‘You somehow imposed your own prejudices on education’ – one primary teacher’s extraordinary open letter to Michael Gove

The most shocking thing about Michael Gove's reign as education secretary was that one individual was able to change the system so much for the worse, writes this primary teacher

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Dear Mr Gove,

I see that you are driving yourself back into the public eye. You came back on to my radar with your scoop of an interview with Donald Trump. I noted the grin, the twinkle in your eyes (à la Nigel Farage in a gold-plated lift) as you posed for a "thumbs up" photograph with the then president-elect. Your mutual appreciation was evident and hardly surprising, given that you appear to share many of the same ideas and core beliefs.

Firstly, Michael, you and Trump both appear to share an insatiable need to be in the public eye. How else to explain Trump’s early morning tweets? How else to explain your rapid return to the spotlight after such an ignominious debacle in the days following the Brexit referendum?

Moreover, both of you share a belief in belittling the opinions of experts, whether they be civil servants or career professionals in a specialised field. We all know Trump's views on the “swamp” of the Washington bureaucracy and his views on environmentalism, despite the accepted wisdom of a vast majority of scientists. In recent days, you have argued that your anti-expert rhetoric during the referendum has been misconstrued. However, as long as seven years ago, you were already demonstrating, by your actions, a deeply held distrust of expert educational opinion.

As you embarked on your role as education secretary, you set out to put to one side the views of civil servants within the Department of Education, to disregard the prevailing wisdom of the teaching profession, in order to oversee an overhaul of the national curriculum. The new document proved to be, to an almost fantastical degree, the personal educational manifesto of a single individual. By dint of the fact that you had been to school, by dint of the fact that you had experienced the power of an inspirational teacher or two, and by dint of the fact that you had (to your credit) a daughter in a state primary school, you had the arrogance, Michael, to believe that you alone had the expertise to design a curriculum for all.

What followed was the publication of a curriculum that included some good ideas – who could argue with the oft-quoted aim of desiring to expose children to the "great thinkers"? However, in reality it was a massive missed opportunity to deliver a truly outstanding education system for the future. Through your fundamental misunderstanding of education, you increased (or in some cases, merely reorganised) the content of the curriculum, reducing it, in the process, to what is most easily measurable. Michael, it would have been much more innovative and powerful to refocus education on principles rather than facts. What we needed was an educational system which strove to be exceptional within a rapidly globalising world; which promoted understanding rather than recall; which used everything that we have learned from educational research to optimise children’s learning; which promoted sustainability rather than short-term performance. It took over 20 years for the original national curriculum to be modified – unfortunately, we are going to have to live with your version for a long time.

A 'damaging' new leadership culture

What is most shocking about your reign in education, Michael, was that one individual was able to impose his own beliefs and prejudices to such an extent, virtually unimpeded. For this, David Cameron must take the bulk of the responsibility. Your appropriating of power to deliver a personal agenda, albeit on a smaller scale, cannot fail but to remind one of somebody across the pond. We can only hope that the oft-quoted "checks and balances" of the US’ political system are more effective in curbing the excesses of Trump, than Cameron was in curbing yours.

Another damaging product of your period in education, Michael, has been a change in the culture of school leadership, which corresponds to your own style of leadership. Much has been spoken of legacies in recent weeks. Well a legacy of your period of office has been a change in culture within schools, which has been at best unhelpful and at worst downright damaging. This change is characterised by a movement away from collaborative endeavour, and a corresponding movement towards autocratic decision-making – a change which reflects the political move towards greater individualism.

One of the most powerful products of the Blair government’s education policy was the focus on collaborative endeavour. Education ministers actively sought the opinions and advice of experts in the field. This was manifested through the primary strategies which sought to collate and disseminate good practice. Basically, good practice was developed by teachers and advisers, shared between schools and modified accordingly. The culture in schools was much more inclusive; headteachers were actively encouraged, through the National College of School Leadership, to use more distributive models of leadership.

Under your leadership, Michael, the culture of leadership within the Department of Education changed, and this has filtered down into schools. Heads, for example, are now expected to be seen to "lead" on everything, especially on "teaching and learning". Modern heads feel it incumbent on themselves to be seen to be the one making decisions, to be seen to be leading from the front. This change in emphasis may seem small but it has led to a decline in interest in headship, a lowering of teacher morale (since their voices are less valued) and a subsequent increase in the numbers taking time off for stress-related illness or, even worse, leaving the profession. Such leadership affects teachers’ lives; it affects their mental wellbeing.

Cultures of leadership matter. Perhaps Obama’s greatest legacy is the culture of his leadership – a leadership characterised by honesty, dignity, humility and grace; characterised by listening and by collaboration. The culture of your leadership in education mattered, Michael – it will take a significant time before it is replaced by a more effective one.

It is also a culture that appears to be about to be repeated in Trump’s administration. No wonder, in that photo, that the two of you look so at ease with each other – a mutual admiration society. You have much in common.

David Jones

David Jones is a pseudonym. He is a primary teacher in London

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