Gove is fighting a war that ended years ago

1st March 2013 at 00:00
Like Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender, the education secretary is out of touch with modern life, says Stephen Twigg

Somewhere, out in the jungle, Michael Gove is crouching, hidden from sight, ready to pounce.

On 9 March 1974, the Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda finally handed over his rifle to his commanding officer, having continued to fight the Second World War for another 30 years after the conflict ended. For nearly three decades, he hid in the Filipino jungle, carrying out guerrilla activities. Fighting yesterday's war while the world moved on.

Similarly, in many ways, the education secretary is still fighting the battles of 30 years ago. Nearly three decades ago, in 1984, O levels were abolished for being out of date, but Gove would love to bring them back. The two-tier system was in full swing then - social inequality in education achievement actually worsened in the UK during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Thirty years ago, about 20,000 pupils a year learned Latin but few studied engineering at school. Today, thousands study engineering, despite the fact that Gove tried to downgrade the engineering diploma that had been designed by Rolls-Royce.

Thirty years ago, at the height of Thatcherism, only a handful of pupils from working-class backgrounds got into Oxbridge. Today, about 12 per cent of Oxbridge's intake is made up of pupils from working-class families. That is still too low but progress has been made.

The worry is that, as a spokesperson for the University of Cambridge put it, Gove's plans to ditch AS levels will jeopardise more than a decade's progress towards fairer access. The problem goes to the heart of Gove's philosophy. He believes in helping a few pupils at the top with a narrow curriculum, two-tier exams and a handful of free schools. This kind of "trickle down" approach to education won't work in the modern world. We can't build a successful economy from the top down.

Pupils should get a broad and balanced education. That's why I'm interested in the concept developed by Labour's Andrew Adonis of an A-level Baccalaureate that would provide a spread of subjects, so that young people are well rounded. The government's proposed A-level changes actually narrow options.

The world has changed in the past 30 years - we need to make sure our education system keeps up. The labour market has been transformed. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills predicts substantial growth in technical occupations. Recent figures from the Home Office show that there are 180,000 jobs where the UK has a skills shortage, including engineers and computer-game designers. But these are the kind of subjects that Gove overlooks. His biggest problem is that he only wants young people to be able to spell the word "entrepreneur". We want young people to become entrepreneurs.

Too many young people are studying vocational qualifications that are substandard. Labour will add new rigour by working with employers to accredit the best courses.

I want to learn from international best practice. I visited Switzerland in February. Vocational study there is the choice of the top 40 per cent of academic achievers. Pupils study high-quality vocational courses, often in tandem with an apprenticeship, and, for those who want it, there is a clear route to university. The old divide between vocational and academic doesn't exist.

Labour would also take action to improve standards in English and maths. Poor literacy costs the UK workplace #163;10 billion a year. The government just wants those who haven't got a C at GCSE to retake them; but this isn't good enough. Under Labour, all young people will continue to study these subjects up to 18.

Our plans are being taken forward in a taskforce led by Professor Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education, working alongside business and education leaders.

Down with party games

In his attack on Labour as the "Downton Abbey party" in a speech last month, Gove revealed his intellectual snobbery. He thinks that children from less well-off backgrounds can succeed only if they get a narrow education.

I want young people in state schools to get the same opportunities as those in the top private schools. For example, pupils in state schools should have the chance to develop the debating and speaking skills required to succeed at job or university interviews. We would expand after-school activities and ensure that children take at least two hours of sport a week.

I am proud that under Labour governments, teachers helped to narrow the attainment gap between poorer and richer children, according to independent research by the Financial Times. But everything Gove does threatens that progress. The number of teachers has dropped by 10,000. The number of pupils getting catch-up tuition at primary schools has also fallen.

Labour focused its academies programme on raising standards in poorer communities, but Gove has played an ideological numbers game by concentrating on converter academies that are already outstanding.

Of course we need to do more to narrow the gap. The key is more and better teachers, and supporting existing teachers to improve their practice. That's why Labour wants to improve the quality of professional development through a new Royal College of Teachers. We would also provide new incentives for graduates to teach in challenging areas of the country by providing a rebate on their tuition fees. And we would expand programmes such as Teach First.

Teachers can make the difference. But Gove likes to label them as the "enemies of promise". Playing cheap politics isn't the way to strengthen the profession.

Imagine Gove's surprise when he finally emerges from the jungle, clutching his Latin textbooks and his abacus, and learns that we need thousands more aerospace engineers, biotechnicians and 3D animators. If we are going to win the global race in education, we can't fight yesterday's battles.

Stephen Twigg is Labour's shadow education secretary.

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