Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why it’s really bad that Michael Gove is gone

Following David Cameron’s Cabinet reshuffle yesterday, many teachers and education union leaders, together with their collective hangers-on, worked themselves up into a celebratory frenzy over the demotion of Michael Gove, the education secretary they so loved to hate. All of two minutes after the announcement of his departure #GoveGone was trending on Twitter, accompanied by increasingly competitive declarations of loathing for the man or expressions of jubilation at his demise. In contrast, the earlier news that the minister of state for universities and science, David Willetts, was also to be replaced was met with a far more muted reaction. Despite the fact that Willetts oversaw the introduction of the current tuition fees regime in English universities, there now appear to be very few who have a bad word to say about him.

Cameron’s aim of securing electoral success through surrounding himself with people who are easy on the eye and don’t upset the electorate meant both Gove and Willetts had to go. Many #GoveGone tweets expressed regret that his departure has come before the General Election – it is assumed that the Conservative Party could never win if he were still in the education post. This view was obviously shared by Cameron himself. Gove has never publicly expressed anything other than enthusiasm for his role as education secretary and an overwhelming desire to see the reforms he has put in place through to completion. Cameron’s ditching of a man who is, by all accounts, both his friend and colleague reveals more about Cameron’s lack of loyalty and principle than it does about Gove’s abilities as a Cabinet minister. Willetts’ crime, on the other hand, is presumably that of being insufficiently diverse for current tastes.

According to the narrative of those trying to fill column inches, the mixed reaction to the departure of both ministers reflects the way bullish, blundering Gove upset all those around him while the more measured and thoughtful Willetts garnered the begrudging respect of academics. It’s no doubt true that Gove’s conviction and determination led him into sometimes unnecessary confrontations. But in reality, the different responses to each man’s departure reflect the fact that Gove threatened the educational establishment in a way that Willetts simply never did.

From his very first day in his post, Gove battled against the group of union leaders, teacher-trainers, members of local education authorities and academics he unhelpfully labelled as ‘the blob’. He challenged the culture of low expectations that has built up in education. He tried to put an end to content-lite courses that demanded little of pupils and mired schools in league-table gaming rather than teaching a knowledge-based curriculum. Unlike many who preceded him, he was an education secretary who believed that schools should be about far more than responding to the immediate demands of social problems or promoting particular values, and that children today are capable of learning poetry and times tables, reading books (even long non-American ones) and understanding the chronology of history.

Unfortunately for some schools, Gove ended a system where cut-and-paste coursework counted towards final marks, modularised exams were taken early and taken often, and low-level vocational courses were deemed to be equivalent to academic exams for the purposes of league tables. For this, he should be applauded. It can be argued that Gove didn’t go far enough and that schools still place too much emphasis on teaching functional skills and emotional wellbeing rather than knowledge. Gove could certainly be bloody-minded and arrogant. Worse, he demonstrated an instrumental regard for league tables and school inspections, data monitoring and performance analysis that often belied his rhetoric about a love for knowledge. At times he clearly confused schooling and education, imposing, for example, petty bureaucratic diktats banning children’s term-time absences. He could rightly have been taken up over any of these things, but instead of engaging in debate, his many opponents turned him into a pantomime villain and made him the target of vicious personal attacks and infantile jokes.

In comparison, the cool response to the departure of Willetts shows that despite the fact that he oversaw an increase in tuition fees to £9,000, reinforced the status of students as consumers, and arguably miscalculated the cost to the government of higher levels of student loans, he never challenged the current consensus on higher education and only ever confirmed the existing prejudices of many of those who work in universities. Above all else, Willetts shared the dominant instrumentalism that pervades academia today. In speeches and interviews throughout his four years in post, he described a degree as an investment and claimed students should go to university in order to cash in on a future graduate premium. Symbolically, under Willetts, universities remained in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Willetts is praised for championing students and teaching, but his inability to conceive of the purpose of university in anything other than the most crudely economic terms is apparent here, too. His view was that ‘ultimately universities have to provide [students] with up to £9,000 of education’. How this amount of education was to be measured and delivered to the student/customers he did not specify.

Whereas Willetts wins plaudits from commentators for suggesting that universities should give preferential treatment to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Gove argued schools can make a difference and working-class pupils are capable of achieving good grades. Willetts is praised for his focus on social mobility, but again this just means he only understood higher education in terms of economic benefits and thought universities should lower their entry requirements so that more people could gain from this financial windfall; Gove, on the other hand, had a more liberal view of the importance of children knowing stuff. Willetts reportedly fought against tighter visa restrictions on international (revenue-generating) students but lost this Cabinet battle to home secretary Theresa May; Gove would perhaps have been less ready to relinquish ground. In the end, it was Willetts’ cowardice that meant he didn’t cause controversy. He introduced tuition fees but kept universities tightly under state control. A braver university minister might have set them free altogether.

Ultimately, Gove will be remembered and Willetts will not. In fact, the ‘lest we forget’ tweets are already circulating on the Twittersphere. Gove provided a much-needed challenge to the all-too-cosy world of education and won few friends as a result. Willetts, cowardly in the face of arguments, always ready for pragmatic compromise, and demonstrating a philistine view of education at every turn, challenged no one. Gove will be missed – the reforms he had begun to push through could have had a positive, transformative impact on education in this country, raising standards and aspirations. Perhaps university lecturers should hope for someone similar to shake up higher education.


Stop this educational madness

It’s time to resist calls for more mental-health interventions in education

Calls to raise awareness of mental-health issues and initiatives aimed at encouraging people to ‘come out’ with their problems are coming at us from all sides. Following the World Health Association’s apocryphal proclamation that mental ill-health is the world’s biggest epidemic, there has been a spate of calls in the UK this July to intervene in a crisis among young children in state schools, to offer resilience classes to high-achieving young women in independent schools, and to embed mental-health provision in university courses. And, as I wrote recently on spiked, university support and medical services are under unprecedented pressure from students and their parents to treat a wide range of mental-health ‘issues’.

