So where do we go from here, Mr Gove?

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
In the build up to next week's Conservative Party conference, The TES caught up with Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, armed with questions from our teacher forums. Will he survive a grilling from the chalkface?

In an ideal world how many children would be on a secondary school roll?

It's a very interesting question but it's not one that should be determined on a school-by-school basis by a secretary of state. We know that smaller schools are more popular with parents, and that the smaller schools and class sizes are one of the reasons parents in New York say they like charter schools.

The Government has tried to force schools to become bigger and bigger over the past few years, through schemes such as Building Schools for the Future - it's a classic case of bureaucrats making plans in their ivory towers without taking into account what parents actually want. If we are successful in putting through the reforms to make the system more accountable to parents, the average size of schools and classes will almost certainly go down but, ultimately, it will be in the hands of parents.

Are you ever going to ask parents to be responsible for their kids?

We have pressed the Government repeatedly to make home-school contracts legally binding because teachers' jobs become impossible if they do not have parental support. The Government has done many things to undermine parental responsibility yet all the evidence shows that parental acceptance of a school's ethos is crucial.

Does the Conservative Party see "improvement in educational standards" as 50 per cent of pupils entering (but not necessarily graduating from) university, pupils gaining vocational skills, or pupils being able to enter a service-based economy at 16?

Different opportunities and career paths will suit people differently but we should make sure that all children have access to high-quality education so that they are in the best position to make that choice. Too many people - particularly in deprived areas - end up doing something that is not their preferred option because they have not had the opportunity in the first place. I don't believe in politicians setting artificial targets for numbers in higher education but if school standards improve there's no reason to believe why we shouldn't see more young people entering higher education and I would welcome that.

How far do you agree that the curriculum should contain the classical canon of history, literature and scientific knowledge and we should pull back from seeking to make content more relevant to the contemporary concerns and lives of young people? Should young people be discouraged from pursuing newer or non-traditional subjects such as media studies, which are not seen as credible by the best universities?

Nothing could be more relevant to the lives and concerns of young people than a national curriculum that gives them access to the best that has been thought and said.

Knowledge is power, and the progressive challenge of our time is ensuring the next generation has the depth of knowledge, the stock of intellectual capital, which allows them to take control of their own destiny. I want every child who can, to be able to display mastery of scientific principles, facility with mathematical processes, confidence in the use of language and knowledge of our nation's past and of our culture.

Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher, argued that every human being is born heir to an inheritance "of human achievements, of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, understandings, intellectual and practical enterprises, languages, canons, works of art, books, musical compositions and so on".

Education should be a process of granting every child their rights to that inheritance. But committed as I am to the ideal of liberal learning - the pursuit of knowledge as a good in its own right - I also believe that a knowledge-based curriculum helps spread economic opportunity.

Parents, employers and universities are all clear that qualifications in rigorous disciplines - English, maths, science, the humanities and hard vocational subjects - are the route to greater opportunity. I want to ensure that teachers, and students, have the freedom to pursue the most rigorous, and rewarding, courses without league tables distorting subject choices.

I would like to know how serious the Conservatives are about setting up Swedish-style schools in this country? Would the headgoverning bodystaff be able to decide on it? And would they be able to set their own pay scales?

We are deadly serious about improving educational achievement across the board, and that means learning lessons from countries across the globe. The experience of Sweden shows that welcoming new people into state education has helped drive up standards. That's why President Obama wants to increase the number of charter schools in the US - to promote diversity and innovation because we must always be pressing for improvement.

Sweden's free schools and charter schools in both the US and Canada have used their freedom from central and local bureaucracy to enhance the environment in which teachers operate. They've used freedom over the curriculum to give great teachers the space to transform results for the better. And they've used freedom over pay to reward good teachers. We believe that schools should have the freedom to reward great teaching more effectively.

Won't creating hundreds more academies simply develop a two-tier education system, bringing us back to the bad old days of grammar schools versus maintained schools?

No. The new academies will not be selective so they are not the same as grammar schools and the evidence from existing academies so far is that a rising tide has helped to lift all boats. We've seen from the example of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London - a fantastic comprehensive school that replaced a notoriously bad one a few years ago - that having a beacon school in a neighbourhood enhances performance overall. Parents expect good practice to spread.

What are you going to do to rectify the current school funding lottery, which sees some local authorities receiving hundreds of pounds per child per year more than another, when the labour and resource costs are national?

School funding will be reformed under a Conservative government so that the system is far simpler and more transparent. There will always be differences across the country, to reflect differing levels of deprivation, for example, but the point is people need to be able to see exactly where the money is going.

Are you going to actually allow us to teach our subject?

Yes. As I said above, the whole thrust of education policy under a Conservative government would be to trust professionals and enhance the place of subject teaching.

As someone who studied English at university because of the impact of inspirational teachers who imbued me with a love of literature, I am deeply concerned by what I hear from English teachers today about the way in which creativity in the classroom has been stifled.

I'm equally concerned about the way in which the science curriculum has been altered to reduce the real science content and replace it with current affairs. And I also worry about the decline in both history and language teaching, with pupils denied a proper narrative of the past and proper access to other cultures. Restoring respect for, and freedom to, subject specialists is at the heart of our approach for enhancing the prestige and esteem of teaching. That's why we want to see the sort of continuous professional development that helps deepen subject knowledge and respects teachers' passion for their subjects.

Over the long term, we must move in the direction of Finland and Singapore, who come top of the international league tables, and get more top graduates into teaching, train them better, reward them better, and honour their contributions more.

How are you going to pay for your version of the pupil premium?

We will set out the funding for the pupil premium in due course.

Can you guarantee teachers' pensions will stay at the current rate even for new teachers entering the profession?

This is an area for George Osborne (shadow chancellor of the exchequer) and we will make our plans clear before the election.

Mike Kent, TES columnist
Will you abolish the current Ofsted inspection set-up that requires pages and pages of forms to be filled in and the collection of endless amounts of data?

Ofsted's role needs to be simplified. Its capacity has been undermined by the huge number of extra responsibilities piled on to it. We want Ofsted to focus on the core activities of schools: teaching and learning.

Questions posed by Richard Vaughan.

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