Listen to your teammates, Mr Gove

5th April 2013 at 01:00
He should be copying fellow Tory Gillian Shephard's tactics with teachers, argues John Bangs

Notably absent from this year's International Summit on the Teaching Profession in Amsterdam was education secretary Michael Gove - or, indeed, any English minister, although those of many other high-performing countries were present. It seemed to illustrate the disdain with which Gove treats England's teachers.

It is all the more striking considering that the attitude of the previous Conservative education secretary, Gillian Shephard (now Baroness Shephard of Northwold), could not have been more different.

Just before the 2010 general election, I interviewed both these Tories for a book I was writing on Tony Blair's education reforms. Reviewing the transcripts, one finds Gove's tone emollient. He said he was "very much in favour of a new partnership with the professionals" and that there was a "particular role for the voice of professionals in improving standards".

However, his post-election clarion cry, "liberate teachers", soon evaporated. The General Teaching Council for England was abolished. A new performance managementpay system was imposed. Any semblance of professional development as an entitlement disappeared to be replaced by a few ill-resourced teaching school hubs. Much valuable knowledge about teacher learning disappeared when the Training and Development Agency for Schools' professional development database was closed. A new national curriculum has been brought in without any meaningful consultation. Damaging reforms have been mooted for the exam system. Ofsted has ratcheted up its pressure. Communication with teaching unions has broken down.

In short, unlike ministers attending the summit, Gove seems to have rejected the idea of a coherent teacher policy based on a new partnership with the profession. For teachers, he has become an education secretary who imposes destructive change while furthering his ambitions.

This is not a party political point but rather one about learning from recent educational history. When I interviewed Shephard, I asked what her priorities had been, given that she had replaced an education secretary, John Patten, who had refused to talk to teachers. She said she would have liked to concentrate on a lot of things but she knew that the Conservative government was about to end. One opportunity remained open.

"My priority, for which I was criticised in the right-wing press, was to restore good relations with teachers," she said. "Ministers, and indeed anyone, can say what they like about what teachers should do, but in the end teachers are on their own in the classroom and therefore they are the most important component in education ... If you have not got teachers working and relatively comfortable, you can't deliver anything."

In her interview she consistently emphasised that teachers, as "key players", have to be in "the forefront of your mind while you think about policies". Indeed, she criticised her Ofsted chief inspector Chris Woodhead's "often negative approach" towards teachers "because it just didn't work".

She said that governments should "talk and mean what they say" about standards. She questioned how support could be given to heads of "variable quality" and in "variable circumstances" if all schools were "free-standing". She concluded by saying that although as a minister "you cannot be the teacher's friend or anybody else's friend", it might help teachers to know that the education secretary understood how they felt.

Funding cuts, grammar schools and grant-maintained status dominated the previous Conservative government's policies, perhaps influencing teachers to vote overwhelmingly for Labour in 1997. Nevertheless, Shephard seems to have understood the importance of what most top-performing countries now describe as "teacher policy". Gove evidently does not.

The coalition government needs to ask itself whether its lack of a coherent teacher policy is the reason for England's education system stalling against international benchmarks. And if it finds the answer to be yes, then it could do worse than turn to one former minister in its own ranks for some salient advice.

John Bangs is a senior consultant for Education International.

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