and speeding up sackings, if draconian, are perhaps not unreasonable suggestions. After all, people can get easily sacked for under-performance in nearly all professions so should teaching be any different?

Then again, teacher training courses, have very exacting standards and very rigorous means of teacher assessment. This means it’s hard to pass the training year(s) with even the lowest pass mark, ‘satisfactory’, let alone get a job at the end of it, particularly when competing against more experienced candidates in a climate of job cuts. This process not only sorts the proverbial wheat from the chaff in theory, but almost always in practice, too. Naturally, few if any teachers become worse when qualified and working. So, the vast majority of teachers are, in fact, very good, meaning obtrusive ‘red tape’ is not the main reason so few teachers are sacked. (On a smaller – and rather more uncouth – point, sometimes a major reason classes/schools fail is, simply, that the kids are little shits and/or just not academically able – or, thick as two short planks, if you prefer. I’m not for one for minute suggesting teachers should give up on some, only that there is a tendency to view teachers’ performance in a vacuum devoid of the children they teach, ridiculously rendering them almost miracle workers who can get straight As out of any class. To turn a common liberal teaching idea on its head, no child or no class is the same. If you think this sounds harsh, just have a look at league tables. Do all the best teachers happen to be concentrated in schools in leafy suburbs, and do all these teachers happen to be miles better than all their state-school counterparts?)

No, Gove’s points on increased working was the truly imbecilic one. He said: “We are all in favour of longer school days, and potentially shorter summer holidays. If you love your job then there is, I think, absolutely nothing to complain about in making sure you have more of a chance to do it well.” Firstly, apropos of nothing, he claims to speak for ‘all’. No teachers I know are in favour of longer days and shorter holidays, and certainly no kids I know/have known are!

The logic of the second assertion is just stultifyingly stupid. Even (online) readers of that traditional bastion of conservative sycophancy, The Daily Mail, are strongly denouncing the remarks. Teachers up and down the country are complaining about being overworked and Gove thinks they’ll welcome longer hours…?! The old cliché of long holidays and clocking off at half 3 is quite frankly rubbish. What with setting up classrooms, meetings, calls to parents, detentions and such, most teachers are in school from around 8 to 5, and are usually marking or planning (as also on weekends and the ‘long’ holidays ) for at least another hour each weeknight.

Firstly, the idea that all teachers love their jobs and believe their jobs is life calling is a myth. Many, including to some extent me, kind of stumble into teaching post-uni because of some combination of having little to nothing else to do and it seeming a natural progression (one learns stuff, and then teaches said stuff). And these days, many would-be merchant bankers are turning instead to teaching in the hope of a stable profession – and sometimes pension (some also wrongly enter teaching in the belief it will easy). This is not to suggest such people don’t give enough; I would venture the vast majority of chartered accountants don’t love the job and didn’t have the profession as a childhood dream, but that doesn’t undermine their professionalism or mean they are don’t work hard enough. I merely make the point to debunk the generalisation made by Gove – and others.

Yes, many teachers enjoy their jobs, but in moderation. The logic – or lack thereof – of Gove’s claims aren’t altogether different to saying  professional sportsmen enjoy their job, so they should relish the chance to train for 8 hours to have  more of a chance to do it well. This is clearly counter-intuitive. The person in question will overexert themselves so the general quality of their craft will diminish from lack of energy, as is somewhat happening in teaching as it is (to a lesser extent, the counter-example can be applied to many professions).

Britain is frequently cited as having one of, if not the highest average working week in the Western World, and very rarely is the fact mentioned with general approval. It is notable the UK is the only EU country with an opt-out on this edict – UK-based employees may work over 48 hours if they wish but cannot be forced to. Most teachers exceed this figure. Technically, I suppose they ‘wish’ to do the extra hours planning and marking, but only out of good work ethic and a desire not to short-change children with anything less than their all. It seems Michael Gove, in his infinite wisdom, is ignorant to this fact and would have teachers exceed the 48-hour week in undeniable compulsion.

Overwork can cause under-performance at work, stress, relationship problems, illness and even depression.  A good work-life balance is necessary for healthy individual and, by extension, societies. In such a demanding job, teachers as much as anyone need time to recharge the batteries. It can even be beneficial to teaching, as teachers can talk about their life outside of school and thus show their human and build good relationships with the pupils.

