Coffee House

Michael Gove’s love of a good scrap sometimes leads him up blind alleys

11 May 2013

11:29 AM

11 May 2013

11:29 AM

Michael Gove is right about almost everything, but like most know-it-alls, he has a habit of putting people’s backs up when telling them he’s right. That’s the theme of a piece I’ve written for the Telegraph today about the Education Secretary’s desire to meddle not just with what goes on in the classroom but also in what children get up to when they’re at home. You can read his full speech on this which is, as always, very interesting and lively, at the bottom of this post. The opening section, in which he asked parents whether they’d rather see their children reading Twilight or Middlemarch, playing Angry Birds, or coding when they’re at home, displays his know-it-all tendency. But the problem with a know-it-all is that at the bottom of all the bluster, they’re generally right.

The rest of Gove’s speech focused on low expectations of children embedded not just in the current national curriculum, but also in the way teachers choose to bring that curriculum to life in schools. He found schemes of work that included fashion shows from the Middle Ages, and the rise of Hitler as a Mr Men story.

The minister is, of course, completely right about low expectations. It is appalling to write children off as unable to understand other eras and cultures. It’s not impossible for the same children who read vampire romances to also enjoy The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And the ‘we can’t expect that from our pupils’ argument which so infuriates Gove assumes that a boy born on a council estate in Warrington is somehow intrinsically less able to take on something outside his current sphere of interest. It limits social mobility by assuming the die was cast long before that pupil even arrived in the classroom, and lets teachers off the hook.

The desire for relevance is misguided: childhood is all about discovering how strange and bizarre the world is, and schooling is just another part of that process of stretching children. That means teaching them strange texts and pushing them outside their comfort zone. Some subject teachers are well aware of that: you can’t make a quadratic equation ‘relevant’, no matter how hard you try.

If children are picking up Twilight at home, then all to the good: at least they are starting to learn the pleasure of reading. But where teachers have a role is in moving them on to something more challenging, rather than assuming that vampire romances must remain their sole focus evermore.

But perhaps Gove’s examples were also unhelpful. The Nazi Germany lesson with Mr Fussy was striking, but it probably didn’t tally with the far more dispiriting and common drip-drip of low expectations, where children who might struggle to make the magic C boundary at GCSE are shunted onto lesser qualifications such as BTecs, and where teachers set material because it is relevant, not challenging.

As Fraser has written before, Gove’s enthusiasm for reform sometimes leads him to tighten his grip on areas of education policy while trumpeting the liberation of others. He also loves a good scrap – this speech devotes an impressive portion to attacking Michael Rosen – and perhaps his pugnacity leads him down some blind alleys.

Michael Gove’s speech to Brighton College – full text


Parents, it is sometimes alleged, don’t want choice in education. Well, many of us here are parents – so let me pose some choices.

You come home to find your 17-year-old daughter engrossed in a book. Which would delight you more – if it were Twilight or Middlemarch?

You see your son is totally absorbed, hunched over the family laptop. You steal a look over his shoulder – and what would please you more – to see him playing Angry Birds, or coding?

Your son says he wants to spend more time with one particular group of friends. Which would be more inspiring – because he wants to improve his pool or because they’re in the cadets and he wants to join?

Your daughter says she wants to compete with the very best, but which is more wonderful – on Big Brother or at the Rio Olympics?

False choices? I suspect those of us who are parents would recognise that there are all too many children and young people only too happy to lose themselves in Stephanie Meyer, while away hours flinging electronic fowl at virtual pigs, hang out rather than shape up and dream of fame finding them rather than them pursuing glory.

And I also suspect that all of us who are parents would be delighted if our children were learning to love George Eliot, write their own computer programmes, daring to take themselves out of their comfort zone and aspiring to be faster, higher or stronger.

Unless, of course, we write for Guardian Education.

Because it is natural for parents to want their children to be happy, fulfilled and successful. Not in a narrow material sense. But through the development of their natural curiosity, talents and potential.

It is natural for any of us to feel a sense of pride at our child’s graduation, passing out parade or personal best.

We all harbour high hopes for our own children – and we know they are happiest when they succeed in any endeavour beyond their own expectations.

R.H. Tawney, the great progressive thinker, argued that, “what a wise parent would wish for their children, so the State must wish for all its children.”


And that is why – under this Government – the Department for Education is setting higher expectations for every child. Because that is what parents want. It is what makes children happier by introducing them to levels of accomplishment they may never have envisaged. And it is what the overwhelming majority of teachers – who believe in the nobility of their vocation – are doing every day.

But what makes the setting of higher expectations more difficult is the culture of excuses and low aspirations which some in the education establishment still defend.

Most recently we had 100 academics from university departments of education writing to a newspaper objecting to the new draft national curriculum. Their concerns? The curriculum expected too much of young people, too young and by seeking to get children to know more, they would enjoy themselves less.

The assumption lying behind the letter was that the level of aspiration embodied in the current curriculum, its associated teaching methods and our national examinations was already high enough.

Well, that is not an assumption I share.

As Dr Johnson once observed of two women arguing from the windows of houses on opposing sides of a street – “they will never agree, Boswell, because they are arguing from different premises”.

And I have a different starting premise from those 100 academics who are so heavily invested in the regime of low expectations and narrow horizons which they have created.

I believe we need to ask more – much more – of our education system.


Let’s begin with English.

Earlier this week one of our best-loved writers – certainly in the eyes of my daughter – regretfully acknowledged a terrible truth about English students.

Jacqueline Wilson revealed that the fan letters she received from English boys and girls were invariably worse-written than letters from foreign students. Fans from abroad, she said, would apologise for their poor English. But their English was better than the English of the English.

