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Margaret Heffernan

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Who Will Stop Michael Gove - Before It's Too Late?

Posted: 04/02/2014 13:50

The shambles that masquerades as the government's education policy is riddled with incoherence, headline manufacture, tactical retreats, bias and bluster. To call this a strategy is a misnomer; it isn't nearly connected enough for that. More use of Common Entrance exams, longer school days and the selective use of the PISA test are just the recent novelties of an approach to education that does everything except consider carefully how children learn and what their education is for.

A competitive market

Clearly Gove thinks that what the school system needs is more competition. Free schools, independent schools, private schools, public schools, grammar and comprehensive schools: let a thousand flowers bloom! Just like his much admired Tony Blair, Gove believes in the choice delivered by a so-called competitive marketplace. But the highest achieving education system in Europe - Finland - offers no such thing. Finnish parents I've interviewed feel no need of a market in schools. Although every school is state funded, each one is run by its teachers who are free of inspection. Finnish parents trust the schools and the teachers who run them. They mostly prefer to send their children to schools that are nearby but may send them anywhere. What variation there is between schools is largely a function of focus: some concentrate more on design, others more on science. That they do so is open and obvious and no school pretends it is superior to another; they're just different. Moreover, the school day (which varies according to the seasons) isn't long but short enough to allow time for play.

Competitive teachers

The idea that teachers should be paid by performance is a nonsense. There is no reliable evidence in any walk of life that performance-related pay works and there are plenty of high-achieving school systems that do outstanding work without it. How did Massachusetts so radically improve its educational achievement, to the point where, as a state, it would rank right behind Singapore in PISA results for science and math? It wasn't by threats of school closures, or by reward for teacher performance or by threatening job security. Instead, more money was made available for schools and teachers were given more freedom to create curriculum. The one requirement: that everyone (not just the gifted few) would become competent in algebra. Believing in the capacity of all children to learn is what made it possible for them to do so.

Competitive exams

Michael Gove is a big believer in exams, the more the merrier - and the tougher the better. Implicitly this conveys his belief that one role for education is to sort the talented from the un-talented, as surely as the Hogwart's hat sorts children into houses. Alas, there's no evidence that exams test much more than the ability to take tests. The COMT gene regulates the amount of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. One variant of the gene releases it slowly, the other more quickly. Those with the faster variety do well under stress - and therefore in exams. Those with the slower variety don't. (Scientists often distinguish these as 'warriors' and 'worriers'.) Hence the paradox that hardworking students may fall apart in exams while the slackers suddenly get their act together. The research into COMT was mostly conducted in Taiwan, a country that has heretofor placed great emphasis on an exam for fourteen year olds called the Basic Competency test. But the genetic research has forced a reconsideration, as it so clearly indicates the degree to which high stakes exams aren't helpful in building or identifying intelligence. From this year, Taiwan will stop using the exam and focus instead on raising attainment levels for everyone.

Competition for life

If there is a theology underlying Britain's chaotic educational reforms, it is a faith that competition at school is good training for life. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of my research (for my book A Bigger Prize) points to one conclusion about competition: where the stakes are very high, competition drives people to cheat, to lie, to steal, to copy and to use any means possible - legal or illegal - to win. These aren't perverse, anomalous outcomes but predictable byproducts of intensely competitive environments. So we can't be surprised that as teachers are put under greater pressure, they start to manipulate results and, as students feel their lives depend on exams, they plagiarize, cheat and buy coursework off of the internet. No wonder universities must now resort to software to ensure their students' work is original.

How is work done in virtually every industry in the world? In teams. What do you need for effective, creative teamwork? High levels of collaboration which require trust, great communication, openness, resilience and a willingness to explore. But competition imparts none of these skills, creating instead a mindset that is too target-focused to be creative, too anxious to explore and too defensive to communicate. These days, I spend my life working with companies that wrestle daily with their inability to get their best and their brightest - those great exam passers - to work effectively together. They know that their future depends on these people, from whom they expect high levels of innovation and creativity. They are frustrated and disappointed to find themselves, in effect, having to undo the work of an education system teaching the wrong lessons with the wrong tools.

If Michael Gove were just building some ghastly skyscrapers or running a sweatshop, we might not like it but would trust to time to show him the error of his ways. But he is experimenting - in his loose and lazy ways - with the minds of a generation. He needs to be stopped.


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