Michael Gove's report card: could have done much better

Without austerity and endless structural reform, he would have been much more successful, writes one celebrated head

Michael Gove

“Michael tends to be very disruptive; he enjoys playing to the gallery and, unfortunately, doesn’t always use his undoubted intellect to best effect. His progress in mathematics is pleasing although not yet fully secure. Progress in reading and science are both satisfactory; however, worryingly, I sense Michael is quite an unhappy young man.

“Given his obvious abilities, he has the potential to do much better. He needs to invest his time and effort into worthwhile activities rather than unnecessarily disturbing himself and others. To make better progress, he needs to understand that he doesn’t know everything nor is he always right. He should listen more and care about what others think.”

Michael Gove, former education secretary, wanted to be judged by England’s standing within the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables: as such, his report card may read something like the above. Something similar would be written for the never-ending schools minister Nick Gibb.


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Politically, of course, it makes sense to make bold statements about climbing the international league tables; few of us would prefer to plummet towards the bottom. And given the lifespan of most education secretaries, they are not likely to see many Pisa league tables anyway.

It’s also a safe bet because there’s always a few nuggets to celebrate, as well as a few things to ignore or talk tough about. In terms of an evidence-informed statistical basis – for making causal links from various policies to Pisa outcomes – the judgement is much more problematic.

Even so, given the relative affluence of England, compared with many other countries in Pisa, and the amount of centrally driven educational change, the results hardly provide a resounding endorsement of the past 10 years. Could we have achieved more by concentrating our effort on other things? I think so. 

The past decade of austerity was a political choice. Given the much lower performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those in situations of long-term disadvantage, would focusing on producing a more equitable society have yielded better Pisa returns? Reducing the number of pupils living difficult lives in poverty-stricken families and ensuring schools had access to or services on-site to support families and young people would surely have produced a similar or better return for our time and money.

Likewise, was the restructuring of the school system and the decimation of local authorities a top educational priority? For every great free school and multi-academy trust, there were some excellent local authorities. For every shocking local authority – and there were some – we’ve had free schools and MATs disappearing in ignominy.

When talking to parents at our annual open evening, I would begin by saying: “We need to give young people a reason for living as well as a means of earning their living.” This was my shorthand for talking about knowledge, skills, qualifications, and our results – but also how we would work with parents to build a child’s sense of civic responsibility and the positive contribution they were called to make to society. 

The current Pisa report lends further support to concerns many have about the emotional wellbeing and mental health of our young people. Some stress and pressure around examination time is inevitable, but we are arguably seeing more than that. This unhappiness, at a young age, may well be taken into and through adult life. This isn’t appropriate given the comparable outcome limitations within our system; a third of young people will be placed in the “fail” basket every year. Education has to be more than a 13-year pupil-sorting and grading system. The current system is too focused around what it can easily measure (examinations) or deluded, believing it can easily measure and grade things that it can’t (the curriculum).

We are already seeing the intentions of the latest Ofsted inspection framework stumbling at the implementation phase. The impact of this and the wider accountability system – felt most acutely in more disadvantaged areas – is a failure to retain teachers and a national failure to recruit sufficient teachers for the seventh year in a row. Still, we stumble through an election campaign and manifesto maelstrom lacking in focus while offering hope and despair in equal measure. 

One of the big surprises from Pisa was the extent to which headteachers considered the lack of teachers to be affecting teaching at their school. It has fallen from 45 per cent in 2015 to 27 per cent in 2018. Anecdotally, just about every head I speak to mentions the challenges of retaining and recruiting teachers; funding and accountability are also top of their lists. Maybe school leaders are just beginning to give up hope of having a stable and experienced workforce. 

In looking at the decade ahead, I’d like to propose that every policy or change that is introduced must pass a stringent test of whether it will lead to greater retention or recruitment of teachers – or, even better, both. We all improve over the first few years of teaching. It’s a no-brainer that losing teachers early in their career or failing to develop those that stay won’t help us to climb any international league table.

Once we’ve agreed this, let’s look to 2018’s Pisa superstar Estonia and note: its work in the early years; its more limited accountability system and greater teacher autonomy; and its focused curriculum, with an emphasis on mastery of key concepts rather than coverage of too many objectives in too little time.

If Gove's successors were to follow this recipe, they might yet receive a more encouraging report in the future.

Stephen Tierney is chair of the Headteachers' Roundtable, a blogger and author of Liminal Leadership. He tweets @LeadingLearner

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