Jacqueline Wilson is not – by any measure – a reactionary nostalgist in the republic of letters. Her work deals – unsparingly and in detail – with divorce, mental illness, life in the care system and growing up poor. We’re not talking pixies dancing under the Faraway Tree here.

But despite – indeed perhaps because of – her interest in the real lives of today’s children, rather than the imagined existences adults conjure for them, she chose to speak out about one of the scandals of our times.

As have other children’s writers – such as Susan Hill – who are also eloquent in their concern about the failure of so many young people to use the English language with confidence.

Why is it that after seven years of compulsory schooling, one in seven children still can’t read and write properly?

Why are there around 500 primary schools where more than a third of children can’t read and write properly?

It is not as though the level of literacy we expect at age eleven is impossibly demanding.

Under the system – as currently constituted – you’re assessed to be scoring well if you get what’s called a level 4 in English at the end of primary school.

But even this – supposedly secure – foundation isn’t anywhere near good enough. Nearly a third of children who get at least a good level 4 in English and maths fail to go on to secure five A*- C passes including GCSE English and maths – the minimum level of literacy and numeracy required for future employability.

We’ve taken action to deal with this scandal.

We’ve introduced a screening check at the age of 6 to make sure children are recognising and blending letter sounds to read words fluently. It’s designed to help identify those who may have reading difficulties and ensure they are supported in their reading.

In the trial we ran more than a third of teachers said it had helped them identify issues they would not otherwise have spotted.

But the usual suspects in the unions objected to this means of raising expectations at the start of primary school.  Just as they have objected to our desire to ensure that children are properly literate at the end of primary school.

We are introducing a basic test of competence in spelling, punctuation and grammar at the end of primary school.

But again the unions – and their allies – have objected to the suggestion that eleven year-olds should be able to spell words in Standard English, use full stops and commas with confidence or deploy adverbs appropriately.


One of the critics – Michael Rosen – attacked the proposed assessment in his column, “Letter from a Curious Parent”, in the Guardian.

Mr Rosen criticised the test on the basis that there was no such thing as correct grammar, but if you were perverse enough to want to ensure children knew how to use Standard English you could of course devise some form of assessment. However, such a test was only ever accessible to a minority because when a comparable test of grammatical knowledge existed in the past, only a minority of students passed that. So this new test was clearly a fiendish exercise to brand hundreds of thousands of children as failures so that they were reconciled to a future of supine wage slavery.

I could argue that nothing is more likely to condemn any young person to limited employment opportunities – or indeed joblessness – than illiteracy. I could point out that the newspaper Mr Rosen writes for has a style guide, a team of trained sub-editors and a revise sub-editor as well as a night editor and a backbench of assistant night editors to ensure that what appears under his – and everyone else’s – byline is correct English. I could observe that it was a funny form of progressive thinking that held that the knowledge which elites have used to communicate with confidence and authority over the years – and which they pay to ensure their children can master – should be denied to the majority of children.

But I will abjure such Ciceronian rhetorical tricks.

And quote instead from John Blake of Labour Teachers. He said Michael Rosen’s column should be renamed “Letter from a Conspiracy Theorist” and was “basically an argument that poor kids can’t possibly learn to write properly”.

Which strikes me as a fair summary. And a revealing insight into the depth of the low expectations on one side of the education debate.

But what is equally revealing – and much more optimistic – is that the person calling out Michael Rosen is not a Tory MP or a conservative commentator but a teacher – a Labour teacher.

And the reason why I am confident that we can set higher expectations for our children is because there is a culture of higher and higher expectations now being driven in more and more classrooms by the best young generation of teachers ever.

Teachers like those working in the London Academy of Excellence – established by Brighton College and its partners to ensure more disadvantaged children from the poorest parts of London made it to elite universities.

Or those at Ark’s King Solomon Academy, also in one of the poorest parts of London, where all children – all children – are expected to read the Bible, Jane Austen, Shakespearean pastoral comedy such as As You Like It, a Shakespearean tragedy and Primo Levi alongside George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, William Golding, Erich Maria Remarque and Malcolm Gladwell.

And if you think that reading list is at the upper end of expectations then consider what they teach at Barnes Primary School and Thomas Jones Primary – with one of the most disadvantaged intakes in London.

At Barnes students in year 5 – aged 9 or 10 – study Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and read works by Beverley Naidoo, Leon Garfield, Neil Gaiman and Ian Seraillier, Elizabeth Laird and Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

In Year 6 – aged 10 or 11 – they study the Edwardian ballad The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, Street Child by Berlie Doherty, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Macbeth, Ted Hughes, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation of Beowulf.

At Thomas Jones – where a majority of students come from homes where English is not spoken as the first language – they set an even more ambitious range of texts to study in Year 6 – including not just Pullman, Golding, Oscar Wilde, Kenneth Grahame and both A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist but also Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and The Tempest as well as poems by William Blake, Rupert Brooke, Philip Larkin, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson and a Shakespeare sonnet.

This level of ambition – set and achieved by teachers without any direction by Government or its agencies – is all the more impressive when you consider how relatively low expectations have been set in our existing national examinations.

In the most recent year for which we have figures almost 280,000 candidates studied a novel – one novel – for the AQA GCSE. The overwhelming majority – more than 190,000 – studied Of Mice and Men. The overwhelming majority of the rest studied other 20th century texts including works such as the Lord of the Flies which – we should note – are considered appropriate for primary children in the best schools. The numbers studying novels written before 1900 are tiny in comparison – 1,236 studied Pride and Prejudice, 285 Far From The Madding Crowd and 187 Wuthering Heights. Added together that is fewer than 2,000 candidates – less than 1 per cent of the total.

