The Blob Has Run Schools For Decades. Not Any More

It seeped into every classroom and subsumed any attempt to destroy it. But the education establishment has met its match in Michael Gove

Education Features
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. 

Attempts were made throughout the late 1980s and ’90s to stem the influence of these ideas. However, the Blob proved resilient and resisted reform. Remarkably, four of the institutions that Gove set his sights on reforming having come into power — the National Curriculum, Ofsted, GCSEs and the Training and Development Agency — had all been established by previous Conservative governments in an attempt to restore academic standards to the classroom. The Blob had subsumed each of these institutions and inverted them to serve its own ends. 

In his 2002 book Class War, Woodhead explains how the National Curriculum, established by Kenneth (now Lord) Baker in 1988 to ensure that all pupils were taught a core of academic knowledge, had been transformed by the Blob into a list of spurious “skills” and politically correct “themes”. He wrote: “The prospect now is of a curriculum that enshrines the evils it was meant to defeat.”

During the New Labour years, the Blob grew at an unprecedented rate, feeding off a seemingly unlimited supply of government money. New Labour may have proclaimed that ideology was dead but it had a blind spot when it came to progressive education. Gullible Education Secretaries were easily persuaded to fund the latest fads and schemes. From 1997 to 2010, education spending increased by 77 per cent in real terms, and a bewildering alphabet soup of competing agencies arose. 

A good example was the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), established in 1997 to maintain exam standards and revise the National Curriculum. For a period, its chief executive was Professor David Hargreaves, who made no secret of his progressive sympathies. In 1994 he wrote The Mosaic of Learning for the think tank Demos in which he wrote favourably of the educational guru Ivan Illich, an anarchist who saw schools as a form of industrial oppression and proposed the end of universal education. “Schools are still modelled,” Hargreaves wrote, “on a curious mix of the factory, the asylum and the prison.” Hargreaves stepped down from the QCA after the botched introduction of the AS level, and was replaced by Dr Ken Boston. Under Boston’s watch, the QCA developed the anti-academic, skills-based 2007 National Curriculum. The year he stepped down, during a fiasco over the marking of SATs exams, the QCA’s total budget was £170 million per year and Boston’s salary was £328,000. 

Meanwhile, Hargreaves had moved from the QCA to another Blob stalwart, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), to be its associate director for development and research. Nominally intended to give support to academies and specialist schools, the SSAT became a zealous organ of progressive ideas, providing training, conferences and a steady stream of publications. In 2007-08, the Labour government granted it £38.1 million. 

In 2006, Hargreaves wrote a pamphlet for the SSAT entitled A New Shape for Schooling, the origin of many of the fads that have filtered down to the classroom level: “deep learning”, “personalised learning”, “co-construction” — all terms which repackage in modern management-speak the worn-out creeds of progressive education. In a chapter entitled “A culture of personalisation through co-construction”, Hargreaves tipped his hat to the aforementioned Vygotsky and reinforced his anti-teaching doctrine: “The learner is neither an empty vessel into which teachers can pour the curriculum, nor the tabula rasa . . . Knowledge is not directly transferred to students through teaching, which is an intervention into a continuous process of the student’s knowledge-building activities.” 

Since taking office, Gove has removed government funding from the SSAT, abolished the QCA, and by his own count scrapped eight other education quangos. Where agencies have been retained, Gove has appointed wisely to change the culture. Under New Labour, Ofsted was wedded to the child-centred orthodoxy, penalising schools for not practising such methods. The new Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, a stern super-head from Hackney, has vowed this will end. The two agencies for training school heads and trainee teachers have been merged into one body, the National College for Teaching and Leadership. In January it was placed under the direction of Charlie Taylor, the hard-nosed former head of an outstanding primary school for children with behavioural difficulties. 

The progressives who once staffed these institutions have retreated to their university education departments but even these are under threat. Under the newly established school-centred initial teacher training, trainee teachers can bypass the traditional university-based PGCE. Instead, they go straight to successful schools and train as apprentices with experienced teachers. This reform has been publicly promoted as a way of providing more “on the ground” training, but it has a greater significance. Such training routes have the potential to break the hegemony of progressive teaching methods.

It is in this context that one must understand the letter from 100 education academics, which appeared in the Independent and the Telegraph in March. The letter attacked the new National Curriculum for focusing too much on knowledge (a “mountain of data”), and not enough on skills. It claimed that such a course of study “will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity”. The entire letter was suffused with appeals to the presumed authority of academic titles, opening with the words “As academics . . .” It continued: “The Education Secretary has repeatedly ignored expert advice.”

Education academics would like to be thought of as impartial “experts”, but this is not the case. As the education blogger Andrew Old has written, “Professors of education are about as neutral about policy as priests are neutral about religion . . . An education expert is not like a doctor, they are more like missionaries.” Gove has not ignored the advice of the Blob. He has understood its dogma, found it wanting and deliberately moved against it. 

Local Education Authorities (LEAs) used to be another safe house for the progressive “educationalist”, but Gove’s success with academy conversion is hastening their decline. The Academies Act received royal ascent just two months after the coalition victory, and it gave all schools the option to convert to academy status (no longer under the control of the LEA). So far 2,225 have taken up the offer, including the majority of secondary schools. These schools no longer have their academic standards and financial arrangements monitored by their LEA, or training, behavioural support and advisory services provided by them. Gove has not abolished the LEAs but he is reforming them to the point of insignificance. Soon enough, local government’s role will be purely administrative: organising school admissions and providing transport. The days when they could dictate how schools were run will be a distant memory.

Academies and Free Schools are often promoted on the basis of the innate virtue of autonomy, but this is not the whole story. A clutch of Academies and Free Schools are innovating in a way that defies the Blob’s progressive prejudices. Next year, the Phoenix Free School will open in Oldham. Established by veteran education campaigner Tom Burkard, it will have an emphasis on good discipline, and will be staffed by former members of the armed forces. The programme director will be an ex-officer in the British army and a Muslim from Manchester. The Standpoint contributor Katharine Birbalsingh has the strictly academic Michaela secondary school set to open in the London Borough of Brent in 2014, with high aspirations for the pupils. What is more, excellent schools with a proven track record are able to replicate what works. Perry Beeches, a school in Birmingham, opened a Free School last September, another last month, and has Perry Beeches IV in development for 2014. Many of my teaching colleagues who would be reluctant to support Gove in conversation are nonetheless endorsing his policies. They are moving jobs to work at these new Free Schools.

Admittedly, not all Free Schools are pioneering the academic education that Gove favours. One small school in Lancashire takes its name from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation makes up part of the school day. However, in the days of the “bog standard comprehensive”, progressive teaching was hegemonic and variation was not permitted. But today good ideas can finally crowd out bad. As Lord Prescott notoriously observed, the problem with good schools is that “everyone wants to go to them”.

In the eponymous film, the Blob is finally defeated when the town’s residents realise it is vulnerable to the cold. In the education world, there is no such silver bullet. However, Gove could succeed where other reforming ministers have not because he realises the importance of accompanying legislation with institutional change. By reforming teacher training, freeing schools from LEA control, abolishing quangos and appointing wisely, he has found an effective arsenal to fight the Blob. Whether the return to traditional forms of education will survive his tenure of office remains to be seen. The progressive dogma is still out there and still seductively powerful. But the stage is set for schools to diverge from progressive orthodoxy in previously unimaginable ways. The permanence of this divergence depends on the result of the 2015 general election, but the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar now to be heard across the world of education is the sound of the Blob’s retreat.