An introduction to two essays by Michael Bassey completed in February 2014 which responded to the attacks of Michael Gove MP, secretary of state for Education. on what he perceived as the education 'establishment'.  The Prime Minister sacked Mr Gove
in the following July.  But his legacy of reforms
remains and is 
belong pursued by
his successor, Nicky Morgan MP.


Dictator Gove, Secretary of State for Education, seeking to denigrate those that challenged his educational policies, described us as "the Blob". (A curious term coming from a sci-fiction film about an alien mass that threatens life forms on Earth and is defeated by extreme cold).  An odd choice of abuse for a man who thinks himself well read.

Since the Guardian last year called me "ring leader of the Blob" I will assume for the moment that mantle and explain who were Dictator Gove's opponents.  We are the thousands of people who as teachers, researchers, local education authority officials, and students reflect on the writings of philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and others while engaging ourselves in classroom studies of ways of pursuing and enhancing the processes of learning and teaching. Our quest is for classroom wisdom and for ways to utilise that wisdom for the benefit of those who learn.  Striving to improve education is built into our DNA.

We recognise many different forms of success in schooling.  While all need to become proficient readers and competent at simple maths (not just for future employment, but for the pleasure of access to the cultural wealth of books and to enable all to wade successfully through the ever riding tide of bureaucratic form filling) this is but one marker of educational success.  Some achieve high in creativity, in musical activity, in art, design.  Some achieve high in physical activity and games.  Some achieve high in spiritual development. Some achieve high in scientific work.  Some find success in social careers - as nurses, doctors, carers, police officers, teachers and administrators.  And certainly many find success in ways that their teachers never dreamed of.  But overall the Blob expects that all enjoy their years in formal education and find happiness and contentment in life, which, of course, is what all parents want for their children. Most of these markers of educational success cannot be measured in tests.  

While recognising that employers and universities demand examination successes, the Blob know that end-of-course testing is a poor way of assessment since few people demonstrate their best under timed conditions.  Likewise the Blob reject the rote learning that is a prelude to so many examinations and insist that learning how is much better than learning that.

So why did Dictator Gove vilify us?  Is it just that his right wing deological beliefs in free markets, private ventures and a shrunken state saw many of the Blob opposed to such, believing that state education should be a free entitlement for all?  Or was it the angst of a frightened man, full of personal zeal for social mobility of the hardworking, (while failing to recognise that this is a two-way ladder) and trying to model the education of nine million children on his own climb to the top?  Did his arrogance get daunted by the combined understanding and wisdom of the Blob - and so he lashed out?

Yes, the Blob is a threat.  It asks how could one man, elected to Parliament by a majority of 17,269 electors of the constituency of Surrey Heath, and a close friend of the prime minister, have the dictatorial power to play havoc with our educational system on the basis of ill-formed ideas and personal bias?  Why are there no controls over such authority?  How can we call our country a democracy when the likes of Dictator Gove are allowed alone to dominate?

The following two essays examine the stated ambitions of Michael Gove when he became secretary of state in 2010 – and the extent to which they are realistic in the ways he has pursued them.

  • World Class Schools
  • Liberating the Poorest Children





            Listen widely to remove doubts and be careful when speaking

           about the rest and your mistakes will be few.

Confucius Chapter II The Analects)




Shortly after Michael Gove became secretary of state for Education In 2010 he declared his programme to the Conservative Party conference with these ovation-inviting words:

"This Government, at this time, has been called to restore hope to our nation;

This, Government, at this time, can at last ensure we have world class schools for the next generation;

This Government, at this time, has the chance to liberate our poorest children from the shadow of ignorance and the chains of dependency;

It is a fight I feel privileged to be part of – it is a fight, with your help, we will win.'

I propose to show, in this essay, that his concept of ‘world class schools’ is ill-conceived.  In a second essay I will examine Michael Gove’s approach to the worthy aim of ‘liberating our poorest children’ and show that it too is woefully inept.



Holy grail?

 “World class’ is a term that political advisers like Sir Michael Barber hijacked from the world of international sport and athletics and portrayed as the holy grail for a country’s education system.  A quick ‘google’ search around the world shows how widespread this ambition has become.