The situation is even worse in drama. 16,929 candidates chose An Inspector Calls, 991 Pygmalion and 563 Hobson’s Choice. All great plays – but all written in the 20th century – indeed in the case of Priestley’s classic first performed after the end of the Second World War. Just one candidate out of more than 18,000 chose to study a pre-twentieth century play – She Stoops to Conquer.

Of course AQA are not the only board offering an English Literature GCSE.

Edexcel also offer English Literature GCSE. And they have a different record from AQA. Not a single one of their candidates studied a pre-20th century novel or play.

When our exams are still pitching expectations so low it is no surprise that reform-minded teachers want change.

I was delighted to read one English teacher in the TES recently – Amy Winston – welcome the more stretching content in the new national curriculum for English. She particularly approved of the expectation that all students should study Romantic Poetry. And I am delighted by the prospect of more students enjoying the opportunity to get to know Keats, Byron, Shelley and above all Wordsworth.

But I acknowledge not every teacher is as sanguine as Amy Winston. Another influential English Teacher, Joe Kirby, has taken me to task in his well-read blog “Pragmatic Education”

He argues “the secondary curriculum in English schools is not strong enough to raise the bar and close the gap in GCSE attainment. Its lack of substance and specificity since 2007 has played a part in the neglect of rigour: neither the 2007 nor the proposed 2014 English curriculum specifies a single literary text.”

I have to weigh carefully the concern from a gifted and idealistic young teacher that we are not being rigorous enough and we should consider specifying more content. We are currently reflecting on all the arguments made in our consultation on the new curriculum. But I take particularly seriously the concerns idealistic and ambitious teachers such as Joe Kirby have about the teaching practices which our current examination system encourages.

He, and many others, are deeply worried about what he calls, “the enacted school curriculum: what actually gets taught in classrooms.”

“Schemes of work in schools,” he explains, “are admired based on how relevant and engaging they are as opposed to how rigorous and challenging they are. In principle, there is no trade-off between relevance and rigour; in practice, there is all the difference in the world: the difference between teaching transient vampire books or transcendent Victorian novels.”

Kirby is right – Stephenie Meyer cannot hold a flaming pitch torch to George Eliot. There is a Great Tradition of English Literature – a Canon of transcendent works – and Breaking Dawn is not part of it.

Kirby’s challenge to us in Government is clear. And it is reinforced by the arguments of other influential teacher-bloggers like Andrew Old and Matthew Hunter. Our new draft curriculum, criticised by the unions and their allies for being too specific and too content heavy may actually – in some areas – not be specific and content-rich enough.


The one area of the national curriculum which has come under heaviest criticism from the unions and their allies for packing in too much content has – of course – been the history curriculum.

I’m not surprised by the intensity of the criticism. As my old friend Kenneth Baker also found out, there is no part of the national curriculum so likely to prove an ideological battleground for contending armies as history.

There may, for all I know, be rival Whig and Marxist schools fighting a war of interpretation in chemistry or food technology but their partisans don’t tend to command much column space in the broadsheets or get onto Start The Week.

Whereas historians – and indeed commentators and politicians and ideological pressure groups – all find it easy to get a platform if they can contribute to the debate about what our schools should teach about who we are as a nation.

I have enjoyed reading – and hearing from – the different partisans. Those distinguished voices like Richard J Evans, David Priestland and David Cannadine who have, to various degrees, been critical. As well as those equally distinguished voices such as JCD Clark, Jeremy Black, Anthony Beevor, David Abulafia, Niall Ferguson, Simon Jenkins, Andrew Roberts, Amanda Foreman, Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Chris Skidmore, David Starkey and Robert Tombs who have been, to various degrees, supportive. And I have particularly enjoyed listening to my friend and colleague Tristram Hunt who has, in various degrees, at various times, been both supportive and critical.

But what has – to an extent – been missing from this debate is an appreciation of how history is being taught in many of our schools now. In particular, the teaching practice which constitutes what Joe Kirby calls “the enacted school curriculum – what actually gets taught in classrooms.”

And here the reality is – if anything – even more concerning that what the exam system has done to English.

Take the lesson plans outlined in Primary History – the journal of the Historical Association. These are not marginal influences on classroom practice. These are the resources produced by the most influential subject association which speaks for history teachers.

In their Autumn 2012 issue of Primary History, the Historical Association suggest students learn about the early Middle Ages by studying the depiction of King John as a cowardly lion in Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’. If that proves too taxing then they are asked to organise a fashion parade or make plasticine models.

Alternatively, students can help create “an interactive powerpoint based on well known animated aquatic characters: for example, Nemo”. Or if Disney’s clown fish is an inappropriate subject for reflection, then teachers can turn to guidance on ‘Primary pedagogy and interactive power point’ where it is suggested that a project about rail travel, should focus on the – no doubt – highly influential historical character of George Stephenson’s friend, Eddy the Teddy.

If finding out about Nemo and investigating Eddy prove too much then there are other approaches which are encouraged.

Students are invited to become “history detectives”. Which sounds potentially promising. But the lesson plan outlined doesn’t actually involve any real history, just pretend detective work. Students are asked to investigate the death of a fictional “John Green” by drawing up a “cunning plan” which involves asking to study up to three clues. I couldn’t help thinking as I read the lesson plan that I’d seen this exercise played out in front of my eyes before. Maybe Mr Green was killed in the library with a candlestick by Professor Plum. Or maybe proper history teaching is being crushed under the weight of play-based pedagogy which infantilises children, teachers and our culture.

