Once more our Secretary of State for Education (the man who already has over 2000 powers at his disposal) has missed the point. His recent foray into policy is the suggestion that we should have longer days at school and shorter holidays. Well, I’m all for that, really, because I already work them. As do most teachers, to be honest. But it is the motivation of all this that undermines his argument. He is not thinking about the good of children, families or schools. He is thinking about the global race! The race that Britain must win – or at least compete in – if we are going to make a success of ourselves and GET MORE MONEY for everyone. We must be better than the Chinese, or the Koreans (south, obviously), or the Singaporeans, or anybody else east of the Irrawaddy River, and all of these work longer at school and therefore we MUST KEEP UP! This is his quote:

If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.

Notwithstanding that we, along with the Irish and Germans, already have the shortest school holidays in Europe and that we have a national and educational culture that values a whole lot of things that east Asian cultures value less, Gove’s argument is philosophically essentially statist and Stalinist. It goes a little like this:

  1. We are lagging behind in the global economy and failing to compete with the thrusting economically powerful nations of the world.
  2. We need to do well in this race because it will mean we will be able to export more, have more impact in the world and be richer and more powerful.
  3. The principal tool we have for educating children to be competitive and economically efficient is our schools.
  4. We need to ensure that our schools are better.
  5. One way of doing this is to make sure that our children learn more.
  6. A way of doing this is to make sure that our school hours are longer and the holidays shorter.
  7. A corollary of this is that if we have shorter holidays we will be able to put more people to work and parents will be able to work more.

This argument is full of holes, but in a populist sort of way it hangs together nicely. Good for a debating society (which incidentally is exactly what Mary Bousted of the ATL said in her reaction to the speech), but philosophically ill-founded and rooted in a view of the person as a machine. In fact, Gove does not believe this – he is one of the most compassionate of Her Majesty’s ministers, and one interesting thing about him is the public and private conflict he has between genuinely caring for children and young people and the need to maintain a statist view of education. Possibly this is why his general tenor is so shot full of inconsistencies, and why he swings wildly, like a demented orang-utan, between those positions which are eminently reasonable and those that are, literally, all over the place.

Mary Bousted’s reply goes on:

Despite official figures showing that the average teacher works more than 11 hours of unpaid overtime each week, despite most teachers having to prepare and mark work in the evening and at weekends and despite many teachers voluntarily coming in during school holidays because they care about the future of their pupils, the Secretary of State says that schools should be open longer.

Note here that she says “many” not “all”. That’s by the by, actually, because it is certainly the majority of teachers that are doing substantial overtime unpaid. Anyone working less than a 55 hour week is struggling to get the job done, I reckon.

Back to Gove. Behind his argument is essentially that we are educating children for the good (the god?) of national prosperity; that if we as a nation are economically prosperous, then that will “trickle down” to everyone. We educate so that people will have jobs. And if people get educated, and get jobs, then they will earn enough money so that we can tax them and we will be able to affect our balance of payments positively. Blah, blah.

I suggest that a good place to ask about the effect of that concept would be (in the past) Victorian farm labourers and mine and factory workers, and then (today) people struggling to get a mortgage when bankers seem to have plenty of wealth, thank you. It is the distribution of wealth rather than the possession of it that should be of interest. How can we say that we are a prosperous nation when there is such variance across the country in the economic health of communities. Top-down policies, controlled as they are by government, do not work as well as their proponents would have us believe. No, education certainly has not worked in the UK if that is what it is for. But of course that is NOT what education is for. National prosperity was never on the agenda for education. The idea of a well-educated national workforce is a Stalinist, statist idea, and certainly not one in the mind of God in creation.

Let’s look at the argument backwards for a moment:

  1. God created children as a delight for their parents, to be raised in godliness and beauty, and taught to live in a world with certain skills and knowledge that would enable them to establish a culture and society that would allow his rule to be established in the earth and his love to be shed abroad to those who have for one reason or another fallen foul of hatred and pain.
  2. Schooling is one aspect of this, and this is an expression of the local community’s desire that children respect and contribute to their community, to carry on and learn from the ways of their fathers and mothers, and through the culture of that community. Thus, schools are established for the purpose. Schools, therefore, should be among the places in a community where love is and where the love and hopes that the community has for its children are realised.
  3. Parents of course have the prime duty to educate their children, not the community; however, at some stage it is easier for the community to do it, and then, possibly, the state. However, we do not have children for the national good, nor for national economic prowess. There is thus a limit to what the state can reasonably expect to gain from the education of children, as these are choices for local communities, families and schools themselves.
  4. Schooling is of course a window to a greater world, a conduit for all that is wonderful and of nobility in the works of God and man to be explained to children so that they should grow in wisdom (first of all) then understanding, skills and knowledge, so that in turn they can contribute to and build a society that seeks to bless all its members.
  5. There will have to be a balance between what children learn and gain in schooling (which will be many good things) and that which they learn and gain from their parents, wider family, churches (and temples and mosques) and from each other, through play, eating together, exploration and engagement with nature. The longer they have in school, the greater this imbalance. Each community should ideally balance this for itself. Some communities, valuing things of education and schooling over what the family might bring to the equation, choose to have longer school hours. Other communities (and each must decide for itself) will take a different view. Rural and urban communities will have different priorities. However, the overall effect of increasing the length of the school day is the marginalisation of children in our local and national life and the reinforcement of the ridiculous message that children only have value if they intend to grow up and “have a career” and become “economically active”. The purpose of working, Paul says in Ephesians, is so that we may have plenty to give to those in need – economic redistribution and protection of community, not national economic prowess.

Starting from children, from community and from the local rarely gets us into trouble. Starting nationally, with national interest, gets us into all sorts of hassles. It is into this quagmire, and hanging onto a broken reed, that Mr G has put both his feet.

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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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  1. […] of the curriculum for them. In this aspect (but only in this aspect) it reflects and enhances my argument in an earlier post that we begin to look at school from the needs of family, community and God’s love for […]

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