Once again, Michael Gove has managed to put the back up the educational establishment by saying something that is not very far from what they all believe, but said in such an unthinking, brash and arrogant manner that of course they will react. He pushes their buttons deliberately and they (unions and universities, predominantly) react like Skinner’s rats.

What Gove fails to recognise, in his latest salvo in praise of rigorous testing and the need for strongly taught memories in children to house all the automatic stuff, is that with him, the medium is the message. He is so obviously a product of his past, so obviously only praising those things which concur with his view of what makes successful education, that a whole prairie of educational understanding is ignored and left untended.

And yet, most of what he has said – that tests should be more rigorous, that more effort and memory is required to succeed, that expectations should be raised of what children can be challenged to do – none of this is, in the end, contentious. This is a content-free program to fasten down some areas of learning that need to be fastened down, and a clarion call to ensure that teachers are skilled and knowledgeable enough to allow children to accept and beat those challenges.

Unions probably read it differently. And nobody really trusts Gove anyway, so what he says (the message being embodied in his own personality) falls on predispositionally angry ears.

But memory and effort at securing learning are critical. Of course we want children to be able to problem solve – and they do – but they do it better when the basics of arithmetic understanding is easily recalled from a strongly focused and well-rehearsed memory. I had two Y6 classes 12 years ago that both were superb at learning to spell. They were not good spellers, they were good learners. And we did it by making a fuss – 80 words each week, differentiated into four groups of children learning 20 each, tested weekly; pupils who had less than 80% correct had to stay in at break and write out the ones they got wrong 5 times. Then a monthly test of all 80-100 words that they had learnt in the past month, and insistence through marking that those words were correctly spelt in writing. This was not a panacea, but an honest and hard working attempt to give children serious memory tools that they could use and practise on other material through the remainder of their learning. Ditto regular, assessed handwriting exercises, using good quality poetry as the focus. Not that we wanted to build handwriting into an idol (as some used to do), but it was a tool to release creativity and learning, saving time and effort when writing, building self-regard as writers, and helping children learn and understand poetry while we were at it.

Once again, Gove is half right and half wrong. It is just that the right half  is made socially insufferable and the wrong half is obvious, even to one of Skinner’s rats.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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