Dear Mr Gove...
I know you're on a mission: you want to denounce everything that has gone on in education in the last 25 to 30 years specifically in regard to teaching and learning. You are worried that hardly anyone knows their 12 times table or can recite an iconic poem like The Charge of the Light Brigade.
It sounds like a tall order but you are determined to reject the received wisdom about effective pedagogy from left-wing educationalists like the former Birmingham Chief Education Officer, Tim Brighouse. You might remember him; he was a 1980's maverick who implemented fresh strategies for effective teaching and classroom management, thereby inspiring a generation of future teachers/head teachers.
Clearly you, as an education secretary, are not one of them.
Instead you - like many in this country - are alarmed about the poor quality of education with which our children leave school. As you point out, some 16 year olds can barely recognize their own name and apparently - according to reports at least - over 40% of our school leavers attain fewer than 5 GCSEs with a grade C or above.
So I understand where you're coming from - I, too, am concerned about this.
But what you are proposing is unsound and built on very flimsy foundations about quality, standards and what education is or should be (just who or what is modern education really serving?). Your plans also leave me a little perplexed about your political ideology.
On the one hand you want to give greater accountability to schools and yet you want a single examination board to have monopoly over external assessment, marking and grading; you want to prepare pupils for the world of work and yet you want to employ outdated, rigidly defined syllabuses; you want more pupils to be equipped with practical skills and yet you're marginalizing vocational courses; you want to see all pupils to be given same opportunities to develop and yet you're proposing streaming a feature of 1970's comprehensives which undermined and segregated pupils.
It's interesting to note that your reaction to the problem of schooling is actually rooted in the history of education. Since the first Education Act (1870) governments have grappled with questions about the politics of schooling and assessment - what kind of education we want to give our children (why?) and exactly how do we measure pupils' learning? You, therefore, are not the first and, I'm sure, you won't be the last education secretary to deal with this.
On the whole - and for over half a century - there's been a consensus amongst educationalists and politicians like yourself that the welfare of the pupils and their future should be paramount and remain above everything else. We need to equip them with the ability to think for themselves by rationalizing ideas, synthesizing information and applying logic and reason to real and abstract problems. For many, including Plato, education had a philanthropic leaning. It was designed to give pupils knowledge about their world, about humanity and mankind and to show how we're all connected.
But that has not deterred successive governments from the turn of the 20th century to - implicitly at least - define their own agenda, their own vested interest in education. It was in 1921, for instance, that the Newbolt Education Report first talked about the need to devise a 'standard curriculum' that could be applied in all schools in England in order to raise the quality of teaching. But the thinking behind this was the notion of cultural uniformity - what is it that defines all English people? To Newbolt the purpose of education was to enhance our sense of identity. So the report was as much about nationhood as it was about education and learning.
But equally, Newbolt wanted to create a base for teaching against which everything could be assessed and measured. It was about centralization of learning. So he suggested what should be taught in subjects like English - what canonical works/authors would be appropriate at school. Coupled with the idea of nation building and/or strengthening a communal identity of our English speaking pupils, a basic curriculum for schools emerged.
But also, it fulfilled the needs of a market-economy where preparing pupils for the world of work became a key function of schooling - hence the focus on school uniforms, rigid discipline, promotion of competition and the capitalist theory of 'survival of the fittest' (sports, cricket, rugby, house system, grading, streaming etc) and the social hierarchal structures as embedded in the class system (prefects pupils, seniors, juniors etc) and the differentiation of less able pupils destined for the labour market from those who were academic, who then went into a profession (grammar schools, public schools and from post 1945, secondary modern, comprehensive schools and academies). For a majority of working class pupils, education became little more than a series of preparation for work.
But, Mr Gove, the Newbolt Report also took into account Britain's perceived threat from Europe especially the emergence of powers like France and Germany not to mention the growing anti-colonial agitation in the Raj from the natives. In particular, the document was a reaction to foreigners trying to chip away at Britain's supremacy, its international status and, of course, its Empire. And that, as you know, Mr Gove, will never do. And so it was vital that the English people stuck together; they had to be given the illusion that they were part and parcel of the same nation fighting for same cause - despite the economic, social and cultural divisions (and the abject poverty) that were inherent and visible in every city.
