Education change is both a vast area and a small one. Macro change concerns the very nature of our schools, their funding and their set-up. Micro change concerns those small things that go on within a curriculum or inside the school. Much political attention focuses on the macro – it’s easier and everyone tends to have a view. But bear with me for a little as I try and explain why one of the less noticed micro changes – the complete overhaul of the GCSE history syllabus – is such a regrettable action of education vandalism. Of course, my concern stems from the fact that I am a history teacher and clearly believe that history should be a strong and coherent aspect of any healthy curriculum. Sometimes, though, these micro changes throw a much more illuminating light on the flux and turmoil within education than any of the macro items. I've written a piece for the TES on this very topic, so here it is; why we should be opposing the changes to the history GCSE.
There’s an odd little article in the Spectator this week. Written by Emily Hill, and titled “MichaelGove’s secret fan club”, it purports to show how teachers across the nation secretly mourn the passing of the late Education Secretary and have finally been released to teach vigorously and properly as a result of his reforms. All heart-warming stuff, no doubt, although I counted only three teachers whose views were actually used to propel this lovely tale of education re-booted – one an anonymous friend (always useful for journalists), one the author’s mother, and one a bona fide teacher seemingly unrelated to the author.
I did feel a little sorry for Ms. Hill’s mother. She was apparently nervous at being ‘outed’ as a secret Gove supporter in the totalitarian world we know as British Education, and only felt able to teach demanding lessons to her students once Mr. Gove had finally given her the say-so. The anonymous friend, meanwhile, teaches Ancient Greek at a London state school, apparently unaware – according to Ms. Hill – that ordinary kids were never allowed near such a subject in the Dark Ages of the pre-Gove era. Mind you, the fact that Ms. Hill then notes that the only person she ever knew who learnt Ancient Greek at school went to Eton with Prince William probably tells us more about her social circle than the wider cause of education.
My favourite quote from what seems to be a rather mis-conceived article is this one from an apparently very left-wing teacher who boasts huge success with his debating teams. He comments to our intrepid reporter that “Under the last government we were being utterly micromanaged in how we taught our lessons. Gove trusted teachers to a greater extent….”. Seriously? Gove “trusts” teachers? And this isn’t satire, right?
In many ways, I should be one of that little fan club of Gove supporters in education. I disliked the AS level system and am rather pleased his reforms encompassed getting rid of it, returning us to a better, more thought-through two-year A-level. I could see grade inflation taking the lustre off top grades that were being hard won by earnest students. My school benefitted financially from becoming an Academy (although yes, there was the lurking thought that for so many of us academy status was simply a financial bribe which dried up after a year or so). But I happen to be a history teacher, and there are few history teachers who have much of a kind word to say about Mr. Gove (I haven’t yet turned up one on meetings with a fair range of such teachers over the years).
If you want an example of disastrous, mendacious micro-management, then look no further than the disaster that was Gove’s attempt to re-mould the school history curriculum in his own image. His efforts were underpinned by lamentable research leading to unwarranted attacks on practitioners. The most egregious of these remains his singling out an innovative lesson idea on a popular website for peculiar invective in one of his rabble rousing speeches (the response of the teacher who developed this is worth reading in full here). The inability of either Gove or his advisors to either read the offending material properly, or understand its context, should have ruled them out of making any comment on history teaching ever after, but this is Michael Gove we’re talking about. Learning isn’t one of his skill sets.
As he drove his bulldozer through decades of carefully constructed history schemes for students, Gove also turned his wrath on one of the respected academics he had once praised, perhaps because the good professor had had the temerity to challenge Govian historical thinking – if ‘thinking’ isn’t too strong a term. In a diatribe about right thinking towards World War One, Mr. Gove had this time singled out Blackadder as his Goldstein target, perhaps unaware that it was satire and not actual, you know, history. (The academic in question, Sir Richard Evans, continued to harbour doubts about the veracity of Mr. Gove’s historical thinking, for example here.)
Now, as his parting gift to history teachers, we are about to embark on the utter mess he’s managed to cause in GCSE history. I do wish, if Nicky Morgan had indeed been given instructions to weed out the worst aspects of Govianism from the education system, that this had included his pernicious undermining of school history, but alas her echoing silence on the subject suggests it didn’t.
For years, secondary schools have followed carefully thought-out GCSE history syllabuses. Many of them, having given strong and often exclusive coverage to British history in Years 7 to 9 (something Gove was never willing to acknowledge) sought to teach a Modern World course to their students. It proved popular, and provided an admirable grounding in recent world history, the better from which to be able to form judgements about the world they live in today.
Michael Gove, the man who apparently “trusts teachers”, demolished all of this and insisted instead on an incoherent mess of historical periods and subjects instead. Amongst his demands were that students should cover at least three distinct periods of history – medieval, early modern and modern; that 40% should be British history (i.e. repetition of the previous three years); and that there should be a thematic study over a period of some 1,000 years. All this in two years and across a mere three hours a week. That the history establishment accepted this nonsense is another matter, but let us at least put paid to the idea that Michael Gove didn’t seek to micro-manage teachers, or that he somehow trusts them enough to let them inspire students.
Michael Gove had no professional experience in education, and no academic expertise as an historian even at undergraduate level. This is no bar to bringing interesting thinking to teaching or challenging teachers, but it should have provoked caution before dumping, wholesale, a history teaching plan of credibility, authority and coherence.
Gove’s relentless attack on history teaching turned me from an initial cautious ally into a confirmed opponent. Knowing the carelessness and ineptitude with which he formulated his own ideas on history teaching has made me forever wary of anything the man comes up with. Looking at the way in which he sought to bullishly impose his own – and his alone – ideas on history teaching across a national profession has forced me to treat any attempts to portray him as a man who believes in loosening the dead hand of the state with extreme caution, if not outright incredulity. If three people make up a fan club, then I suppose Ms. Hill is right to suggest that Michael Gove has one in teaching; but I’ll wager it doesn’t extend far, and for good reason. The man was a state-power-wielding menace, and no-one yet has offered to clear up the mess.