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 Science fiction: Sir Chris Woodhead warned Gove to beware the Blob

This June, David Aaronovitch interviewed Michael Gove at the Wellington College Festival of Education. To begin the interview, Aaronovitch asked Gove why he was encountering so much opposition from within the profession. In education, Gove replied, there are progressive viewpoints and there are traditionalist viewpoints. The education establishment clings to the former, and he wants to move schools towards the latter. 

It was heartening to hear such clarity in his response. However, one may well question how much power the Secretary of State has to change what teachers teach, and how they teach it. Gove is hoping to achieve nothing short of a culture change across 24,000 schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland — something that is very difficult to legislate from Westminster. 

He has entered a battlefield strewn with the debris of previous campaigns. Throughout the 1990s, Sir Chris Woodhead fought for higher academic standards in state education, first as Chief Executive of the National Curriculum Council and then as Chief Inspector of Schools. The experience left him war weary, and in 2000 he resigned as Chief Inspector. On the eve of the 2010 election, a sceptical Woodhead engaged in a dialogue with the then Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove in Standpoint. He asked, "Will, though, the Conservative government take on the educational establishment and win? At the very least, the jury is still out on that question. I'm not sure that Michael or anyone else understands just how difficult ‘the Blob' is to fight."

Woodhead's term "the Blob" is taken from a 1958 science-fiction film about a giant amoeba-like alien that terrorises a small American town. The Blob seeps into every corner of the community, and subsumes any attempt to destroy it, becoming more powerful with every attack. It is a convenient metaphor for what Gove calls the education establishment. Teaching unions, local education authorities, teacher training providers, and education quangos are the core components of the Blob-a bloated morass of vested interests. 

The Blob's monopoly on the supply of schooling has been damaging enough, but far more damaging has been its intellectual monopoly. As the guardian of a particular thought-world, any deviation from the approved progressive orthodoxy is suppressed. In their dialogue, Woodhead advised Gove that, to rescue schools from the Blob, he would need "to abolish the National Curriculum, to abolish Ofsted and to abolish the teacher training system". Even for Gove, such actions would have been too radical. However, three years into his tenure at the Department for Education, the Blob is showing significant signs of weakness.

I became a teacher in 2011, and in my first two years the insensible operation of the Blob's progressive orthodoxy was profound. At the university education department where I studied for my PGCE teaching qualification, the tenets of child-centred teaching were promoted not as one method among many but as the definition of "good practice". In an essay I criticised the ideas of one of progressive education's prophets, Lev Vygotsky — a Soviet psychologist who died in 1934. I was given a grade on the pass/fail borderline and told that I might have to resubmit the essay. My traineeship was punctuated by training sessions, all reinforcing the diktats and jargon of progressive education: active learning, relevant (i.e. dumbed-down) curricula, skills over knowledge, leniency in discipline and limited teacher-talk. As a trainee teacher, I was reliably marked down in lesson observations for my unwillingness to embrace this approach. 

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John Connor
November 25th, 2013
2:11 PM
Yada, yada. Heard it all before. More peddling of half-truths and wilful ignorance of the growing failings of the academy/free school vanity project. I have never heard of a state school being described as "dysfunctional" by OFSTED; a 27 year unqualified ex- think tanker appointed as a head teacher - lasted 4 weeks; a failed independent school transferred into the free school fold, bringing with it debts of £5m to be picked up by the taxpayer; IT contracts awarded to head teacher's partner; an academy currently without a head teacher or deputy; blatant misuse of public funds for jollies and first class travel; academies openly advertising for unqualified staff; academies attempting to drive a coach and horses through admissions procedures to reduce the number of SEN pupils - the list just gets longer and longer. I bow to your 2 years' experience - it's obviously superior to my 38.I'm not pretending that all was rosy in the past. There were issues to address, but this scorched-earth back to the 1950s policy has actually thrown out some very useful babies with the bath water. Meanwhile, the car-crash that is school places gets ever closer, and despite your "apprenticed to experienced teachers" model, nobody now has any control or oversight of training needs, so we no longer know how many teachers are required in which subjects and where. Add to that the fact that the DfE, and by extension Gove, is now directly responsible for over 2,00 schools despite not having anything like the capacity to fulfil all the roles that you ascribe to it. Gove has been very successful at dismantling state education to the point where he has done so much damage it will be nigh impossible to restore it to anything recognisable, and by the time the first academy chain goes under, stranding pupils like JB did in Sweden (10,000 pupils without a school) he'll be long gone, enjoying a fat retainer as a non-executive director of a for-profit free school federation, or leading the Murdoch assault on the UK curriculum. You people really are tiresome. Oh, and by the way, I think you'll find it's Royal Assent (para 17 line 3)

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