Remember those great long six-week school holidays you used to get every summer? Six weeks, of course, is not really very long at all in the grand scheme of things, but it used to feel like an absolute eternity, didn't it? They were fantastic, I loved them. I used to play in the street until it went dark, football and cricket and bike-riding and all sorts of other stuff. I read books in the back garden. I hung around with my friends for hours. I made cardboard fish tanks out of cut-up cereal boxes, they were great. And now, like a lot of things I remember fondly from children, they're about to be thrown to the wolves.
So says the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who thinks we need to re-tool our education system to accommodate both a longer school day and shorter holidays, in order to work children harder and enable them to compete better with their counterparts in Asia. He argues that the old system had been designed for a 19th-century economy where children would need the summer off to help with the harvest. He believes that the system is not well-designed for parents, especially now more of them work and can't look after their kids during the holidays. A particularly revealing quote comes from someone described as a 'Whitehall source', who said following the Gove proposal that 'We can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we'll all soon be working for the Chinese.' Which is an interesting idea. (He hasn't, by the way, been making any noise about attempting to reform the childcare system that costs poorer families a fortune, keeps mothers and fathers out of work and costs the exchequer money in benefits and taxation revenue.)
Gove is perhaps correct when he says the system is an old one. But that doesn't mean it doesn't work. That doesn't mean that these 19th-century, lengthy school holidays are the reason the UK is failing to keep up with China. It's ridiculous to even compare the UK economic system to that of the Chinese. They have an army of cheap workers upon which the vast majority of their businesses rests. The UK can't compete with that one-on-one because our society pays its workers fair wages, which surely is a worthwhile thing, and means we shouldn't try to tackle them on their (unfair) terms, but instead innovate to prepare our young people for high-skilled, high-paying jobs in specialised industries. And let's think, just for a second, about that Whitehall argument about 'working for the Chinese'. This sounds like a continuation of that tired stereotype regarding Asian parents being overly forceful with regards to their children's education. Is this what the Department for Education wants to encourage? Swathes of overworked children and hectoring parents? I don't believe that's how Asian people behave, by the way, but at Education, it's a lazy stereotype being used as an excuse to eradicate a mammoth chunk of the recreation time of our young people.
Does the 'global race' - a great favourite slogan for this present government - start with kids at ages five, six, seven? Doesn't it start when they enter the workplace, or when they enter higher education - two areas where they are in direct competition with others, both in the UK and globally? The school system, surely, should be about readying children for these two spheres - the workplace and higher education. So when should this process start? It must be better as a gradual thing, from the start of secondary education, easing them into it at first before accelerating the process as the children age and become more mature. At primary education, the focus has to be about establishing the basics that are necessary for functioning in modern society. This focus doesn't include ramming kids into classroom for longer periods of time, forcing them to memorise poetry (as opposed to trying to present the merits of such things), and ensuring they don't get time off when the weather is at its hottest and therefore most tiring and uncomfortable to work in.
Michael Gove is the very worst kind of minister. What he appears to be doing at Education is reshaping the entire system according to the (private) education he got, according exactly to what he thinks, with no concern for the differences in different areas, for different people, of different backgrounds. It's telling that Gove referenced his own childhood today, saying that he spent his childhood in Aberdeen helping with the potato harvest. That is informing his policy. It shouldn't. An effective minister is able to take his or her own emotions out of the debate, analyse objectively, and offer the best solutions for all. Gove does not do this - or if he does, he's doing it extremely badly. His motive is, apparently, to tool up our toddlers to take on the Chinese in the race to prosperity. What he risks doing instead is engendering and exacerbating children's feelings of hatred and discontentment towards education, destroying their formative years by keeping them in classrooms instead of encouraging them to learn through play, socialising and independent reading and learning. His curriculum is a strait-jacket, his timetable a set of iron shackles. What he will end up producing for us all is a workhouse-style state education system, churning out malcontents who are fit only to compete with China's workforce at unskilled, dissatisfying, production-line labour.