There is a bit in 1 Kings 22 when King Ahab of Israel goes to war against the Arameans, allied with King Jehoshaphat of Judah. The AV has the wonderful phrase “a certain man drew a bow at a venture“. An old preacher’s joke goes that he missed the venture completely and hit Ahab instead between the joints of the harness. Ho, ho.
Well, this is what has happened yesterday afternoon, as the Secretary of State for Education faced a barrage of questions, heckling and deep discontent from my colleagues at the NAHT. Gove drew a bow at a venture, and hit a hornet’s nest of pain, fear and discontentment from a profession that is regularly seen to be one of the most motivated, sacrificial and hard working in either the public or private sector. Everything Gove got, I am afraid to say, was well deserved and completely justified. As much as I want to submit to this government in the spirit of Romans 13, the manner in which Michael Gove is moving is fraudulent and dishonest. Fraudulent because there is no genuine attempt to work with those he needs to put his policies into practice – turning up and facing a barrage is not consultation, it’s just what you have to do as a minister on that salary – and dishonest because he will go away from the NAHT conference full of self-justification about the rightness of his course of action and not even close to understanding the pain that his policies are causing, and relying completely on the siren voices that have told him that he is on the right path. Actually, it is not even the policies that are causing the real pain; it is the manner in which the alpha-male Education Department is swallowing up the “independence” of OFSTED, of teacher training, of the National College and turning the whole educational shooting-match into one huge arm of government whilst continuing to proclaim the increased independence of schools. That, by any yardstick, is both fraudulent and dishonest.
How can it be otherwise, when headteachers are saying to Gove, yes, you have given us more freedom and autonomy, but at the same time, we feel less free and more chained and accountable (in harsh ways) than we have before? The whole sorry business undermines the possibly useful perspectives that the DfE have been able to collect in its research, and the need to hear the Secretary of State clearly in the debate. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan reminded us nearly 50 years ago. Gove dominates the debate so fully with his personality that we cannot hear the faint cries of sense that might be trying to accompany his message. And they are there, almost certainly.
And then, we have not even started to see what the reaction will be to the new curriculum. Russell Hobby’s speech to the conference will address some of the human flourishing issues today, but I feel the real storm is yet to come.
From a personal perspective, I have yet to feel the fear and discouragement that many of my colleagues are suffering from, but the curriculum issue is one that is a lot more scary, because many of us will have to take action against a curriculum that is, on balance, bad for children. Quite what that will look like, and what the consequences will be, has to be decided by each school, on the basis of what it knows is good for the children in its care.