Pob v Blob: turning the education debate into a Punch and Judy show

When Conservative education secretary Michael Gove first took office in 2010, he collectively named the people he thought were responsible for low educational standards as ‘the Blob’, after a B-movie amoeba-like monster from the 1950s. The ‘Blob’, according to Gove, was made up of university teacher-trainers and left-wing educationalists who had an octopus-like reach into local education authorities, government quangos and teacher trade unions. 

The Blob’s response was to attempt to thwart Gove’s ambitions by deriding him, slow hand-clapping him during speeches and likening him to the children’s TV puppet, Pob. Despite the resistance of his opponents, Gove has abolished many educational quangos, encouraged the opening of many new free schools and this year he plans to introduce a new national curriculum, which will focus on facts, truth, knowledge and traditional academic subjects.

The Punch and Judy show aspect of the debate is disheartening. Important issues are at stake. My own research in The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education and elsewhere shows that the current attack on subject-based knowledge, led by bodies such as the Royal Society of Arts, is an attack on aspiration and human potential. This is because it offers children and young people a ragbag of skills and denies them access to what Matthew Arnold called ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’. 

Gove’s speech on Monday enraged many teachers and educationalists by suggesting that state schools could learn from private schools. When I was part of the London Mayoral Education Inquiry we saw the good work that was being done through various relationships between state schools and private schools. The benefits reaped by these state schools was not in management style or school ethos, though many thought it was. The real benefit they saw came through the re-focusing of state schooling on subject-based education - something which is much stronger in the private sector.

If this happened, and it is a big ‘if’, universities would benefit from a new cohort of students filled to the brim with knowledge and demanding more. Students would want to go to universities that ‘would make their brains hurt’ rather than flatter them about their future employability and help them shore up their social and emotional skills. This would be a challenge to universities as well, who would have to re-think their emphasis on the ‘student experience’ and return to the pursuit of knowledge. However, because of the side-show nature of today’s education debate, these potential benefits are being lost.

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby. He is also the convenor of the Institute of Ideas’ Education Forum whose next discussion, ‘Who is winning the hearts and minds of teachers?’, is taking place on Monday 10 February in London.

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