Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

22 November 2013

Michael Gove is probably a very busy man. As the education secretary here in the UK, he should be. But I rather hope he might find a minute to reconsider his plans for the form and function of our nation’s secondary schools.

It seems that like the changing seasons, successive governments introduce reforms to teaching practices, assessment and the structure of institutions. These are often divisive which is unsurprising: education is, after all, one of the issues that apparently inspires people to adopt an ideological approach rather than a pragmatic one.

But there are some specific details with regard to the shape of the teaching – of English language and literature specifically – that leave me at best perplexed and at worst despairing. It seems we are back in Victorian times, where “knowledge” is paramount and you have one chance to prove that you have learnt all you need to know. And the person who decides all you need to know is Michael Gove.

Let’s talk some subject specifics. The changes mooted for the English syllabus in two years’ time smack of intellectual snobbery. I don’t believe that the minutiae of 19th-century literature or the work of the Romantic poets is necessarily the best knowledge base a student can build. Surely instead we should be fashioning a generation of young people that knows how to ask the right questions and be canny and confident enough to dismiss the wrong ones?

Kids should develop their reading skills through books that they find engaging. A hungry mind that devours and comprehends the nuances of Steinbeck is surely no less worthy than one that can demonstrate absolute recall of the name of the village in Pride & Prejudice.

Neither apparently do we want to offer vocational pathways to the next generation. So we ignore the manifest lessons taught by our Nordic cousins, for example, who value such broad brushstrokes and – the last time I checked – boast a rather better record in literacy, employment, earning power and standard of living.

In the UK there is no longer any merit in replicating a real-life system of work: where you deliver consistently and your overall contribution is taken into account. Instead it’s take it or leave it: put up the numbers in a one-off exam or be damned. Does Mr Gove really believe that this approach to teaching offers every student the best chance to fulfill his or her potential?

We are returning to an educational era where one size fits all; it’s the prescribed way or else. That is a system that promises – like a tedious session of rote learning – to do infinitely more harm than good. The lessons of the past show us that. So Mr Gove, why on Earth should we force this latest generation of students to learn it for themselves?

Tom Edwards is Monocle 24’s news editor.

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