Response to Michael Gove’s MailOnline Article
When I read Michael Gove’s weekend article in MailOnline I was a bit angry, a little hurt and probably felt I was getting a taste of what it’s like to be wrongly scapegoated and discriminated against. Usually when Mr Gove makes a speech or writes something that’s clumsy and insulting to teachers I smile sympathetically and tell myself that he’ll be gone in a couple of years. I have a mental picture of a slightly sinister Graham Norton; annoying and enthusiastic but generally harmless, something akin to a mediaeval court jester. But this article genuinely troubled me. It appeared to be a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts disguised in blatantly inflammatory rhetoric designed to turn people against the teaching profession in general.
Back when he began his job as Education Secretary, I agreed with a lot of what Mr. Gove was saying, and to some extent I still do. I like the idea of terminal exams. I like the idea of an intellectually challenging academic curriculum. And I like the idea of improving discipline and empowering teachers. But all this goes out of the window when I read an article that clearly sets out to incite hatred against a group of people who, in my experience, work hard to do their best for students. One colleague of mine pointed out that this was simply Gove’s way of setting out his leadership challenge, flexing his muscles as a champion prepared to stand against the enemies of his, and by extension readers of the Daily Mails’, ideals. I can understand that. Teresa May did the same thing the other week. But there are ways and means, and Mr Gove’s was just in bad taste. If the Home Secretary had written an article in this vein about immigration and the economy she’d have been pulled up on accusations of racism. Had Ian Duncan Smith written a similar article about recipients of state benefit, there would have been uproar. But as it’s teachers, those “enemies of promise”, Mr Gove can get away with it.
Reading the article, I was reminded several times of the rhetoric of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950s America, the vehicle by which the McCarthy witch hunts were carried out. The “Red Threat” is echoed in Gove’s reference to his belief that the people who oppose his policies are living on a “Red Planet” tarnished with crazy left-wing idealists bent on undermining society and order, “valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence.” He refers to academics who disagree with him as “The Blob”, a mutually back-slapping group of self-congratulators more interested in theory than practice, and he claims that “there are still a tiny minority who see themselves as part of The Blob and have enlisted as “Enemies of Promise.”
I have a few problems with this. For a start, what is the “Promise” that the enemies have “enlisted” against? To “enlist” implies signing up to wage war. What is it these teachers are waging war against? They’re against the policies of a man who is threatening to undermine the livelihoods that they work hard for. They’re against a man who quotes the theories of academics whose own points of view are diametrically opposed to his own and who fails to understand the implications of these quotes. For example, earlier this year Mr Gove quoted Gramsci as influencing his policies. Gramsci the self-proclaimed Marxist who railed against the hegemony of the capitalist classes! Then he quoted an American psychologist and claimed to ascribe to his theories of education and knowledge, only to be told by the psychologist that he’d misunderstood his ideas and had only looked at the simplest, earliest parts of knowledge acquisition, ignoring the latter parts of his book dealing with higher order thinking. And in this article he manages to misunderstand and misrepresent Marxism. He tries to rubbish an article in which two academics who signed a letter that went against his reforms argued that “Marxism is as relevant as ever”. But of course it is. Marxism is simply a way of understanding how society works by revealing the hidden structures and means by which power is exercised by certain groups over others. How can that be irrelevant? If we are to understand society we need to understand the structures and power relations that operate within it.
The most irresponsible aspect of this article though is the childishly simple use of emotive language. He makes his article sound as though it is a rally cry for the just to go to war against the “Enemies of Promise” (whatever that promise may be). He even manages to get a reference to Churchill in there. He claims these “Enemies of Promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need.” One has a mental image of a group of particularly malevolent individuals, more than likely with beady eyes, crooked backs and pointy noses, systematically working to ensure that “our poorest children” are deliberately denied their right to education. What rubbish! Surely even the Little Englanders that read the Mail can see through his grotesque rhetorical posturing and manipulation. I have been in education for 10 years and I honestly cannot think of an individual teacher who fits the description of one of these “Enemies of Promise”. I may know of teachers whose methods I don’t agree or whose approach I don’t think is especially effective, but I don’t believe they actively set out with the intention to inhibit the learning of students. I also know many teachers who are members of Unions and who want to protect their pensions and salaries and are prepared to strike to do this. But that doesn’t mean that they want to systematically seek ways to prevent aspiration and achievement. It means they want to protect themselves, their families and their jobs in economically difficult times, and get what they signed up for when they entered the job in the first place.
But the really silly thing here is that in writing this article our esteemed Education Secretary is inciting a hate campaign against the very people he needs to implement his policies and through whose work his success or failure will be measured. I don’t know a single teacher who would deny that it is their job to develop “mastery of English, fluency in arithmetic, the ability to reason scientifically, knowledge of these islands and their history – to (allow students to) take their place as confident modern citizens.” But I do know a lot of teachers who will be further exaggerated by Mr Gove’s attempts to depict them as the enemy within, a threat to this country’s future progress and development.
An F for your judgement and childish rhetoric, Mr Gove.