It would be bad enough if this approach were restricted to primary schools. But even at GCSE level this infantilisation continues. One set of history teaching resources targeted at year 11s – 15 and 16 year olds – suggests spending classroom time depicting the rise of Hitler as a ‘Mr Men’ story.

If I may quote – “The following steps are a useful framework: Brainstorm the key people involved (Hitler, Hindenburg, Goering, Van der Lubbe, Rohm…). Discuss their personalities / actions in relation to the topic. Bring up a picture of the Mr Men characters on the board. Discuss which characters are the best match.”

I may be unfamiliar with all of Roger Hargreaves’ work but I am not sure he ever got round to producing Mr Anti-Semitic Dictator, Mr Junker General or Mr Dutch Communist Scapegoat.

But I am familiar with the superb historical account Richard J Evans gives of the rise, rule and ruin of the Third Reich and I cannot believe he could possibly be happy with reducing the history of Germany’s darkest years to a falling out between Mr Tickle and Mr Topsy-Turvy.

There’s been passionate – and welcome – debate about what should be in – or out – of the national curriculum. There are criticisms flying about the absence of Voltaire or a failure to give due prominence to the Manchu acquisition of the Mandate of Heaven. These complaints sit alongside, or come from the same quarters, as criticisms about the inclusion of the Anglo-Saxons or Oliver Cromwell. But in this debate there is precious little attention given to what has actually gone wrong in too many of our classrooms.

The draft history curriculum is a direct attempt to address the failure – over generations – to ensure children grow up knowing the story of our islands. It is inspired by existing good practice in the best schools – state and independent. Whether it’s the curriculum developed here in Brighton College to give students an holistic understanding of our history, geography and culture or the content-rich core knowledge history curriculum of Pimlico Academy, there is ample evidence, generated by great teachers, that facts, stories, chronology, a connected narrative and a focus on great men and women can inspire and engage students of all backgrounds.

And while some good individual points have been made by constructive critics of our draft, I have to record that, amidst all the debate which the draft history curriculum has stimulated, no coherent single alternative model has emerged as a superior rival.

I will, of course, weigh carefully all the submissions we’ve received about how the curriculum might be improved. But it won’t be improved by taking out Clive of India and Wolfe of Quebec and replacing them with Eddy the Teddy and Finding Nemo.


And, of course, whatever changes we make to the set of documents we call the national curriculum to generate higher expectations, we must also ensure we align all the influences on what is actually taught – the enacted curriculum – to reinforce this culture of greater ambition. That means ensuring Ofsted inspections and GCSE examinations reinforce a drive for higher standards.

Sir Michael Wilshaw has already taken a series of important steps to entrench higher expectations – with his new inspection framework placing much more emphasis on high quality teaching. He has also made luminously clear that the explicitly didactic and determinedly academic teaching methods which – shamefully – were considered poor teaching practice by Ofsted in the past are now welcome back. The only criterion that counts is pupils making progress.

I have myself seen far too many lessons where teachers have felt they need to conform to an outdated model of how children learn. Teachers have felt they need to organise group work in which students talk to each other rather than learn from their teacher or texts. Worksheets, extracts and mind maps replace whole books, proper sources and compelling conversation. Young people on the verge of university study are treated as though they have the attention spans of infants.

This approach is not just constricting the initiative and talent of great teachers by diminishing the power of teaching, it also runs counter to the very best recent research on how children learn. The work of the best cognitive scientists, such as Daniel T. Willingham, emphasise the importance of teachers using gripping narratives to hold attention, underline the power of memorisation as a precondition of understanding, and stress that it is through the accumulation of factual knowledge that the conditions are created for creative and critical thinking.

So if your school, or you as a teacher, are told that your lesson must conform to a particular pattern to pass muster with the inspectors, just say “no”. Because Sir Michael could not be clearer – you are free to teach as you wish – the only thing that matters is that students learn.


And we have taken every step we can so far to free teachers from the constraints of outdated curricula and old-fashioned teaching methods. That is why we have disapplied – in other words, abolished – the national Curriculum programme of study in ICT.

It was a boring set of documents that encouraged boring teaching of boring tasks in a field which should be one of the most exciting in education. The ICT curriculum we inherited was a tedious run-through the use of applications which were becoming obsolete even as the curriculum was being written. For children who have become digital natives and who speak fluent technology as an additional language, the ICT curriculum was clearly inadequate.

So we have ditched it. And in its place we have asked teachers, tech experts and tech companies to draw up an alternative computer science curriculum which teaches children how to code – so they can design new applications instead of simply being asked to use tired old software.

Thanks to the work of Ian Livingstone, the British Computer Society and gifted teachers across the country excitement – and innovation – are returning to one of the most important – and testing – intellectual disciplines in modern education.

Technology will change our lives in ways we cannot anticipate in the years to come – and it will certainly transform teaching as the revolution in higher education is proving.

But one thing we can be certain of is that the acquisition of coding skills, the ability to think computationally, and the creativity inherent in designing new programmes will help prepare all our young people better for the future. It will be impossible to call yourself educated in years to come unless you understand, and can influence, the changes technology brings.


And I also think it will be impossible to consider any education system – or school – fit for the modern world if it does not provide a clear pathway to high quality technical and vocational study.

And high quality is the crucial qualifier.

Because our biggest problem in vocational and technical education has not been lack of money, an absence of political attention, or a shortage of pious appeals to establish parity of esteem.

Look at how well equipped many of our further education colleges are. Consider how much ministerial and administrative energy has been devoted to making and remaking agencies to supervise vocational education – from the MSC through to TECs and then the LSC followed by the YPLA and SFA and now the call to give LEPs a bigger role. And read back through the many, all too many, ministerial speeches when politicians talk about the importance of vocational education and promise to make people respect it more.

