On Tuesday 10th September, writing in the Daily Mail Michael Gove announced that the people who use foodbanks are forced to because of their own “decisions” and have only themselves to blame for being ‘unable to manage their finances’. As reported in the same article and by the BBC his comments were branded “insulting” and “out of touch”. One food bank user was so offended by Gove’s assumptions about her use of foodbanks that she was prompted to write him this letter, though she is realistic enough not to expect a response.
Now, Mr Gove may be perfectly entitled to voice his own opinions as an individual, but isn’t there something about people who live in glass houses not throwing stones so let’s look at his record. Shortly after becoming Education Minister he cancelled the Building Schools for the Future Programme, branding it “wasteful” before going on to expand his pet Academies programme. Yet, this master of financial prudence managed to overspend the Academies budget by a mere £1 billion. On the basis of that alone he has no right to lecture others about their financial decisions.
He then went on to do the equivalent to purchasing a 70 inch flat screen TV by going on a “free schools” spending spree. These schools – another of Gove’s must have purchases – have often been built in areas that already have surplus school places, siphoning money away from the under-resourced Local Authority maintained schools. This is a bit like spending most of your limited food budget on luxuries like alcohol or going to the cinema. Over 100 new “free schools” opened their doors in September, with an average of 96 pupils each, which works out at an average cost of around £83,000 per pupil. It would have been cheaper to send everyone of those children to Eton or Marlborough College where fees are in the region of £32,000 a year! Mr Gove doesn’t just spend extravagantly as Education Secretary, he doesn’t have a glowing record for financial prudence in his personal life either.
On September 11th over 100 experts in the field of early childhood wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph calling on the Government to stop “intervening” in early years education. They were dismissed by a spokesman (sic) from Gove’s department as a “powerful and badly misguided lobby” a response that will be familiar to the 100 leading academics branded by Gove as the “enemies of promise”. Rather than listening to what those with experience and expertise have to say, Gove prefers to stick his fingers in his ears and resort to insults.
Michael Gove has made it clear that he doesn’t like what he calls “trendy” teaching methods, dismissing out-of-hand, practical activities that support children’s developing understanding and help them to develop deep understanding. At times rote learning has its place, but deep understanding generally involves a process of transformation during which learners use a range of processes to develop understanding. I remember being taught (long before Michael Gove was even born) about soil erosion and how to prevent it. What really made it stick in my mind though was building models with earth and observing the effects of water on them. As Nobel physicist Richard Feynman puts it “I don’t know what’s the matter with people, they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”
Michael Gove’s appears incapable of understanding that people learn in different ways and seems hell bent on imposing his view of what constitutes learning on school pupils in England. His model, based on E.D Hirsch’s ideas, pre-supposes a set body of facts that need to be learned by children if they are to become educated. I suspect that Feynman would disagree with him on that too having once said “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
Gove clearly doesn’t value play based, exploratory learning, nor does his sidekick Elizabeth Truss. Both of them seem to think that young children need to start formal learning early and that knowledge is something that teachers transmit to passive, attentive obedient children. They both appear to fear that unless children learn in this way they will be unable to learn and understand more concept concepts like calculus. I suspect that like Feynman, Albert Einstein understood calculus (and a lot more complex ideas too,) yet it was Einsten who once described play as” the highest form of research.” He also said that “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school” and claimed that “imagination is more important than knowledge”
Michael Gove claims to be well educated but while both Einstein and Feynman understood the possibility of the existence of parallel universes, he merely inhabits one.
- Michael Gove: Poor to blame for food banks (politics.co.uk)
- Ignore Michael Gove’s propaganda: we don’t need academies (theguardian.com)
- Stop using classroom gimmicks and educate children properly, Michael Gove tells teachers (educationviews.org)