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  • Published in Education

This October will see the launch of a concerted campaign by teachers, students and parents to stop the human wrecking ball of education known as Michael Gove

A sequence of strikes, demonstrations and rallies over the current term marks the beginning of a potentially decisive contest between the forces of neoliberal Gradgrindery personified by Gove and the defenders of state education, spearheaded by the teacher unions.

On 1 October the two major teacher unions, NUT and NASUWT, will take strike action in the Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside. Just over a fortnight later, teachers in the North East, South East and South West will also walk out to demonstrate their disgust at Gove's relentless assault on the values of comprehensive education. These two actions follow on from a solid strike in the North West region last June. If these two walkouts fail to deflect Gove, union leaders are promising a national strike sometime before Christmas.

Rally for education

The strikes have been preceded by a series of packed Rallies for Education held in cities across England and Wales. These events have underlined that teachers will be rightly protesting about an insidious erosion of their pay, pensions and conditions but that the strikes are also part of a wider ideological battle between two visions of what education means.

Gove's reactionary quest for a return to the class-bound and narrow curriculum of the pre-WW2 era is pitted against the legacy of the comprehensive revolution of the 1960s that transformed thousands of working class lives for the better. As NUT General Secretary, Christine Blower, puts it:

The rallies have presented a positive vision and voice for education. This is in stark contrast to the Coalition government, whose continual denigration of our schools, teachers and pupil attainment has caused widespread dismay. This, alongside a backdrop of perpetual changes to school structures and education policies, often ignoring the opinions and wishes of parents and professionals, has left many sectors of society angry and frustrated.

If Gove is successful parents will increasingly find their children being taught by a ground-down and demoralised workforce. Students will experience a diminution of access to the diversity of an enriching curriculum. If Gove is not stopped by this wave of resistance it could mark a terminal blow to public sector education and pave the way for his ultimate goal of a privatised system managed by the bloodsuckers currently running some academies and free schools.

On those two strike days in October we can expect to see ritualistic denunciations from coalition ministers of striking teachers for depriving children of a day’s education. This is sheer hypocrisy from a government that is threatening to deprive whole generations of quality of provision.

School on Saturdays?

Michael Wilshaw, boss of Ofsted and Gove's leading attack dog, recently exposed the meanness at the heart of the coalition education agenda with his claim that:

A lot of my teachers at Mossborne and St Bonaventure's, where I was head in the 80s and 90s, worked with the children late into the evenings, enjoyed coming in on Saturday mornings.  There's great pleasure from it."

It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to visualise how most teachers who already struggle to cope with the five-day treadmill of unnecessary workload would react to the prospect of being coerced into losing a chunk of their weekend as well. Gove has already made clear his equally hare-brained commitment to snatch the much cherished long summer break.

Not only would his meddling with the summer holiday deprive teachers and children of essential psychological downtime in the school year, it would cause chaos for parents who have children in different schools and who are used to a coordinated approach by councils. As usual, this is an entirely ideologically motivated attack by Gove aimed at undermining local authority control of education. There is absolutely no demand from parents or educators for this proposal.

The work-life balance would also be shredded by other parts of the Gove agenda. PPA time currently guarantees teachers an essential minimum period of allocated space on the timetable for preparation and marking outside the classroom. Gove would hand this over to the discretion of headteachers. Any teacher unlucky enough to work for a head like Wilshaw could expect to wave  goodbye to their social life. Increased levels of cover, exam invigilation and pointless paperwork can  also be anticipated if Gove gets his way.

Teachers at the tipping point

Many teachers are already at breaking point regarding workload and the Gove agenda might just prove to be the tipping point for them. One young female teacher blogger has vividly recounted her mounting levels of alienation and exploitation:

PPA time? Ha! What a joke! I only get three hours of that a week and it’s usually swallowed by meetings, intervention, dealing with student behaviour incidents or supporting other colleagues. No, ALL of my lesson planning and marking takes place in my own time, after 7pm in the evening or at weekends. And of course, I’m expected to teach outstanding lessons, so I can’t just pick up something I’ve used before and churn it out. No, I have to be creative, I must personalise the learning, I must make each task more engaging, more entertaining, more fun, more creative. It’s exhausting just to read about it, let alone live it. Goodbye social life. Goodbye, evenings. Goodbye, weekends. Hello work.

