The piper(s) may have gone, but the tune remains the same?

untitleddavid_willettsAs another difficult academic year draws to a close, it goes without saying that Michael Gove’s departure will be greeted euphorically by teachers and campaigners, particularly those who have focussed almost entirely on the ex-Secretary of State’s combative style, abrasive manner and other personal inadequacies.

He may continue play a key role ‘at the heart of government’ ( and in maintaining  Tory Party discipline,  (somewhat ironic considering his own the recent spat with Home Secretary May) but Gove was becoming a liability for Cameron who has sought to restrict his public profile over recent weeks.  Also, with Gove at the helm, there’s been little chance of the long running teachers’ pay dispute being resolved. Strike action by teachers is not the cause of his departure,  but it’s  certainly been a contributory factor.

But it has to be said that one of Gove’s main projects  – making  exams more difficult pass,  trying to lower  aspirations and create new divisions between young people and between schools ( is now bedded in and timed to unravel over the coming months; also across any changes in government. As with Free Schools, Labour may repackage the proposals as a series of baccalaureates, but it won’t undo the detailed changes currently being implemented by examination boards, So in this respect Gove can be effectively moved, high profile Schools Minister Elizabeth Truss  promoted out of the Department for Education and a complete outsider (who is by all accounts pro-Gove) installed to oversee a holding operation until the election, combining her post as Education Secretary with a responsibility for Women (!)

If Gove’s legacies are to be seriously challenged and as the election approaches, a huge amount of work is required in developing an alternative education policy that goes beyond calling for teachers’ professional autonomy to be restored in the classroom and for LEAs to be rehabilitated. This means building links between teacher organisations, parent campaigners and Labour Party dissidents, but also across the different sectors of education.  

Compared with Gove, the resignation (or dismissal?) of Universities Minister David Willetts has received little attention. Attempting to ‘price out’ many potential students from  higher education, Willetts has been responsible for the introduction of a fees and loans system which rather than increasing opportunities has led to a situation where more than half of new graduates will end up in work inappropriate to their qualifications, (  with billions of loan debt likely never to be repaid as a result of poor job prospects and low pay (   Meanwhile, despite the efforts of (now also departed) Skills Minister Mathew Hancock to talk up their success, apprenticeships have not become serious alternatives to HE (

Standing up for education also means standing up for young people who, according to Institute of Fiscal Studies research (  have suffered far more than anybody else as a result of the recession.  



Michael Gove’s Stratford Speech.

imagesMartin Allen and Patrick Ainley

Attack is the best means of defence so Michael Gove earns top marks for coming out fighting in his speech at the London Academy of Excellence today. He has reinvented himself as the champion of social justice and opportunity to distract from his controversies with Ofsted!

Gove has gone further than Harold Wilson’s ‘grammar schools for all’ by promising ‘private education  for all’ – or at least state schools as good as private schools. His many detractors will point out this is impossible without equal pupil-teacher ratios, facilities and funding, let alone pupils’ very different types of cultural capital.

Even if Gove’s advocacy of social mobility sounds powerful, things have changed since the 1950s and ‘60s. Then a significant number of post-war working-class young people did indeed benefit from grammar schooling (which only mimicked the private schools). They did so through being able to move up alongside middle-class children as the economy expanded and white collar, managerial and professional   employment opportunities continued to grow.  How much educational benefit  they got from the sort of curriculum that Gove now wants to re impose is an entirely different question.

In today’s labour market however, the majority of young people are likely to end up worse off than their parents, regardless of the type of curriculum they follow.  In fact, evidence from the most recent UKCES skills survey ( suggests that employers who  do take on school, college and university leavers, are generally happy with their educational attainment.  It also confirms that   the main reason for persisting high levels of youth unemployment is that there is too much competition for too few jobs with employers giving preference to more experienced adults.

With few other opportunities, it isn’t surprising that university applications from 18 year olds are also at their highest ever. Especially from young women for whom there are even fewer labour market options.

So Gove’s policies, which seek to complete a Great Reversal of comprehensive education reforms, are much more about using secondary schooling to enforce social discipline on young people. But imposing practices and sanctions from the past – like writing lines and picking up litter   – or  having to attend   after school activities is more likely to have the opposite effect.