From the 50s to the early 80s it's interesting to note that every education report published by governments of all political persuasions such as the Bullock Report (1975) and the Education White Paper (1982), the Cox Report (1989) emphasized a mono-cultural perception of British society against the reality of a multi-cultural one - almost in denial of multi-immigrant Britain. It also stated that quality of teaching and standards are high but that they need to be even higher. But underlying their recommendations were persistent concerns of universities, employers and industrialists who have always criticized young people, their ability and skills.
However, although it's easy to pander to such criticism, it could also be argued that perhaps university staff need to work harder and employers need to provide specific training/courses relevant to their areas for new employees irrespective of what grades they achieved at school. And moreover, just why should we allow universities to set the barometer and dictate the standard of secondary education as if access to university is be all and end all? Who does education really serve?
We have to be cautious. It's worth remembering that every generation of reactionaries have lamented the declining standards in education by comparing them to their own schooling, that golden age when one was actually taught and gained useful knowledge. But alas today 'it's not what it used to be.'
And that's what you're thinking too, isn't it, Mr Gove?
The National Curriculum and GCSEs that the Conservative brought in with Baker's Education Act (1988) was, like the Newbolt Report, to instill uniformity of teaching/learning. It was designed to equip pupils with the practical skills for the job market hence the focus on functionality of all subjects. It too was produced to enhance pupils' sense of British cultural identity - whatever that might be.
Your proposal for education - to change the husk of what you consider a left-wing institution - is a cheap, political gimmick indicative of your desire to capture a golden age of education that actually never existed. Even during your days the older generation was writing about the appalling standards in education - and naturally blaming the teachers, not government policies. Keep in mind, Mr Gove, that it was in fact your party that brought about the changes to the education system in 1988 (Education Reform Act) - the very changes that you are now proposing to dismantle. And in regard to the teaching of English literature and history, at least, a part of me thinks you too are trying to provide some kind of a learning blueprint for what it is to be British. Why else do you want Shakespeare to be in the forefront of an English syllabus or to focus on British history and all the positive effects of the Empire?
With respect, Mr Gove, what your line of thinking fails to take into account is that the social and political context has changed. Modernity and technology have brought about a new world. Pupils learning environment - their social conditions and aspirations have changed. But also traditional knowledge such as linguistic skills acquired in Latin or rote learning that you want pupils to acquire don't really have much of a place in the modern multi-cultural, multi-racial world. Judging by your White Paper (2010) you seem to be in awe of China, and Singapore and Switzerland but these countries are looking at the British education system as a model. They're looking at people like you to see where you're taking our country.
You talk about relevance and equipping pupils with rigorous skills and knowledge but I ask you, how relevant is the teaching of classics or Ancient Greek? Surely if we as a nation are going to compete with the Asian economies - such as China and India - we should be putting Chinese, Mandarin and/or Hindi compulsory on the curriculum not the Euro-centric (eccentric?) stuff of Latin.
As for forcing pupils to learn poetry by heart and carrying out recitations in class, well that's an excellent way of putting many off poetry altogether. It's pupils' idea of hell. Instead of creating a mandatory objective to recite poetry - an almost pointless activity - why don't you give schools time to explore a range of literature, poetry, prose, drama. A free literacy hour should extend to secondary school pupils where they are reading for pleasure not because of an educational compulsion or a government directive. Most of all, trust the teachers. Allow them to judge the needs of our pupils and their ability. I'm afraid, there is hardly any research confirming that recitation of large verse/passages helps develop pupils' intelligence. The O' level system, which you're proposing, did very little for people like me who merely learnt by rote, memorized a mass of dates, quotations, facts, statistics and formulas and then - more or less - regurgitated these in exams. We didn't apply them to the real world or use them to think for ourselves. We did not acquire skills to recontextualize our learning/knowledge. Within days after the exams, we had forgotten everything like an old shopping list.
What an irony that your yearning for the past is creating a state of transgression in Britain. Other countries are looking forward to the future and trying to progress and connect with the wider world. You, however, are creating a parochial, Victorian world, a time when the Empire ruled the waves and people knew their place, knew what it was to be British and, they could recite The Charge of the Light Brigade.