Dear Mr Gove: Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent

Dear Mr Gove: Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent

The Guardian  |by Michael Rosen on March 4, 2013

Four-year-old children working with numbers

Should four-year-olds have numeracy targets? Photograph: Alamy
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Michael Rosen’s latest letter to Michael Gove: Once again he asks the questions we all want to raise and says what many in the education system are already thinking. Well worth a read. 

I see that the education select committee has asked you and your permanent secretary to reappear before them. I was surprised by your response: you seem to think that this is a waste of time. You wrote to the committee saying you were free to answer their questions: “Then, perhaps, the Department for Education team can get on with improving children’s lives and you can consider where your own energies might be directed.”

I had no idea that it was your job to tell the select committee what they should be doing. Isn’t the idea of you telling others about how their “own energies might be directed” laughable?

I’ve been in several parts of the country that are reeling from the chaos of your top-down transformation of the structure of education. As was predicted, an academy can fail an Ofsted inspection. The problem is that you seem to think that turning a school into an academy is a cure and, following from that, you don’t seem to have imagined a scenario in which the cure could fail or that the cure itself might ever need curing.

So what happens when an academy fails? Presumably, as your “energies” are “directed” towards this by the red light flashing on the map in your office, you as sole commander of Academy England issue instructions: “Switch sponsors! Chuck out AET, bring in Harris! Hang on, I sent Harris to that other place. How about a superhead? Any superheads around? No? Why not? No one wants to apply for the job? Tell the head in the next-door school, she’s got to do the job or she’s out on her ear. Federate!

“Now you’re telling me that if she becomes superhead the deputy head doesn’t want to be a stand-in head? OK, this is the plan: who’s the local authority? Right, this might be tricky, but I want you to sidle up to them, tell them that I’ve never been against local authorities and see if they can … er … provide some assistance to this academy …”

Meanwhile, out there beyond the walls of your office, I can tell you that people are seriously confused about the fact that there isn’t just one kind of academy – there appear to be several different kinds. I only have nine years of tertiary education to my name, so I’m not able to understand the structures that you’ve put in place with your well-directed “energies”. I haven’t got any further than thinking that there are: old academies, opted-in academies and Govean you-must-be-academies-because-I-say-so academies. To which must be added the still-academies-even-though-they-failed-Ofsted academies. Perhaps at some point you’ll stand before us and let us know how this “improves children’s lives”.

Looking even closer, we can now see what happens when one of your favoured academy sponsors, on your instruction, takes over a local authority school. Let’s home in on a school whose parents, staff, local council and local MP all wanted it to remain under local authority control; a school where the Ofsted inspection showed it performed better than average for its least-able pupils. In came the Govean sponsors who have sent out letters to the parents saying: “Unfortunately, your child has still not met their initial target of being able to recognise their numerals 1-10.”

Fair enough, people might say. Children must be able to recognise numbers, eh? One problem: this letter went to parents of four-year-olds. Does telling these parents a) that their children have failed b) that four-year-olds should have numeracy targets c) that this is their target as opposed to the academy sponsor’s target, “improve children’s lives”?

This is a point of arrival. You alone decide that a school will become an academy. This joins it to a system that cannot cater for all children.

Through the league tables it enforces competition between schools, which results in teaching to the test. Teachers, parents and children are controlled by targets, with the ultimate result that large numbers of children are marked as failures.

But where do these targets come from? Where is the theory and evidence to show that every four-year-old should have targets; should recognise numerals; or that demanding this “improves children’s lives”?

No, I’ll rephrase that: where is the discussion about how four-year-olds learn that you and your department could start, as opposed to this kind of Gove-enforced, sponsor-directed instruction?

Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent

Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent

guardian.co.uk |July 2, 2012

Michael Rosen

O-levels plan

Does the education secretary, Michael Gove, have any evidence that making exams harder makes students better at anything? Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

As you probably know, many people wonder how our children’s education is being run at the moment. Up until the last couple of weeks, I thought the one person who would know the answer to this would be you. Now I have my doubts. Can I run past you the chronology on how we parents heard about something that will fundamentally affect the education of all our children – in my case, my two youngest?

You’ll remember that on 20 June, Tim Shipman of the Daily Mail landed a sensational scoop: precise details of how GCSEs were to be scrapped from September 2014 to be replaced by O-levels, set and examined by a single exam board, alongside “simpler exams, similar to the old CSEs” for “less intelligent pupils”.

What we don’t know here is whose words are in quotation marks. Are they yours? One of your officials’? Or Shipman’s? All we can say is that it must be very convenient for you that we don’t know. That way, you can always lay claim to the words that people praise and disown the ones that people dislike.

When the story broke, we noticed, first, that you didn’t deny it, and secondly, it appeared as if you were the only person in the world who had heard of this plan. Will you ever clear that matter up? The reason I ask is that there is a feeling in and around schools and universities that education is too important and too complex to be left to one person, his pencil and the back of an envelope – even someone as wise and thoughtful as yourself.

What happened next wasn’t the most successful day in your career, with hardly a voice anywhere congratulating you on what was clearly a two-tier system, which would entail streaming pupils from the age of 12 or 13. With the rage and contempt you brought on yourself, you might just as well have been talking about bringing back dip-pens and ink-wells. (Now there’s an idea for you.)

A few days later, the BBC website told us of a speech you gave at a Spectator conference. Now we learned that it most certainly wasn’t going to be a two-tier system: everyone was going to take the new O-levels. In other words, it was going to be the GCSE but harder. Do you have any evidence that making exams harder makes students better at anything? I’m sure you could put yourself in charge of raising the high-jump bar in the Olympics, but that would ensure that fewer high jumpers could clear it. In so far as anything resembling a policy is emerging here, that’s about the only one I can discern: make the exams harder in order to get more students failing.