 It may be the case that after the economy went into recession in the 1970s with more or less permanent youth unemployment thereafter, comprehensive schools didn’t really improve the relative chances of working-class young people. But at least by encouraging greater social mixing, developing a new type of curriculum and changing the way it was delivered, comprehensives did try to make education more relevant to young people’s needs and schooling a more legitimate form of activity not to mention  a more enjoyable experience.

Gove’s Great Reversal is given a spring board as a result of Labour complying with a large part of his programme. So it’s left to teacher unions, whose members are already subject to further attacks on conditions of service and pay, to promote real alternatives.

Ebacc subjects bedding in

 While the recent league tables for secondary schools show a reduction in ‘underperforming schools’ they also show significant increases in numbers taking Ebaccuntitled GCSEs.

•72,000 more pupils took the EBacc than in 2012. In total, 202,000 pupils entered the EBacc (35% of the total), up from 130,000 (23%) in 2012
•in 735 schools, at least half of the pupils took the EBacc – more than double the 334 schools where that was the case in 2012
•23% of pupils in state-funded schools achieved the EBacc this year, up from 16% last year. The proportion of pupils in sponsored academies taking the EBacc has doubled since last year to 22%. Across all local authority mainstream schools, 34% of pupils entered the EBacc, up 13 percentage points.

Education Secretary Michael Gove wasted little time in tying the two together and linking them to the ‘success’ of the academies programme (
For Gove, opportunist as ever, the increased success in Ebacc subjects is ‘a credit to the professionalism and hard work of teachers’ ; but permanently aware and fearful of Ofsted’s expectations, individual schools, like individual teachers shackled by their own performance management targets, have little choice but to fall in line behind these new curriculum requirements.

In reality, Gove’s examination reforms have little to do with raising standards or enabling the UK economy to compete more effectively. Rather than helping young people “find a good job or go on to university”, imposing Ebacc subjects and changing the way in which examinations are assessed are designed to reduce success rates and lower aspirations, necessary in an economy where employment opportunities for young people are declining and where attending university increasingly becomes more expensive (follow link to download below). Despite the efforts of teachers pass rates for the Ebacc subjects – and performances based on eight accredited subjects are unlikely to reach those achieved previously.

The embedding of Ebacc subjects and assessment changes reduce teacher autonomy over the curriculum and continue to restrict learning to being a  ‘gradgrind’ activity –part of a great reversal of comprehensive education. But teachers collectively, their subject associations and teacher unions in particular however, still have the power to challenge Gove on areas like the curriculum – an area where he is probably at his weakest.

Download    ‘Learning to Compete?  Challenging Michael Gove’s Fallacies on Standards’  chapter from  Education Beyond the Coalition

The Curriculum Great Reversal

Kingston University Seminar (01.05.13)

Martin Allen


edition 2Michael Gove’s National Curriculum proposals have been out for consultation and have  received a fair share of attention.  While there has been particular controversy over proposals for history and English, this short paper provides an ‘overview’ –a more general critique of the underlying principles behind the Gove curriculum.

To begin with, somewhat ironically, Gove sets himself up as a ‘moderniser’ claiming to be bringing learning in line with practices in countries at the cutting edge of the global economy –particularly those on the Pacific Rim, like Singapore and South Korea.  At best, this approach is inconsistent  (Morris 2012) and based on inaccurate data  (Wilby, Guardian 08/12/2012). It has also been  politically selective – though referred to in the 2010 Importance of Teaching White Paper for example, Finland, with high performing schools; but low-key approaches to testing and performance date has increasingly been dropped from the list from which examples are drawn. It is evident also that these ‘successful’ systems are also looking to learn from Britain and other countries (Allen and Ainley 2013).