It is no surprise that schools, colleges, adult education centres, universities and workplaces have responded by offering more ‘support’ for mental-health issues. Funding for the Workers’ Educational Association is now directed at services such as ‘confidence-building’, ‘anger management’ and ‘mutual recovery for mental health’, confining its long-running remit for liberal subjects and ‘return to learn’ to history. Across the education system, individual consultants and commercial outfits tout a seemingly endless cacophony of interventions to eager buyers. Schools pay vast sums for ‘positive motivation’ trainers to take pupils out of a day’s lessons, play them pop music and teach ‘positive-thinking strategies’, while their teachers are reduced to crowd managers and presented as part of the problem. In a market free-for-all, some schools run their own ‘mental toughness’ training for 16-year-olds taking GCSEs, while others offer mindfulness, circle-time and happiness training. The University of East Anglia has introduced therapy dogs and plans to encourage staff to take their dogs to work. Some universities have compulsory resilience classes for medical students and trainee teachers. Many offer online self-help groups, cognitive-behaviour therapy and stress-management courses. Others are developing masters’ courses in ‘vulnerabilities and protection’.

Far from being a source of shame or stigma, canny students and parents, and sometimes colleagues, latch on to the discourse of mental ill-health for special pleading, for a quick sick note from the doctor, or just to invoke a soft response to lazy or bad behaviour. This year, some universities have mitigation claims on the grounds of mental issues running at 50 per cent. Alongside an army of snake-oil merchants touting dubious products with no evidence of impact, lawyers will soon be profiting from the introduction of the UK government’s new disability legislation as universities will have to start defending themselves against claims that mental-health needs weren’t met. Some institutions are already allocating resources in anticipation of this.

An array of influences is at play. Each five-year revision of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for clinical psychologists designates new behaviours and responses as category disorders and syndromes. These are growing at exponential rates (see, for example, ‘Turning crime into a mental-health issue’). In tandem, the meanings we now attach to stress, anxiety, depression, abuse, trauma, vulnerability and recovery stretch them to the point of banality. But there are also structural factors: as austerity cuts to social-care centres and community-health services start to bite, doctors refer people with mental-health problems to courses run by bodies like the Workers’ Educational Association.

All of this raises the question of how those of us who work in education should respond to what seems to be an unstoppable tide. We can criticise the discourse and point to a self-fulfilling prophecy of need, a highly contagious social construction that turns everyday mundane experiences and relationships, some of which are undoubtedly difficult or troubling, even stressful or anxiety-inducing, into potential mental-health time-bombs. We can get cynical about those who trivialise problems for their own advantage.

Or we can pillory the interventions as a harmless distraction from the routine day-to-day issues, point to the lack of evidence for impact and criticise a pointless waste of scarce resources that doesn’t help those who really need it. More practically, we can become Orwellian experts in Newspeak, rewriting publicity for support services and introductions for ‘freshers’ week’ to erase the language of vulnerability and remove invitations to seek help for anxiety and stress. We can be clearer and more assertive about where scarce resources for support should go and more discerning about sick notes and mitigation. We can tell some people to get a grip. There seem to be more of these kind of upfront responses now than there were a couple of years ago.

But none of these responses stops mental ill-health being increasingly felt and embodied. These problems are not merely socially constructed. Beyond the trivial or cynical claims being made with regard to mental health, more people seem to find everyday life and education a constant source of distress. The idea that almost all people are psychologically and emotionally vulnerable is everywhere, and we need a wider debate about what impact this has had on how we teach and how we relate to people. We need to resist calls for more support and more intervention and start rethinking how education and other meaningful activities can lead to a world outside the self.


Graduate jobs going begging in Britain.  Quarter of employers had to leave posts unfilled last year because they were unable to find suitable recruits

Almost a quarter of graduate employers had to leave posts unfilled last year because they were unable to find suitable recruits, a survey found today.

As the graduate job market bounces back following the recession, bosses are struggling to find staff with the right knowledge and attitude to work.

Firms are planning to offer 17 per cent more jobs this year – the biggest increase in vacancies since annual surveys of graduate recruiters began 14 years ago.

But they are also concerned about a lack of applicants with the skills they need, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

Some 23 per cent of nearly 200 employers surveyed were forced to leave some jobs open last year and there is anecdotal evidence the trend is continuing.

The research also found that firms are increasingly monitoring the social class of graduates recruits.

The number collecting data on the background of their new intake has almost doubled in two years to just under a quarter.

Employers are mainly checking whether or not their parents have degrees, while the proportion recording whether or not recruits went to private school has declined, from 84 per cent to 74 per cent.

More than a third of firms (34.1 per cent) already have schemes in place to diversify the social class mix of staff and a further 16.5 per cent plan to introduce them next year, it emerged.

In further findings, the typical graduate starting salary for 2013/14 is predicted to be £27,000, up £500 on last year.

Graduates planning to work as investment bank or fund managers can expect the highest pay, with typical starting wages of £43,500.

One in 14 graduates can expect to start on at least £41,000.

AGR chief executive Stephen Isherwood said that the rise in vacancies and salaries was ‘fantastic news’ for graduates but warned that the graduate job market was not ‘easy’.

‘There are still unfilled graduate vacancies as employers are not always able to find the right people, with the right knowledge, skills and attitudes, for the job,’ he said.

‘Graduates must ensure they really do their research, target their applications and ensure their CVs do them justice if they want to be in with a good chance of securing a place on a graduate scheme following university.’


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