But the central problem with vocational education was never addressed.

Many vocational qualifications were not respected because they were not as rigorous as academic qualifications. Genuinely high quality technical and vocational courses – such as the apprenticeships offered by organisations such as BAE or Rolls-Royce – have always been over-subscribed. Colleges which offer genuinely demanding courses in areas which the economy needs such as cooking or construction enjoy no shortage of applications.

Sadly, however, there have been far too many qualifications which were badged as vocational which were of marginal value to the students who acquired them. As Alison Wolf pointed out in her ground-breaking report on vocational education – far and away the best thing ever written on the subject – under the last Government hundreds of thousands of students received little or no benefit from vocational qualifications which had little or no labour market value.

The last Government lied to students. It told them the courses they were studying would prepare them for the world of work. It congratulated itself on the number securing passes. But the truth, as Professor Wolf pointed out, was that. “Many of England’s 14-19 year olds” did not “progress successfully into secure employment or higher level education” because they had been denied “the skills that will enable them to progress”.

Many of these qualifications were judged as “worth” two or more GCSEs but they had no proper, rigorous, external assessment and required no demonstration of mastery of any skill directly applicable to the workplace.

The only way to rescue vocational education from its devaluation has been to make vocational qualifications more rigorous. That is what we have done – following Professor Wolf’s lead by counting only rigorous vocational qualifications in school performance tables, making apprenticeships more demanding and introducing a new – explicitly aspirational – measure of vocational accomplishment: the technical baccalaureate.

I apply to vocational education the same principles I apply to academic education – we should be setting expectations higher, demanding greater rigour, applauding genuine effort.

And I also apply those principles to the other element I count as essential in a rounded education – the development of character.

I don’t believe any person is truly educated unless they have learnt self-discipline, self-control, self-reliance, respect for others, how to work in a team, how to defer gratification, how to cope with reverses and the importance of service to others.

I don’t believe you can create a national curriculum programme of study in building character. Nor should we attempt to test, measure, or direct how character is developed. Indeed if the state were to prescribe how individuals were to become self-reliant and self-disciplined then we would be disappearing up our own oxymoron.

But just because the state should not dictate that does not mean we should be silent. We need to support schools in the many different ways they choose – every day – to develop and build the character of their pupils.

That can sometimes mean getting the state out of the way.

  • Removing the absurd health and safety rules which prevent students going on expeditions or enjoying work experience.
  • Overhauling the CRB regime which makes enlisting volunteers to help with competitive sports more difficult.
  • Getting rid of the rules which limit the length of the school day and term and so make it more difficult to provide drama, musical performance, debating, chess, dance and sport alongside the core academic curriculum.

It can also mean knocking heads together.

  • Working with the MoD and independent schools to get more cadet forces in state schools.
  • Providing funding for charities like Debatemate which can then work with philanthropic sponsors to get debating going in state schools.
  • Or getting county sports partnerships and sport governing bodies to see the potential to foster more competitive sport in the additional PE funding we’re providing to primary schools.

But above all it means recognising that character is learnt from observing, and emulating, admirable adult role models. That is why we are giving more power to heads to demonstrate leadership in their own schools.

It’s also why we’ve strengthened the hand of heads and teachers when it comes to enforcing discipline and attendance. And it’s why I want to ensure we attract even more talented and idealistic people into teaching


I have a clear view of what an educated person should be – literate, numerate, historically aware, culturally curious, engaged by science and technology, aware of the demands of the workplace, ready to take their place as an active citizen in an open democracy.

I will – as long as I am in this office – argue that our expectations in each of these areas should be higher – for all our children. But in my ideal education system the requirement for me – or any politician – to enter this debate should recede over time.

Because I want the loudest – and clearest – voices demanding higher educational standards to come – increasingly – from teachers.

And – increasingly – they are.

I am delighted that there are so many examples of teachers leaving politicians behind in the race for higher standards.

I admire what Richard has done here – by setting higher expectations in the study of our past and culture than any politician has. I am in awe of the achievements of schools such as Thomas Jones and Barnes Primary. I applaud the challenge a former Brighton College head – Anthony Seldon – has laid down to expect more from schools than just academic excellence.

And I celebrate the growing attention given to advocates for excellence like John Blake, Andrew Old, John Kirby and Matthew Hunter who speak for the emerging majority of aspirational and idealistic teachers dedicated to higher standards. They have much more to contribute to our children’s future – in every way – than the tired union agitators whose melancholy long withdrawing roar we still hear – amplified by the media – every Easter.

And thanks to the changes another great teacher – Charlie Taylor – is making to teacher training and the hopeful signs which suggest a new Royal College of Teaching would rigorously police standards, there are many reasons for optimism.

There is still some way to go, of course.

As long as there are people in education making excuses for failure, cursing future generations with a culture of low expectations, denying children access to the best that has been thought and written, because Nemo and the Mister Men are more relevant, the battle needs to be joined.

But the people who will win it are teachers – and that is why it is so encouraging that so many – including all of you here – are fighting for our children’s future with such passion.

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Show comments
  • Gareth

    “The desire for relevance” is not misguided. The essence of learning is making links betweens new concepts and those which are already well internalised. This is simply good cognitive psychology.

    It is not just that children will engage more readily with texts with which they are already familiar (although for more reluctant learners, this is often the case). Nor is it a lack of expectation – of course pupils can engage with classics such as Jekyll and Hyde, but it’s important to be clear that, initially, their attention will be focussed on the low-level task of decoding an unfamiliar text. That’s fine if that is the objective of the lesson, but it’s a fairly low-level outcome. If the children’s need is to develop their understanding of how language can be used to create character, for example, working with a text which is already familiar allows children to concentrate more specifically on this. The discovery is not merely what the text says but how the writer uses language.