And god knows the kids need it. In an article in which Gove ominously compares Conservative educational policy to Chairman Mao’s rule , he recounts being impressed when visiting schools in China and Singapore to see university-level research papers published in academic journals, ostensibly written by the teachers, before being shocked to learn that they are, in fact, the work of the pupils there. (This is accompanied by the obligatory dig at the opposition: ‘The latest international education league tables showed us slipping further and further behind, thanks to Labour’s neglect of standards.)

As impressive as these may seem, they are produced in a culture of education which arguably amounts to child abuse. Whether by ignorance or omission, it’s worrying that such an important person makes no acknowledgement of these differences.  A survey of 2,500 schoolchildren in Beijing, Shanghai and four other major cities reveals that China’s children spend a daily average of 8.6 hours at school – 0.6 hours more than their parents do at work – not to mention hours of homework, preparation and even additional classes. Unsurprisingly, the kids aren’t too happy about this ‘lack of playtime’. Around half said their parents don’t allow them to play outside, lest they neglect their studies, and, tragically, only 40% of those surveyed said they had friends they could play with. School stress even led to the suicide of one 16-year-old girl who failed a school entrance exam. Many respondents seemed knackered with over half saying what they want most is ‘a good night’s sleep’.

In the UK, CoD is a far more probable reason for childhood sleep deprivation. Gove would do well to remember these are fucking kids; they draw countless penises on textbooks, count friendship as insulting one another, shout out in class, get excited when a member of the opposite sex so much as talks to them, ignore the bell for class, unfailingly use apostrophes when they shouldn’t and don’t when they should, listen to shit like Justin Bieber and play shitloads of videogames. And fucking right, too. Trust me, kids find it hard enough to concentrate on tectonic shifts, trigonometry or the Trinity for ten minutes, let alone ten hours. But this is what school should be about; growing as people, along with pricking latent interest in hopefully at least one field and giving them enough English teaching so that they can write a somewhat readable email and enough maths to deal with the bills (and, of course, allowing those interested in drinking – or even studying – at university to learn enough to get them there). Call me a hippy, but I’d like my (hopefully future) kids to play My Little Pony, play football on the street and just generally enjoy their childhood. Just as teachers need their time off, so do kids.

Also, Gove’s statements aren’t even consistent with Conservative policy. It’s hard to pin-point exactly what the ‘Big Society’ is (and indeed if it amounts to anything more than cynical electioneering), but what seems central to it is the participation in civil society, which can be an immensely positive thing, like in school clubs. It can be an invaluable carrot, in contrast to the stick that often predominates in schools; if Timmy doesn’t behave, he can’t play in the football team. State schools are sometimes denigrated for not doing enough extra-curricular activities, even, as I’ve heard, that their teachers don’t really care.

This is plain unfair. At least as I have experienced, state school teachers work well over 40 hours and the ones who – voluntarily – do extra-curricular stuff go above and beyond the call of duty. Broadly speaking, state schools have inferior resources and the teachers don’t really have the time. In private schools, fees pay for this extra-curricular side almost as much as for the academia; private schools teachers are basically paid for doing extra-curricular stuff, and they have less teaching hours. So it is not a matter of having more ‘care’ – just more resources. If teachers had to work more, this type of work would, unfortunately, have to fall by the wayside.

But, however justified, it’s certainly true state schools do less than private schools in this respect, and by general consensus much less than is ideal. And, especially coupled with government cuts to sports and youth projects, schools need to at least continue existing extra-curricular activities, not have teachers cancel clubs due to even less time. The £60 million he proposes splashing on a private yacht as a ‘taxpayers’ gift’ to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee could go a long way to employing or paying teachers/coaches to this end. And this would tangibly benefit tens of thousands, rather than just tens.

Maybe Michael Gove missed what’s it like to be a standard British kid at the £10,000-a-year Robert Gordon’s School he attended. Admittedly, his education there has proved the grounding for a very distinguished career in journalism and politics, but maybe at a cost. Also, and it’s a trite and clichéd sentiment, I know, but his statements make me think the Education Secretary should try a working week in a teacher’s shoes.

In summation, Michael Gove, you are an ignorant arse.

Joel Durston

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