Dear Mr. Gove

Dear Mr. Gove,

Thank you for your speech. I thought, given the length of your Summer break that you might have had time to write new material, but I expect that even Secretaries of State need a holiday/run out of new ideas. Perhaps you are modelling the view of your former Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, who once said he would consider it an achievement when teachers could pull out laminated lessons from September to September which had not been altered. Perhaps, instead, they could have laminated speeches to be read to silent pupils as this seems to be the pedagogy you now advocate. I have to confess I was a little confused by your direction towards a preferred pedagogy as this was one area you said was best left to the experts – i.e. us.

There are elements of your speeches I always find myself in agreement with. I will come to those later so that you can leave this letter with a lighter heart.

I work in a school every day, unlike some of the people in your speech who you named as teachers. Morale is low, but people stay for many reasons. One is that every day a child makes you laugh. Another is that when things get hard, you often get a little boost from a grateful child or parent. It keeps you going. Some of us stay because we genuinely believe that we can make a difference, and, I have to say, I personally stay in order to protect children from the relentless pressure that constant testing and measuring puts them under. I try to make them feel that their lives have validity even when they fail. I have more time to be able to do these things because I have PPA time and my union fought for Rarely Cover so that when I am free, the child whose mother died over the holiday, can find me in my office and have a good cry. Indeed one of the reasons that the young generation of teachers you so admire are so successful is because of the hard fought rights that the unions won for them. These rights allow these young teachers some time (not enough, granted) to plan, mark and collaborate.

It was interesting to see you mention the McKinsey report, which indeed did come to the conclusion that the education system of a country was only ever as good as the quality of its teachers. It was also clear in that report that making time for high quality teacher collaboration was key to this process. It referred to the idea that when a great teacher leaves in America, the great teaching leaves. When a great teacher leaves in Japan, the great teaching remains, because of the way co-planning time is structured. Such an approach helps to insure schools (and pupils) against losses incurred by staff turnover. In addition, I would hope that as a result of the findings in both the McKinsey report and research conducted by the OECD, that you would invest in the high quality university-based education of teachers, free from government interference which is a hallmark of those successful countries. It is clear from these and other sources, such as work by Daniel Pink, that money is not a motivating factor for most people and that Performance Related Pay tends to lead to poorer performance in all but the most ‘dull’ and ‘rudimentary’ of tasks. It is heartening that you have taken an interest in the McKinsey findings. I would urge you not to use them selectively. Obviously these changes would mean working closely with Universities and the teaching unions. I wouldn’t worry too much about the fact that you seem to have offended and alienated many unionists and academics. They are motivated by a desire to improve the system and I’m sure they will forgive you.

I was surprised to learn that 21% of teachers leave the profession in the first three years of their careers. They have incurred a cost of £9000 or more in many cases to train and for one fifth of them to leave is quite shocking. I was more shocked that you thought that this was a triumph. It is far less worrying for an accountant to leave accountancy to pursue a new career in marketing than for a teacher to leave what has often been a vocation. I would add that one of the teachers you describe as being among the country’s finest is in fact one of the 21% who left in the first three years. But who cares about a little fact or two? I also wonder how you can claim that the number of highly qualified teachers is up when your government has removed the requirement for them to be qualified at all. Perhaps we have different interpretations of what the word ‘qualified’ means.

On to the matter of pedagogy. There are certain times when direct instruction is by far and away the most efficient way of achieving your objective in a classroom. And there are times when it is not. A highly trained and experienced teacher will know when to use it and when to choose another. You are not a highly trained and experienced teacher and so it might be better not to meddle in the craft of teaching. It was also somewhat surprising to see your description of Peter Hyman and Oli De Botton as heroes. Their rationale for setting up their free school was to escape exactly the kind of curriculum and pedagogy you seek to impose on the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong – their school sounds great, but I suspect that your praise reveals that it matters more to you that people buy into your systematic dismantling of the school system than what or how they teach.

Don’t despair. I come to the elements of your speech which make perfect sense. Ofsted has no place dictating to teachers which activities children should be engaged in when observations are taking place. I agree with you and ‘Andrew Old’ on this matter. The emphasis should always be on the effectiveness of whichever approach the teacher, in their professional judgement, has chosen to take. I concur.

And this bit was good…

“Great teaching involves empathy and energy, authority and resilience; detailed planning; constant self-improvement. A great teacher has the ability to ‘read’ a classroom and understand its dynamics, instantly; shows inspirational leadership, exciting and motivating pupils to help them achieve their full potential. But common to all the great teachers I know is a love of children and a love of knowledge.” Bravo. However I would caution that a love of knowledge alone will not do. And I would add that a teacher needs to KNOW as well as love children – to know how much they need and how much they can take. To know how best to explore all this amazing knowledge; to make it memorable, engaging and purposeful. To make it matter. And this involves talking to them and listening to them. In addition, if you love children and you are a teacher, you cannot help but be alarmed at the changes you are making to the examination system. But I’m going to write about all that another time, because it’s just too huge for this letter.

I could go on, but I think this is enough for now. Perhaps it will give you some new material.

Yours very sincerely,

Debra Kidd

P.S It was funny of you to belittle classroom talk in a speech. I hope everyone else got the joke though.

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9 thoughts on “Dear Mr. Gove

  1. Well said, I would love to think that Mr Gove might actually read and consider this. I am deeply worried that we seem to be allowing Mr Gove to wreck our state school education system in the best interests of politicians and to the detriment of young people and teaching staff. It would be heartening to think that Mr Gove could try to understand what is still at the beating heart of our education system and listen to people like you Debra who articulate so well your vocation and your fears and concerns. I struggle to understand how Mr Gove forms his opinions and policies and can only conclude it is because he doesn’t in fact, understand our education system after all he is a politician, not a teacher.

  2. I liked the section in his speech when, after the paragraphs of praise for the best generation of teachers we’ve ever seen etc etc, he then dismissed group work as “children chatting.” Surely these fantastic teachers, which I agree with him that we do have, should be allowed to plan group work activities into the schemes of work of their classes as and when they see fit just as they can with periods of direct instruction if they wish. The high quality teachers that he rightly praises would be able to lead those sessions and keep the students on task so they made progress. As always with Gove, it’s freedom as long as it’s his way of doing things.

  3. ‘The best time to be a teacher’? Well I’ve seen 34 starts to a summer term, and my daughter is starting her third. I hope she sees a time when it is better than it is now and our efforts are not disparaged by the very person who says he respects us so much. As the older of the two I have been accused of ‘dumbing down’ (getting more students to higher grades), ‘engaged in a race to the bottom’ (selecting exam specs that seem best suited to our students), had ‘too low expectations’ (because I felt pride that a student with a range of difficulties managed to get a D grade at GCSE) and become ‘an enemy of promise’ (because I believe curriculum re-design is better carried out by groups of working teacher experts than hand-picked favourites). Your balanced and thoughtful response is the kind of heartfelt resilience that I hope will see us through these times, and allow my daughter to be a teacher of the best of kinds, in the best of days. It will have to be under a less ideologically-restricted regime, however. Well said Debra.

  4. Nice little piece Debra. It is dispiriting that so many leave in the first three years. I do wonder how many leave towards the ends of their careers who would have stayed were it not for the interference. I for one jumped ship after 32 years in the job and several colleagues around the country have done likewise. I don’t think there are many from my cohort at college that are still in the profession. Not a week goes by without someone contacting me to find out “How can I get out?”

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