    To ridicule this as “dumbing down” misses entirely the higher order skills which the lesson promotes. Nor is it a claim connected in any way to a child’s background, whether poor or affluent. It is simply an understanding of how children learn.

  • Jelly Jim

    ” lesser qualifications such as BTecs”

    Why do the lesser-informed transform the name of the awarding body (BTEC) in to a bachelors degree of some kind? It isn’t hard to delve in to the BTEC (now Edexcel) body and learn that they are not a qualification, but the organisation that introduced a range of vocational qualifications (NDs, HNDs etc).

    Pedantic, perhaps, but it illustrates the need for some to ‘learn to journalism’ before churning out fodder copy.

  • Fergus Pickering

    It does not seem to me absurd that a seventeen-year-old might be expected to have graduated from reading trash to reading something worthwhile.

  • Colonel Mustard

    “A country where everybody is given the chance to play their part.
    And everybody is expected to do so.
    That’s what One Nation Labour stands for.
    That’s the future I offer our country.
    That’s the Britain we will rebuild together.”

    Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer – Heil Milibandvagon!

    • Hookeslaw

      ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’

      • Andy Walsh

        I think the Miliband version is: “ASk not what your local outreach and safeguarding teams can do for you but just how you can prostrate yourself before them. Or else we’ll take your children into care but in an appropriate and non-judgmental way”

    • Wilhelm

      ”That’s what One Nation Labour stands for.”

      Problem is that nation is Zimbabwe. White people are dull, boring and well, racist. Blacks and muslims are more exotic, diverse and er, um, vibrant.

      • telemachus

        Does not take you long to get back to Africa
        Remember they are Christian

      • Icebow

        Vibrant. I used to like that word.

    • telemachus


      • Colonel Mustard

        No, One Nation Labour. From the same gang that brought you New Labour and whose most evident policy appears to be reinvention and whose most evident skill appears to be airbrushing.

  • boru

    The right wing fawning over Gove is nauseating. The man is an ideologue carrying out the work of Murdoch.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Not quite as bad as the left wing fawning over Obama. That really is nauseating.

      Yes it is!

    • Hookeslaw

      Thanks for demonstrating another very good reason why we must keep labour out of power at the next election.

    • Fergus Pickering

      What exactly is the work of Murdoch?

      • Colonel Mustard

        “One rag to rule them all, One rag to find them; One rag to bring them all
        and in the darkness bind them.”

        • Icebow

          ‘Mordoch’, so to speak, yes. Some might not initially get that.

      • victor67

        More war, low tax and less regulation for big buisness. Privatisation of NHS. Out of Europe and less dark people allowed in UK. Murdoch Eutopia.

        • Fergus Pickering

          What war? Have I missed something? The rest sounds OK.

          • victor67

            The one his rags in the US is lobbying for with Iran.
            I think your brand of conservatism/fascism is why the tories are unlikely ever to get a majority again.

        • Icebow

          ‘Eutopia’, eh? In context, you can’t have meant EU-topia.

  • Radford_NG

    The elite institutions providing vocational training since Victorian times providing a cadre of artificers have been turned into pseudo-universities providing degree courses in gay golf club management [only a slight exaggeration] and,even worse,increased cadres of lawyers.

    • jazz606

      You’ll be pleased to hear that one of the pseudo universities in Oxford ( I won’t name it, but you may guess) is in deep financial dwang. I expect this applies to many of the others.

  • Starlights

    ‘And the reason why I am confident that we can set higher expectations for our children is because there is a culture of higher and higher expectations now being driven in more and more classrooms by the best young generation of teachers ever.’

    So why block the entry of this fantastic new breed by lengthening the stay of older generation teachers until they are 68?

    • Hookeslaw

      Because we cannot afford their pensions.

  • David Boothroyd

    Michael Rosen isn’t a Labour teacher; he’s an SWP supporter:

    • Barakzai

      ‘What [Respect party candidate and SWP’er] Michael Rosen thinks’ is always enough of a lefty luvvie alert to ignore what follows or to think the complete opposite.

    • Michael990

      I was horrified to find out from an article in the Guardian yesterday that he considers his forte to be writing children’s books. Clearly any material emanating from his word processor should be kept well away from youngsters.

      • Colonel Mustard

        What needs to be kept away from youngsters are indoctrinating left-wing teachers.

        • Mr Arthur Cook

          So why not sign up to train as a teacher and show the lefties how it’s done? Can’t be too difficult can it? The number of applicants for teaching is plummeting so an injection of no-nonsense experts would be most welcome.
          Just a matter of keeping 30 15 year olds in order and engaging them with poetry for 5 hours per day.
          Why not put your money where your mouth is?

          • Colonel Mustard

            If you think lefties would pay any attention to the example of an apolitical stance in education you don’t know lefties very well. The nature of most educational institutions now is that any staff with right wing views have to keep a very low profile and those who are neutral are forced to go along with delivering the lefty ideology that has brought education to such a parlous state.

            Ask yourself why the number of applicants is plummeting. Ask yourself why so many teachers are left wing activists, often militant. It doesn’t need me in teaching to correct that. It needs a law making it illegal for a teacher to be a member of a political party or an activist for one. Indoctrinating impressionable young minds to hate Thatcher is child abuse.