More significant are the arguments about the need to return to a more ‘knowledge based’ rather than the ‘skills’ or ‘process’ led curriculum. This was something emphasised in the 2011 Experts Report commissioned by Gove,  however  the need to ‘bring knowledge back in’ has also been endorsed by one time curriculum radicals like Michael Young (Young 2008),  associated with the ‘social constructionist ’curriculum in the 1970s (Young 1971) and   by no means a supporter of the Coalition. Gove himself has been influenced particularly by ED Hirsch, an 85 year old US English Literature professor. Hirsch argues that an  enquiry based and student centred curriculum denies poorer children the ‘core knowledge’ necessary to get on in society (an inversion of Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’ argument?). Attacking New Labour’s ‘dumbed down’ curriculum, Gove argues that by reinstalling the importance of ‘hard facts’, social mobility will be restarted and opportunities increased.

These arguments are being used to narrow and to emphasize particular approaches to learning however. For example, phonics and reading tests for young children in primary schools and requirements that children concentrate on memorising tables or particular types of mathematical calculations at the expense of other numeracy skills.  There is also a return to a ‘cultural restorationist’ emphasis (Jones 1989) a ‘Kings and Queens’ history curriculum and an  obsession with particular literary texts rather than others.  Rather than encouraging the ‘diversity and responsible citizenship’ emphasized in the Experts Report, Gove wants to restore traditional curriculum hierarchies at the expense of newer subjects, effectively returning to a grammar school curriculum for secondary students (Allen 2012).

In our book, The Great Reversal, Patrick Ainley and myself argue that rather than being something that promotes and improves individual aspiration and social mobility Gove’s curriculum  proposals are part of a wider programme of reversing progressive reform in education and a way of re-establishing education as a form of social control.  It was the expanding economy of the post-war period that allowed working class children to move up, not the grammar schools or having access to ‘core knowledge’. In the book we argue that on the contrary, in a ‘declining economy’ social mobility has gone into reverse. It can’t simply be restarted by making changes to education.

We use Gove’s proposals for the Ebacc  as an example of this. Even if the proposed new  EBCs have been rescinded,  we argue the proposals set out a new approach to learning and assessment and that this has been continued in the new style GCSEs Gove will  introduce instead. Rather than needing to restore ‘rigour’ to these examinations, Gove’s real problem is that too many students are passing. He wants to create a new ‘correspondence’ between education and an economy with decreasing labour market opportunities.

The National Curriculum debate however has been given another twist by statements from Schools Minister Elizabeth Truss that the Coalition plans to allow all schools to ‘disapply’ the National Curriculum for a year (18/03/12 speech on DfE website)  though Academies  and Free Schools are not legally bound by it anyway.   In many respects, a centrally imposed curriculum does not fit well with Tory arguments about reducing the role of the state.  Tensions between traditional ‘cultural restorations’ and free market libertarians were visible in the 1980s when the NC was first introduced by Kenneth (now Lord) Baker (Jones, 1989 ). The ten subject Baker curriculum was also quickly trimmed at key stage 4 when the Dearing Review recommended the introduction of vocational pathways for ‘non-academic students’.

These tensions should not be over emphasised though and it is unlikely that disapplication will happen this way. The TES (29/6/12) argued that Gove wants to end central government power over what is taught in secondaries.  This is in many ways a caricature, because the new league table requirements for KS4 will effectively determine school curriculum provision. Though officially discarding the EBC; future league tables will include school performance in three of the Ebacc subjects in addition to English and maths.

Opposition to the Gove curriculum intensifies.

As argued, the Gove proposals represent a step back in time. They will not allow teachers the freedom promised in the 2010 White Paper, while the themes and organising principles are not educationally sound and do not  provide children and young people with the skills they need to cope with the challenges, but also the problems of the 21st century.  There is  growing opposition from teachers who have started campaigns, signed petitions and made their feelings known in surveys and opinion polls – ACSL General Secretary Brian Lightman has called for a second ‘Great Debate’ about education while ex QCA Boss Mick Walters looks forward to an ‘education spring’ (Guardian 23/04/13). Meanwhile the announcement of a ‘new’ Tech-bacc at post-16 shows a Secretary of State desperately running out of ideas? Critiquing Gove’s curriculum is one thing however. Developing real alternatives is quite another. This paper concludes by addressing some of the more general issues that need to be considered.

