Michael Gove: neither destroyer nor saviour of education

No, he’s not banning US novels – but nor is he righting the rot in education.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

Too many, it seems, were so desperate to think the worst of Michael Gove – the UK secretary of state for education, and the only man to rival UKIP’s Nigel Farage for the disaffections of Guardian readers – that they actually believed he was trying to expunge books he didn’t like from the GCSE English literature syllabus. American-authored novels, like John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, were supposedly out; and the works of true-born Englishmen like Shakespeare and Dickens were back in. Because, in the eyes of Gove’s critics, that’s just what he’s like – a man on a mission to make over education in his own backward, national-chauvinist image.

The Sunday Times started the whole daft furore over the bank-holiday weekend. A member of OCR, one of the UK’s biggest exam boards, had reportedly told one of its reporters that ‘Of Mice and Men, which Michael Gove really dislikes, will not be included [in the new GCSE curriculum]’. He went on to claim that instead, ‘in the new syllabus, 70 to 80 per cent of the books are from the English canon’.

Cue an all-too-predictable Twitterstorm. Gove-related hashtags started to trend as Twitter’s one-note constituency swarmed around what looked like the latest evidence of Gove’s evil Tory designs. Then the editorials and comment pieces started to appear.

Gove was a ‘fundamentalist’ said Giles Foden in the Mirror. In the Birmingham Mail, one columnist saw Gove’s mooted plans as part of ‘the relentless march towards [an] arid desert of joyless learning’, before adding: ‘The reasoning is hard to fathom. Some misguided sense of patriotism, perhaps? Maybe the inability of a man to think beyond the confines of his own obsessions? The whim of a man who is allowed to wield too much power over the day-to-day activities in schools?’ In the Guardian, another commentator spoke darkly of the implication of Gove’s supposed plan: ‘Gove’s decision to remove… a number of American classics such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible… is not just parochial and regressive, it also fails to recognise the dynamics that make up modern Britain.’

University lecturers in English literature quickly joined the fray, with Professor Christopher Bigsby even playing the race card: ‘As the home secretary does her best to patrol our borders to keep out international students, who she regards as immigrants, so the GCSE syllabus is to be kept for the English for fear that Romanian novels might move in next door.’ Bethan Marshall, a lecturer at King’s College, London, preferred to worry about the effect of Shakespeare on young minds: ‘Schools will be incredibly depressed when they see it. This will just grind children down.’

But all the righteous huff and puff in the world cannot make fiction fact. So it was that yesterday, Gove responded with a whimsical takedown of all those who believed he was chucking American literature out of the syllabus. It simply wasn’t true, he said. ‘All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.’ But, he continued, ‘sometimes a rogue meme can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. Just because one chap at one exam board claimed I didn’t like Of Mice and Men, the myth took hold that it – and every other pesky American author – has been banned… ‘

In fact, the truth is there for all to see on the Department for Education website no less. In short, the new English lit GCSE syllabus shall ‘include‘: ‘at least one play by Shakespeare; works from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries; poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry.’ There is no mention of excluding Steinbeck or Lee.

So why were so many outraged by a half-cocked piece of journalism? Why does Gove inspire such overdetermined animosity? The simple answer is that at one level Gove does pose a threat. His critics in the teaching profession, on exam boards, and in the whole liberal Twittersphere more broadly, feel rightly threatened by Gove’s policymaking trajectory. He is trying to put a bit of content back into academic subjects, a bit of knowledge into the act of teaching, be it chronology into history or classic literature into English. And that will not only make the subjects more challenging, and less patronising, to pupils; it will also disrupt the backslapping enjoyed by the quangocracy engulfing British education which has cheered on rising grades for the past two decades. Gove, in effect, represents a challenge to the educational establishment; he says, in every utterance, that something is rotten in state education.

But sadly, on another level, Gove’s critics, fearing that the veil is about to be rent on their educational enterprise, that the good times are over, needn’t be too worried. Gove might be better than the proud philistines before him at the DfE, from Labour’s Charles Clarke, who dismissed education for its own sake as ‘a bit dodgy’, to his comrade Alan Johnson, who clearly just needed something to do. But Gove is not quite the unabashed educational idealist he might appear. He may talk about education for education’s sake, as he did before the 2010 General Election, and he may trumpet the importance of a knowledge-based education. But when policy-push comes to shove, all the high-sounding rhetoric is diluted in practice.

Take a look at the English GCSE lit proposal itself. Why is just one Shakespeare play compulsory for a two-year course of study? Why not two or three? This, after all, is the greatest proponent of the English language that ever lived, a writer whose every turn of blank-versed phrase has written itself into our perception of the world. Macbeth is difficult, yes, but as every 15- or 16-year-old who has studied it will surely know, it is worth the toil and trouble.

More striking still is the new status of the English literature GCSE: it is an optional extra. That is, unlike the new English language GCSE, it doesn’t have to be studied, which, as Gove’s more high-minded critics have pointed out, means that plenty of league-table-conscious schools in disadvantaged areas could well decide it’s not worth the potential cost in league placings. As one critic noted, the parlous state of modern languages in British schools was exacerbated in 2004 when their study ceased to be compulsory.

In some ways, Gove’s privileging of English language as a subject over English literature is hardly a surprise. It appeals to the instrumentalism which still sits at the DfE’s core. That is, it assumes that the reason for studying subjects, the reason for learning to read and write, lies outside reading and writing itself – it lies in making Britain economically competitive, providing a high-skilled workforce, addressing social mobility and so on. And English language as a subject, complete with its emphasis on measurable literacy outcomes, is far more suitable for this function than the unquantifiable but mind-enriching qualities of literature. English language as a subject not only allows the British state to ‘sell’ Britain to prospective employers, but it also allows the DfE to sell education to its youthful consumers – ‘this is why you’re studying English: to get a job’. Gove may have criticised the obsession with skills in the past, and he may also have spoken favourably of educaton for education’s sake, but, as shown by his use of the most recent Pisa table (which ranks countries according to measurable educational data) to lambast the previous Labour government, he is perfectly at home in the instrumentalising and quantifying world of the educational establishment.

So it looks as if there are two myths at work in this story about a non-story. Yes, Gove is not really trying to kick the Yanks out of English. But neither is he really committed to ensuring that the best which has been thought and written is taught in British schools. At the last, it seems, Gove, like his predecessors, prefers the philistine certainty of the quantifiable over the uncertainty of the qualitative, the measurable over the immeasurable, skills over knowledge. He may talk the talk, but when it comes to mounting a case for studying the best works of literature (which admittedly is very difficult today), he still shies away from walking the walk.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images

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Topics Politics UK


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