Australia        “A world-class higher education system on which we are building”

Brazil:           “World Bank report:  “Achieving World-Class Education in Brazil”

Chile:             “Chile offers world-class educational opportunities for Oxford students

Czech Rep      “Making good progress with aspiration for a world class education" 

England          “Dept for Educn committed to creating a world-class state education.”

Denmark        Goals for a world-class education system”

Hong Kong:     “World Class Education 6-year primary and 3-year basic sec education.”

Japan            “World Class Education System … the key for economic success educ ”

Korea:           “Building world class universities”

Malaysia         “World-class education system achievable’

New Zealand  "Our education system is world class … says national chair John Minto.”

Singapore      “A Quiet Revolution: Singapore's World Class Education System”

United States White House blog “Investing in a World-Class Education System”

Even English counties (Essex, Kent, Norfolk …) and US states (Ohio, Ontario, Utah …) boast of having, or striving for, world class education.


Global competition and the need for world class status feature regularly in political speeches on education.  Elizabeth Truss, one of our six education ministers, speaking at the London Institute of Education on 7 March 2013 said:

“English children will not just be competing with each other when they leave school or university but with their peers all over the world.

“LiLanqing, the Vice Premier of China from 1993 to 2003 grasped the fact that every country, even if they are among the most powerful, is in a global race.  His observation that ‘We are striving for modernization at the dawn of a knowledge economy and in the midst of intensifying global competition’ could have been uttered by me or one of my ministerial colleagues.”

 [This reference to China prompted me to find the words of Confucius at the heading of this essay.  Wisdom does not tarnish over the centuries!   And, no, I can’t read Mandarin.]


So how do government ministers strive for and measure success?  Michael Gove, speaking to the Education World Forum on 11 January 2011 said:

“No nation that is serious about ensuring its children enjoy an education that equips them to compete fairly with students from other countries can afford to ignore the PISA and McKinsey studies.”

It is instructive to look at these two ‘must not ignores’.


“No nation … can afford to ignore McKinsey”

McKinsey is a global consulting firm.   Their website says that McKinsey studied 25 of the world’s school systems, including 10 of the top performers and reported in 2007.

 “The experience of these top school systems suggest that three things matter most:

  • Getting the right people to become teachers;
  • Developing them into effective instructors; and
  • Ensuring the system is available to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.”      

Wow!  What an insight.  Strange that nobody had realised that before.  Mr Gove seems to have used it to exclude 3rd class degree graduates from teaching, to provide tax-free bursaries for students with first-class degrees who enter teaching, and to encourage people leaving the armed forces to become teachers.  And to get ‘the best possible instruction’ he is proposing to rewrite the national curriculum.


“No nation … can afford to ignore PISA”

There are three major international assessments made of young people’s attainments:

  • PISA     = Programme for International Student Assessment (reading and mathematics at age 15)
  • TIMMS  = Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (at ages 10 and 14)
  • PIRLS    = Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (age 14)

 Ministers get excited about the findings. 

On 7 February 2011 Mr Gove told the House of Commons:  "When the OECD published its table on how our country had been doing in education over the past 10 years, I was struck to see that under Labour's stewardship we had slipped in the international league tables for English, for mathematics and for science.  … the PISA figures show that the standard of education which was offered to young people in this country declined relative to our international competitors. Literacy, down; numeracy, down; science, down: fail, fail, fail."

And on 11 December 2012 this press release came from the Department for Education:

"Results in key international tests in maths, science and reading demonstrate the urgent need for the government’s reforms, Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said today. She said it was only when England’s education system matched those of the world’s leading performers that standards would rise for all children."

The results for the tests in TIMSS and PIRLS, taken in May and June 2011 but published today, show England has:

  • fallen in science at age 10 – down to 15th out of 50 jurisdictions from 7th out of 36 in 2007;
  • risen in reading at age 10 – up to 11th out of 45 jurisdictions from 15th out of 40 in 2006; and
  • plateaued in maths at ages 10 and 14 between 2007 and 2011, and in science at age 14.

The South East Asian jurisdictions of Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong dominate the tables.  These education systems are characterised by outstanding teaching, autonomous schools, external testing and marking, strong accountability, and rigorous exams – all of which underpin the Government’s education reforms."