The curriculum and its social context

To begin with, because of the social significance of education as a whole, the curriculum cannot be reformed in isolation.   It goes without saying that reforming the curriculum depends on reforming assessment and the ‘accountability’ structures that have been imposed on schools –in  other words, curriculum reform will be extremely problematic  while ‘high stakes’ testing continues to exist. It is also the case that if particular subjects and qualifications are seen as having high labour market currency then they will be studied as much for instrumental reasons as for their educational merits. Anybody who has had experience of teaching or organising citizenship or other personal and social education programmes will be familiar with the problems of motivating students.  Attempts to reform the curriculum are also likely to counterproductive if a ‘free market’ model of education continues to dominate and programmes  to reduce inequalities between different types of learning will continue to fail unless they are made mandatory and subject combinations  constrained.

How do we bring teachers back in?

Teachers and the organisations that represent them, have rightly been concerned at the way in which they have been excluded from decisions about the content and the organisation of the curriculum. Opinion polls also show that teachers, rather than Michael Gove, continue to enjoy the respect of parents ( . An alternative curriculum must have teachers as educational professionals at its fore, but this does not mean it is desirable to return to the ‘secret garden’ of the post-war years. The curriculum must be the product of discussions between a wide range of groups in society, in which teacher’s skills and expertise must be valued but not exclusively. Rather than the post-war model of professional autonomy, there has to be a more general democratic process through which curriculum issues are decided.

Does the curriculum have to consider the needs of employers and the economy?

Of course; but we do have to remember that employers have always criticised education and young people and often appear to be inconsistent in some of the things they say that they want. As argued above, Michael Gove’s attempt to justify importing certain ideas about learning from Asian Pacific countries is not a genuine one. Also, there’s now more concern  about whether the global economy is creating the highly skilled and highly paid jobs it is supposed to have been, or whether more young people are becoming ‘overqualified and unemployed’ (Allen and Ainley, 2013). There is a need for good basic and transferable skills, but it’s always been true that people continue to learn many occupational skills ‘on the job’.

While it is clearly the case that information technology has changed the nature of work and that more and more people are expected to be ICT literate, Gove’s reforms of the ICT curriculum and the inclusion of Computer Science as an Ebacc subject are not convincing. There’s also a  huge debate to be had about the role of ICT in learning and how, rather than ‘teacherless learning’ (Ainley and Allen, 2010 ) more collaborative practices can be developed between teachers and taught.

Towards a social justice curriculum.               

We have to use the space created by the Gove curriculum reforms to put forward some positive alternatives and welcome Lightman’s call for a ‘Great Debate’ We also have to return to a debate about what types of aims and values’ should guide the curriculum. The National Union of Teachers 2013 Conference called for an ‘alternative curriculum framework with social justice at its heart’. While the ability of education to create real social mobility in the labour market  can be questioned (Allen and Ainley, 2013) it will always be the case that education has the potential to broaden young people’s social awareness and encourage them to fully participate in society, rather than becoming a marginalised  or ‘lost generation’.


Allen, M. Ainley, P.  (2013)  The Great Reversal. Young People, Education and Employment in a Declining Economy.  London: Radicaled.

Ainley, P. Allen, M.  (2010)  Lost Generation?  New Strategies for Youth and Education London, Continuum.

Allen, M. (2012)   ‘Back to the Grammar School’  Education for Liberation  Issue 5, April 12

Department for Education (2011)  The Framework for the National Curriculum. A report by the Expert Panel

Department for Education (2010) White Paper  The Importance of Teaching

Jones, K. (1989)  Right Turn, London: Hutchinson.

Morris (2012)  Pick ‘n’ mix, select and project; policy borrowing and the quest for ‘world class’ schooling: an analysis of the 2010 schools White Paper  Journal of Education Policy  Vol 27.1

Young, MFD Ed (1971) Knowledge and Control. New Directions for the Sociology of Education, London: Collier Macmillan.

Young, M. (2008) Bringing Knowledge Back In, From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education, London: Routledge

(Not) going on a summer holiday?