            • Mr Arthur Cook

              You would ban 400,000 people from being members of a political party?
              “Indoctrinating impressionable young minds to hate Thatcher is child abuse.”
              Who has been teaching children “to hate Thatcher”? Report them – I will support you!!! It is professional misconduct. Name names!! Say who!!! When? Which school? …….or was it “something I read about in the Daily Mail”?

              • Colonel Mustard

                Yes, I would. I think it is fine for teachers to privately support political parties through voting but they should not be allowed to be members and especially activists. Oh, but of course there is that slight problem with the Labour party and unions…

                As for Thatcher. Come on. You know as well as I do what has happened. And whilst I don’t read the Daily Mail that crack from intellectually superior lefties is getting very tedious.

                • Mr Arthur Cook

                  …Re. “You know as well as I do what has happened.”
                  No I don’t! Think about it.
                  Mrs T may mean something to you and I. A teacher under 45 was not really an adult when she was in power.
                  As for children. A teacher telling pupils that they should “hate” Margaret Thatcher would draw the response “What? I thought this was English … why are we doing history?”.
                  To most teachers she was somebody they’ve heard about. To a 14 year old she was the same as Clement Attlee….ancient history!
                  There is no “left wing conspiracy in the classroom”…..teachers are busy keeping the kids in order, marking books and trying to hit their targets for exam grades.
                  Honest!!! Ask to go into your local school and sit in on some lessons……who knows…you might like it. The kids are not the ignorant, ill mannered monster that the press enjoy painting them.

            • Icebow

              No Guardian reader should be allowed to be a teacher (or a social worker, of course). I realize that this might cause staffing problems, unless the re-educative side of the deleftification pathway were improbably rapid and effective. Come what may, though, it cannot be denied that all malignant Leftism, in the sense of cultural Marxism, must somehow be removed from all authoritative access to impressionable intelligence, at any level, forever.

            • Simon Hunter

              My dear, deluded Colonel Mustard
              You really are a crusty bustard!
              Sack progressive peds from schools?
              Replace them with Edwardian rules;
              with amo, amat, cane and caps –
              ammo to fight the other chaps.

              • Colonel Mustard

                I didn’t write any of that, Indiana. You did.

                Why would an insistence on teachers being apolitical in the classroom mean a return to “Edwardian rules”?

                And why do left wing half-wits (in silly hats) always have to create a fictitious argument in order to attack it? Of course any view dissenting from the left wing orthodoxy we are being suffocated by is always “deluded”. I think you will find the delusion is closer to home if you should bother to clean the left wing myopia from those glasses.

                • Simon Hunter

                  You’re suffocated? So much gas
                  escapes from your back hole
                  I don’t believe you cannot breathe
                  unless you’re just being droll

                  I’ll tell you what, I won’t opine
                  on how to run the army
                  if you’ll agree to stop your whine
                  that education’s barmy

                  I won’t demand your comfy mess
                  be purged of every Tory.
                  Your gin and sin can stay for now
                  although you’re far too hoary

                • Colonel Mustard

                  Nice poetry. Pity about the marksmanship.

                  Maggie’s drawers!

          • Dai Station

            Please supply the data to support ‘the number of applications for teaching is plummeting’.
            I know someone who applied for a secondary PGCE last year. The system is extraordinary as a candidate has to be rejected by their first choice institution before they can be considered by their second choice and so on. Her first choice didn’t interview until the end of March and she was then one of about a hundred interviewed for fewer than 10 places. Obviously, none of the rejected candidates would have then been likely to be considered by their lower choices.

            • Mr Arthur Cook

              Look at the reports from the GTTR!

              Look at the projected retirement levels of an aging workforce.

              Look at the number of teachers resigning.

          • jazz606

            “ experts would be most welcome….”

            I sure that the system is adept at screening out no nonsense experts or otherwise dealing with them.

          • Daniel Maris

            That’s so funny Arthur. Most of the spittle-fleckers here wouldn’t last ten minutes in your average urban classroom (and before they say it, they wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes 50 years ago when the cane was available to them).

            • Colonel Mustard

              It’s not really funny and you have no basis for that assertion. I might wonder how long your spittle-flecked opinions about everything might last on a battlefield…

        • jazz606

          (“… indoctrinating left-wing teachers….”)

          Not to say indoctrinated .

        • Mr Arthur Cook

          I’m left wing and have been a teacher.
          ….but I can’t remember ever having done any “indoctrinating” nor do I know anyone who has. The posters on my wall were about maths (and a Van Gogh Sunflowers). My conversations with pupils were pretty much about geometry and stats. I can’t ever remember teaching them rebel songs.
          Might there just be the remotest possibility that the schools full of marxist teachers encouraging the children to overthrow capitalism whilst neglecting readin’ and ritin’…….is a convenient fantasy promoted by an education secretary who has alienated head teachers, teachers, parents, academics and even the Tory chaired Parliamentary cttee on education?
          A nonsense cooked up by a failed SoS swallowed by right wing morons.

          • Fergus Pickering

            What do you mean by left wing. Do you men you are a supporter opf the Labour Party or the full monty, revolution and all that?

            • Mr Arthur Cook

              I’m not a member of the Labour Party but I will stick a few leaflets through letterboxes in my street but only if it’s not raining. I started teaching because I thought education was important and spent 25 years working with quite “difficult” kids who didn’t have much going for them.
              Coming from a mining family – I inherited a love of learning for its own sake rather than to crawl up the ladder. Like all teachers I had to teach the curriculum which, by and large was OK – BUT I did spend a lot of time trying to ensure that East End kids did get to see paintings by Turner, read poems by Coleridge and got to hear Wagner …… because that’s what you get in posh families.
              So – to a degree – It sounds like Mr Gove and I should get on like a house on fire!!! But we wouldn’t.

