This letter was originally published by Debra Kidd - @debrakidd – on her website Love Learning
Debra was the only practicing teacher invited to sign the “100 Academics” letter published in the Independent - 100 academics savage Education Secretary Michael Gove for ‘conveyor-belt curriculum’ for schools
Many teachers contacted Debra asking if they could add their voices. This is her response.
If you wish to sign the petition adding your name to the protest please contact Debra through her website.
Calling All Teachers
Please find below the first draft of a letter which we hope to distribute later this week. We are hoping that 1000 teachers and educational professionals will add their support. If you would like to add your name to the letter you can either do so by emailing me or adding comments to the twitter link or facebook link you came to this page from. Email address is firstname.lastname@example.org Please state your name, job title (eg Teacher/Headteacher/AST/Teaching Assistant) etc and the sector you work in (Primary/Secondary/Academy/Private/FE/HE) etc. We are hoping to have a full cross section of teachers from all sectors and phases. Please feel free to offer amendments and ideas on the comments pages below. Please retweet/share to anyone you can think of. And thanks.
THE REAL ENEMY OF PROMISE….
Before the Easter break, almost 100 academics drawn from the spectrum of educational research and practice, published a letter in The Independent querying the wisdom of Michael Gove’s changes to the curriculum. The response from the Secretary of State for education was astonishing to say the least. He claimed that the academics belonged to a sinister ‘blob’ dedicated to ruining the lives of children. He claimed that they were Marxist. He called them, and anyone who might associate with them, ‘enemies of promise’. On Question Time, he glibly noted that he could find 100 ‘good’ academics who would agree with him. To date, he has not. The 100 academics, on the other hand, have found support in the teaching profession and beyond. Around 1000 of them have attached their names to this rebuttal. They are people working in and with education on a daily basis. Many of them are also parents. They are drawn from primary, secondary, FE and HE sectors; from state schools, private schools, grammar schools and academies. They are tired of the way that educational research is being misappropriated by the current secretary of state. They are tired of a ‘yadda yadda’ approach to this crucial job – if I hear something I disagree with, I’ll just shout over it. They are astonished that a man appointed to serve the education system behaves like a child who has not yet learned to listen and to respect boundaries.
Michael Gove has used, frequently, the words of cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham to support his notions that the curriculum should be based on the acquisition of facts. Gove’s interpretation of this idea is that the curriculum should consist of nothing but facts, but Willingham argues in much of his work, that critical thinking is essential in learning and that all knowledge learned should be supported by thinking. Futhermore, he warns that in the United States, a similar programme led to teachers ‘giving children lots and lots of facts at the expense of critical thinking.’ Far from attacking thinking skills, as Gove suggests, Willingham values them, when taught within context and points out that ‘we’d love to test critical thinking if we knew how to test critical thinking. But we really don’t. So what we tend to do is test factual knowledge.’ It is hardly a ringing endorsement of the education secretary’s approach. Indeed, all of the academics and teachers listed at the end of this article would fully support an education system in which children acquire knowledge, but it is how this knowledge is acquired and tested which forms the bone of contention. The education of our young is too important to leave to opinion and ideology. It requires evidence and thought.
This was a position that Michael Gove adopted when he came to office. He appointed ‘experts’ to advise him. Some of those experts have signed this letter. Others have publicly voiced concerns about the way he has ignored their evidence. Let’s take the expert panel on the National Curriculum as an example. In the report that the panel submitted, there was an entire chapter, based on decades of research that oracy underpinned academic success. This can be quite hard to understand if one considers that few examinations take a verbal form, but our written thoughts stem from the speeches we form in our heads. In order to be lucid on the page, we need to be lucid in our minds and practising the articulation of ideas is key to this. It is one of the reasons that the private sector places so much emphasis on debate. It is why Oxbridge universities continue to fund the hugely expensive tutorial system. It is why many of our leading orators – and Michael Gove is one of them – hone their skills in a debating society such as The Oxford Union. It is why we interview people face to face for jobs. Think for a moment of a working life in adulthood in which presentations, participations in meetings or any other form of communication was not essential. Research shows that vocabulary in child hood is a key indicator of future academic success and that building vocabulary and articulacy is essential in bridging that gap between children from disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds. This chapter has been completely ignored in Gove’s proposals. In fact most of the advice offered by the panel has been ignored, leading to the resignation of all but one of the original expert panel.
Policy on literacy was based on the advice of two well known experts in the way children develop reading skills – Debra Myhill and the teaching of synthetic phonics – Ruth Miskin. Both have voiced concerns in the past few weeks at the way the government has ignored their advice. They describe the tests as ‘flawed’ and warn that they will lead to ‘poor teaching’. Indeed the DfE’s own research paper into ‘what works’ in teaching children to read warns against teaching and testing grammar ‘out of context’. So, Mr. Gove, where are your good academics – the ones who agree with you? They cannot all be enemies of promise.
Mr. Gove’s oratory skills and his ability to tap into the deepest fears of parents mean that his policies often find support in voters whose access to information is viewed through the lens of a privately educated media. These fears are seated in a belief that standards are falling and that Britain is failing to compete internationally with other systems. But if one explores the data from the OECD – the organization who administers the international PISA tests, we find some interesting ideas which do not at all sit in accordance with Michael Gove’s policies. Firstly, the tests are not based on knowledge, but the application of knowledge in ‘novel situations’. The highest performing countries have students who are able to think critically and innovatively to apply the knowledge they have. The OECD data throws up some other interesting facts. For example when the factor of class is removed, British state schools outperform private schools. In the highest performing countries, teachers are more highly valued than any other profession – in Finland for example, rather than being viewed as ‘enemies of promise’, they set and mark their own tests, are all educated to Masters level and enroll on university courses which are more competitive than Medicine or Law. In fact, the key unifying characteristics of those successful countries is the autonomy of the teaching profession and the regard in which it is held. It is difficult to see how Michael Gove’s attacks on the profession, or his changes to the curriculum help us to compete on an international stage.
It is difficult, when one reads the research written by those that Michael Gove admires, including the Marxist, Gramsci, to find the evidence that supports the highly selective interpretations that Gove incorporates into his policies. He glibly makes statements, presented as facts, which have no basis in reality at all. His statement that ‘you cannot be creative unless you understand how sentences are constructed’ denies the existence of childhood and yet it is delivered as a fact. If challenging this anti-intellectual reasoning makes us bad academics, or raising our concerns makes us bad teachers in the eyes of the Secretary of State, then so be it.
Let us repeat that we do not oppose the acquisition of knowledge. Nor do we oppose the idea that all children should succeed. We instead question the removal of skills from that process. We question the wisdom of the decontextualized testing of knowledge and the notion that there should be high stakes testing in which children’s futures become fixed once and for all. Michael Gove’s proposals for examination changes are akin to altering the driving test to the theory only examination and removing the option to retake the test. Despite the fact that it took six attempts for him to pass his own driving test, in schools Gove proposes the removal of second chances and mistakes. It amounts to the removal of hope and that is the real enemy of promise in this debate.