Then, on 28 June, the seemingly well-informed Shipman was back with confirmation that neither the prime minister nor the Lib Dems had known anything about your original announcement. He had something else up his sleeve: “Mr Gove made the case that he can tear up the exam system and bring back O-levels with the stroke of a pen, and since no legislation is required Mr Clegg can be ignored.”

Do you know, that’s precisely what is worrying many of us? It’s the image of you roaming round the Department for Education working out where you’re going to deliver your pen-stroke next. Meanwhile, we know that though this flourish of the pen will affect our children’s education, the matter need not pass through the mechanisms of government. It’s Govement, not government.

You’ve let it be known your inspiration for this harder exam is Singapore. The great advantage in invoking other countries is that few of us are well enough informed to question whether you’re having us on or not. But some people are. On 25 June, David Price OBE (for services to education), director of learning for the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, told us on his blog: “Three weeks ago I was in Singapore, invited by the ministry of education … to share the innovation of the educational projects I’ve led. While Gove’s proposed reforms are set to follow Singapore’s exam system, their aspirations have already moved on. Singapore’s minister of education has given officials 18 months to rebuild the system so that it can produce students who can create, collaborate, think critically and compete globally in our unpredictable future. Among many other initiatives, they have instigated a pilot programme based on my work” – Price’s specialism being “re-engaging learners weary of the exam-factory culture”.

From inside Westminster, and indeed inside your brain, it may seem as if you move like lightning: scrapping one exam, inventing another, getting a story out, then another, but the substance of what you have in mind is yesterday’s dinner. As an experienced professional like Price is telling you, the world is moving on. Singapore has noticed but you haven’t. Why not do us all a favour and forget all about that silly “stroke of a pen” stuff?

Yours, Michael Rosen

PS, I don’t suppose you read Private Eye, but would you like to comment on the story in the latest issue, which claimed “educational publishers are … wondering at the conflict of interest” in the roles played by Ruth Miskin, who is reported as being a) the only primary literacy expert on the government’s committee overseeing the national curriculum review, b) the creator of a reading scheme that is government approved and c) whose publishers are in receipt of up to £3,000 of government match-funding each time a school buys Miskin’s reading scheme?

Dear Mr Gove: Letter from a curious parent

Dear Mr Gove: Letter from a curious parent

guardian.co.uk

An academy library

Most academies are performing well, but if they don’t, who will solve the problem? Photograph: Alamy

I know you’re proud of your policy of creating academies, but something happened on 23 April that pressed my panic button. You told the Commons education select committee that eight academyschools have been served with “pre-warning notices” because they are severely underperforming. I immediately thought, how come? Aren’t academies the solve-all, the system that will rid us of “underperforming”schools? For the record, let’s say it out loud: we now know that academies can and do fail. Perhaps, though, I should suspend my judgment, because the great advantage of the academy system is that the moment something goes wrong, the parents’ complaints will be heard and the secretary of state will be on to it?

Let’s look closer. First, we’re not allowed to know what or where these academies are. With local authority schools, we have accountability and transparency with online Ofsted reports, sometimes followed by local newspaper headlines and TV fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but with academies, we have the schools that dare not speak their name. And we have the academy accounts that dare not be made public.

Even so, should I have confidence that the matter is being handled competently? It doesn’t seem so. The education select committee chairman, Graham Stuart, tried to work out whose job it was to deal with what parents think about these underperforming academies. Was it the Young People’s Learning Agency – now closed – where parents with children in local authority schools used to go with their complaints, or perhaps the Education Funding Agency?

No one in the world, least of all you, seemed to know. When some parents (who are presumably under some kind of gagging order to not reveal where this is going on) called the YPLA, they were told this wasn’t in its remit. The Special Education Consortium seems to have approached the EFA to find out if this was in its remit. Nope. The EFA said that dealing with complaints about academies wasn’t its problem either. I’m sure you would agree that it’s a shame these parents can’t talk to the press about their frustrations in this matter.

The problem was: it was no one’s problem. Not the YPLA’s, not the EFA’s, not yours. It’s not good enough, is it? In fact, it’s a scandal. Can I make an observation? Over the last 20 years, your predecessors and you have been very keen to point the finger at what they say are “underperforming” schools. You have even taken action to force through a conversion job, turning a “failing” local authority school into a seemingly un-fail-able academy (not so un-fail-able, huh?). Yet when we look at your own process of governance, we find it’s underperforming. It’s not enabling parents’ complaints to be heard. That makes it not fit for purpose. What’s more, you didn’t know about it. You’re underperforming as well.

That to one side, should we be confident these academies will improve? All we hear from you is that if things don’t get better,“action” will be taken. What is this action? I read this week that you’re very keen to up the involvement of the Church of England in education. Perhaps you have a plan up your sleeve where clerics from areas where congregations have shrunk could be redeployed taking over failing academies?

While we’re on religion, can I ask you about the Bibles? I have a clear memory of you saying that you were going to put Bibles in every school. Did you buy the Bibles? If not, why not? Alternatively, if you did buy the Bibles, where are they? In a self-storage depot? I can see them now: thousands of brand-new Bibles jammed into steel boxes in Safestore just off the A1 near Biggleswade. Maybe they’re waiting for your team of CofE recruits. And how much is it all costing? I do hope it’s not another case of underperforming.

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