This is the reality of the teaching profession in the age of austerity-not Wilshaw's dream of teachers stampeding through the school gates on a Saturday morning or Gove's vision of them sat slumped at their desks in August. Doubtless, this teacher’s articulation of the downside of the job would see her labelled as one of the ‘enemies of promise’ who Gove thinks are responsible for declining standards.

Comply or else

Nor is there any enthusiasm for other aspects of Gove's proposed changes to the status of teachers. He is threatening to remove numerous parts of the pay structure that have made the job attractive to idealistic and dedicated graduates over recent decades. No longer would teachers moving schools be guaranteed the same salary.

Automatic pay progression would be phased out and replaced with a threshold system that leaves staff vulnerable to pressure to comply with bullying managers.  Instead of the job being seen as an essentially collaborative exercise between trusted colleagues, teachers would be pitted against each other in a grubby competition for promotion.

Many staff already complain about lesson observations being used as a weapon by bullying managers.  The Gove agenda would mean teachers fearing their mortgage could be in the hands of an unsympathetic senior colleague with a clipboard at the back of the class.  Teachers with a reputation for creative independence or displaying an unhealthy interest in union activity would undoubtedly be targeted under this system.

All this would be alongside an estimate that teachers already stand to lose over 15% of take home pay over the duration of this government.

The pension reforms also mean teachers face the grim prospect of working till they are 68.

Rigour mortis

Gove tries to legitimate his ideological offensive with a heap of smoke and mirrors claims about falling standards and the need to inject greater rigour into the curriculum. As John Yendall from the Institute of Education points out, this is spurious nonsense and conceals an ill-disguised reactionary agenda:

This word rigour has become a stick to beat the GCSEs with. This word rigour has become a weapon in Gove’s class war.

Gove's meddling with the primary and secondary curriculum reflects his utterly backward approach of returning education to the pre-comprehensive focus on rote learning and passive memorising of facts. He wants primary children to learn poems by heart without understanding or discussing the meaning of the words. He has imposed the synthetic phonics method of learning to read even though evidence suggests it is only one of a number of effective techniques.

Gove’s attempt to rig the secondary History curriculum into a jingoistic litany of imperial expansion was only deflected after an outcry from teachers and historians. 'Rigour' has become Tory coda for shrinking working-class access to a broad-based education and rolling back the advances in classroom provision since the 1960s.

Premier Inn Politics

Gove's constant running down of UK education in his speeches oddly neglects to mention some off-message  assessments of the pernicious myth of falling standards. Last year an authoritative report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, based on a range of sources, came to the conclusion that in global terms of educational attainment:

The UK was sixth behind Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. The UK was second in Europe, second in the Western world.

Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised that Gove overlooks this sort of positive data as he apparently prefers to use Premier Inn customer surveys as his main source of cutting edge educational research!

Beneath his tiresome bluster about standards, Gove's real agenda in education policy is apparent from his steamroller approach to rolling out the academies and free schools programme. In effect, these are privatised trojan horses forced into the public sector under the propaganda of expanded choice for parents. Teachers find themselves vulnerable to inferior working conditions and pupils who are unlikely to shine in exams are shown the door.

Annoyingly for Gove, the Swedish model for this model collapsed in debt this summer, demonstrating how myopic it is to put public sector education in the hands of private sector vampires.

The case of Downhills Primary in Tottenham also illustrates how the Academy programme is, in fact, utterly undemocratic and that parental choice doesn’t extend to those who actually like the idea of local authority accountability.

People's Education

Some teachers and parents might be sceptical that one-day strikes could make any difference to a blowhard ideologue like Gove. But it is important to see that the People’s Assembly can help shift the dynamic of struggle in Britain. A broad spectrum of resistance on the left is uniting over common goals - including the defence of comprehensive education.

Picket lines in October need to become the springboard for debates about education for liberation that can be taken into the forums of People's Assemblies up and down the country. These strikes create an opening to mobilise teachers and their supporters around a renewed commitment to the full breadth of learning and a ‘rigorous' rejection of Gove's Gradgrindery.

Tagged under: Education
Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History