              • Colonel Mustard

                Oh dear.

                • Mr Arthur Cook

                  Oh dear …what?

              • Fergus Pickering

                I take my hat off to you, sir. And you really don’t have to get on with Mr Gove. I shall never wholly forgive Boris for nearly depriving me of two dozen bottles of beer through his own incompetence and laziness and I am sure he would piss me off in person. Nevertheless these are two good men, good as politicians go. I assure you plenty of posh families are about as cultured as my backside. I know them by repute. I mean look at the Royal Family. Only Charles has ever read a book.

          • Colonel Mustard

            Well there’s a surprise. And your political leanings never reveal themselves in your interaction with your pupils? I doubt that.

  • Daniel Maris

    Well it’s better to have people in the Cabinet with functioning intelligence and a heartbeart rather than the walking dead led by Osborne and Shapps or the smoothly lobotomised (Cameron and several others).

    But it has to be said the whole thrust of this government – pro mass immigration, indifferent to our native culture and its traditions, wanting to reduce everything to a bottom line figure – goes against everything he says in that speech.

    Why don’t we have an education system, for instance, that guarantees every child will see several adaptations of Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy and others at the theatre and in the cinema from an early age during their time at school?

    • Hookeslaw

      More yawns.
      The govt is not pro mass immigration, nor is it indifferent to our native culture and its traditions.

      • Daniel Maris

        A government that allows 500,000 people immigrants in every year when it could choose not to, is by definition pro-mass immigration. A government which presides over a situation where not one person has been prosecuted in relation to FGM, that allows a parallel court system to exist in the Sharia courts, and permits a parallel and unsupervised education system to exist where children are taught to hate our values and our democracy clearly is indifferent to our native culture and its traditions.

        • Andy Walsh

          You need to refresh your understanding of “by definition”.

  • Russell

    So after all of the piffle Isabel, you are actually saying Gove is right!

    • MaxSceptic

      Indeed. None on the Left will ever support anything Gove says or does, so trying to appease them is not only demeaning but pointless. The fact that Gove rubs their nose in their ignorance and malice is good sport for him and a tonic for the rest of us.

      • victor67

        He is a bully and a coward as he lets his henchmen do the bullying.
        And was he right about Iraq?

        • Hookeslaw


          • victor67

            What Hardman is trying to to say(In a nice way) to the Gove fan club at the Speccie is that no matter how clever Gove is. He is an appalling human being. As I said a bully, a coward and a narcissist. While these “qualities” are not unique to him among our political elite. He is an extreme example.

            He uses the far east and Hong Kong as a role model for our education system but ignores the cultural differences and wants to churn out chidren who are robotic learners who can recite facts but don’t think for themselves or question authority.
            He should look at the suicide rate for young people in these countries before trying to replicate their system.

            • Colonel Mustard

              You don’t want children to think for themselves at all but to adopt left wing group think and the only authority you want them to question is the authority of the Tories not the authority of the gauleiters at the local council or the apparatchiks and commissars of the left-wing dominated English public sector.

              And suddenly from the same people ramming multi-culti enrichment down our throats we are told about “cultural differences” as though our schools do not contain ethnic Chinese pupils whose diligence and determination to get on in life rather than bleat about their victimhood puts others to shame.

              As for suicide rates you need to take a look yourself.

              Suicide numbers and rates per 100,000 young persons aged 15-19 in 90 countries (areas), according to the WHO Mortality Database, February 2004 (latest available data for each country or area) A total of 12,064 cases of suicide (8,801 males and 3,263 females) from 90 countries (areas) were analysed. The mean suicide rate for 15-19 year-olds in the 90 countries (areas), based on data in different years for the various countries, was 7.4/100,000 (10.5 for males and 4.1 for females).

              There were 13 countries with suicide rates 1.5 times or more above the mean: these included Sri Lanka, with the highest suicide rate, followed by Lithuania, Russia and Kazakhstan. In 24 countries (areas) suicide rates were above, but less than 1.5 times, the mean: this category included Norway, Canada, Latvia, Austria, Finland, Belgium and the USA. The remaining 53 countries (areas) had below-average suicide rates.

              The mean suicide rate for males and females together in the 63 countries (areas) for which data were available was 8.4/100,000, slightly higher than that (7.4/100,000) in the 90 countries (areas) described above, mainly owing to the higher suicide rate in males. Among these, 13 countries (including Russia, New Zealand, the Baltic states, Kazakhstan, Norway, Canada and Slovenia) reported suicide rates of 1.5 times the mean or more. Sixteen countries (including Ukraine, Switzerland, the USA, Austria, Ireland, Belgium, Hungary and Portugal) showed suicide rates above, but less than 1.5 times, the mean. Thirty-four countries had below-average suicide rates. More than two-thirds of the countries listed are European countries!

        • Colonel Mustard


        • MaxSceptic

          The fact that Gove annoys you and your ilk brings me great satisfaction. Furthermore, from your various posts I can see why you are obsessed with ‘bullies’. Have you ever considered that it is your own character that brings out the worst in other people?

          • victor67

            My post must of interested you enough to respond to it.

            • Colonel Mustard

              Must ‘have’.

    • telemachus

      Not how I read it
      I read that Gove is a control freak who has never been on a council estate and has no idea where Warrington is

      • Hookeslaw

        You had to ask questions about what the IRA were thinking when they planted a bomb in Warrington.

      • Colonel Mustard


        Oh, is that the time?

      • Andy Walsh

        Doubtless that is how you do read it. A tendency which has you generally regarded as the forum buffoon.

  • Dominic Adler