Once again, Michael Gove is posing as the ‘moderniser’ .  He now wants to persuade us that we need to bring the length of  school  holidays in line with those in Asian Pacific economies like Singapore and Hong Kong. So as to ‘raise standard.stock-illustration-16627093-summer-holiday-children-holding-hands-cartoon-illustration

As argued in The Great Reversal,   Gove’s   attempt to cherry pick policies from elsewhere is highly selective and a little dishonest.   For example, high performing, but league table free Finland, a country that  after featuring in earlier policy statements has been gradually dropped as a blue print for reform,   has 11-week summer breaks.  Students and teachers  in neighbouring Sweden struggle along with just ten!

Most teachers would also welcome the relaxed atmosphere of Finland’s classrooms rather than the rote learning and fact regurgitation, not to mention the stress and parental obsession that is associated with school systems in many Asian Pacific countries.

There are many other reasons for the high growth rates in the Asian Pacific economies that have little to do with their education programmes – including differences in wage levels, employment laws and labour rights  for example.  In fact there is no conclusive evidence about what sort of education systems produce the most economic growth and development.

Getting back to the issue of holidays. Independent schools in England and Wales, which have longer summer holidays certainly don’t  feel the need to reduce them or increase  their hours for that matter,  while at Oxford and Cambridge universities, students attend for less than half the year. There’s a debate to be had about whether all school terms should be the same length and on how school buildings can be made more available for community activity during school holidays. But on this one,   Gove really takes the biscuit.

Martin Allen

Opposition to the Gove Curriculum grows

217354Debra Kidd’s petition

Defend School History Seminar

Saturday 20th April



Charter for Primary Education

Launch Conference

Saturday 15th June,


Central London


National Curriculum: principles and practices

Martin Allen217354

National Curriculum proposals in various subjects are now out for consultation.  While it is important that teachers, trade unions and subject associations respond to these, it’s also important to develop a more general critique of the underlying principles behind them.

The new National Curriculum represents a reactionary step back –part of a more general programme of reversing progressive reform in education.  Gove’s curriculum does not allow teachers the freedom promised in the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching. On the contrary, its themes and organising principles are not considered to be educationally sound by the majority of practitioners and do not provide children and young people with the skills they need to cope with the challenge, but also the problems of the 21st century In particular:

  • claims that the proposals are based on educational practices in high performing countries are misguided, selective and based on  inaccurate data
  • arguments about the need to return to a more ‘knowledge based’ curriculum are being used to narrow learning and to introduce emphasise particular interpretations  of culture, traditions and values in subjects like history and English, rather than encouraging the ‘cultural diversity and responsible citizenship’ emphasised in the Experts Report
  • ‘core’ subjects will be oversubscribed while others left largely to schools to interpret –reducing their status in the eyes of students and their parents
  •  rather than a ‘broad curriculum’, Gove restores traditional  curriculum hierarchies, including the primacy of ‘academic’ learning over the practical and vocational,  ‘hard facts’ rather than enquiry and  critical thinking  while there is little room for developing skills that promote personal and emotional development or encourage collaboration and oral self-confidence
  • creativity and enjoyment at school will be reduced further
  • Gove’s curriculum will be driven by assessment systems designed to divide students and lower aspirations. Attempts to ration exam success being considered appropriate for an economy where employment opportunities for young people are at their worst ever and a society where social mobility has gone into reverse

There are clear inequities that can serve as the basis for an immediate campaign. For example, phonics and reading tests for young children in primary schools.   Requirements that children concentrate on learning tables or particular types of mathematical calculations at the expense of other numeracy skills.   The introduction of new GCSE and A-level examinations that fewer will pass. A narrow ‘Kings and Queens’ history curriculum and the obsession with particular literary texts rather than others.  Teaching and learning will continue to be dictated by external assessment requirements rather than learning needs.

With Labour promising little in the way of alternatives, there is an urgent need to reclaim the debate about the aims and principles behind the curriculum from Michael Gove and the Coalition.  Producing an alternative curriculum framework that is based on principles of social justice and equality and that encourages young people to become self –confident, reflective but also critical citizens, must be central to any new national campaign to  defend and promote state education.  

In this respect discussion about the curriculum must also be a discussion about what education is for and in the context of continued economic decline, the marginalisation of young people from employment and the likelihood that more will see education as something that has failed them; what we can expect it to achieve.