This is typical of the way in which the DfE castigates our schools!  Looking at scores instead of ranks shows that in reading the UK score is 499 compared to the average for OECD countries of 496, in mathematics the UK and the OECD average are the same at 494, and in science our score is 514 compared to the OECD average of 501.


The countries listed are in three groups. 

The top achieving group are the ‘Asian tigers’: Shanghai (not the whole of China), Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong: newly emergent jurisdictions with fast-growing economies that have embraced rapid technological change and developed highly successful export industries.  But they all seem to put undue pressure on their children.

·    Shanghai.  As an OECD report says: “Teaching and learning, in secondary schools in particular, are predominantly determined by the examination syllabi.  Subjects such as music and art, and in some cases even physical education, are removed from the timetable because they are not covered in the public examinations. Schools work their students for long hours every day, and school work extends into the weekends, mainly for additional exam preparation classes.  Private tutorials, most of them profit-making, are widespread and have become almost a household necessity.  Examination pressure remains a major concern to educators, parents and policy makers. There is a general belief that emphasis on examinations jeopardises the genuine development of young people and is detrimental to the entire national population, but few effective solutions have emerged to reduce or minimise examination pressures.”

·    Singapore’s fairly authoritarian government has developed an efficient school system emphasizing academic excellence, creative thinking and collaborative learning in which everyone must accept the discipline of study. This is strongly supported by home environments and a widespread culture that instills the need for success in everybody.

·    South Korea has long had a culture that esteems the educated person. Parents often make big sacrifices to support their children’s schooling, and frequently pay for them to attend private hagwons, or after-school evening academies, to ensure they pass the state examinations which give entry to profitable careers.

·    Hong Kong’s story seems to be different. Wikepedia says that a typical Hong Kong student lacks systematic decision-making confidence and relies on repetition and undeveloped answers, while many adults have no aspiration for intellect but seek constant reaffirmation of the value of myriad certificates.  So, diligent if dull study has nevertheless led to success in the international assessments.

Interestingly these are all small territories with considerable population pressure.  Does that affect their education systems – compared say with the three South American countries in the list ?

It is, of course, no surprise that Chile, Mexico and Brazil are the lowest achieving group since they are large territories with substantial numbers living at subsistence level, but with aspirational governments promoting rural education this may change.

The middle group consists of the older industrialised countries where the economies are growing very slowly or in some cases have flat-lined.  They have similar scores.

Why is Finland high up at the top of the European group?  An American researcher, Linda Darling-Hammond, has explained it this way. 

"Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around the very lean national standards. This new system is implemented through equitable funding and extensive preparation for all teachers. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes."   

What do the international tables tell us?

There are two conclusions which can usefully be drawn. 

  • First, for the older industrialised countries (the middle group in the table), save Finland, the narrow differences between their scores shows that international competition is virtually meaningless and so it is daft for ministers to cite changes in rank order, up or down, as evidence of national success or failure.
  • Second, although Finland has a geography different to the other industrialised countries (do long dark nights in winter improve education?) the educational success of their young people (28 points above England) is likely to be attributable, as Darling-Hammond suggests, to a government policy to trust the teachers and their localities, ensure extensive training for them, and fund the schools equitably.

 Many educationists in the UK have, of course, been arguing for similar actions by our government.  But sadly administrations of both left and right, particularly over the last 25 years, have acted as though ministers know better than teachers what education young people need and how it should be taught.



The worst feature of government action is encapsulated in the mantra ‘raising standards’.   Base-line testing on entry to school at 4 or 5 (to start next year), phonics tests at age 6, Key Stage One tests at age 7, Key Stage 2 results at age 11, GCSE results at age 16, and A-level results at 18, are all used to judge schools and used for ‘floor standards’ and ‘performance targets’. Government ministers deny it, but the fact is that they see educational success solely in terms of examination and test results. So, parents are persuaded (through published league tables of school results) that this is how they should choose schools for their children, headteachers are dismissed if their schools are below ‘floor standards’ and so put pressure on their teachers to get good results: Ofsted inspectors add to this pressure.

Yes, politicians of all parties want ‘to raise standards’.  But what does that mean?  Many of our schools achieve high standards of success at Key Stage 2 Sats (age 11), GCSE (age 16) and A-level examinations (age 18).  Sadly some schools do not and these are usually in deprived areas where unemployment is rife and poverty widespread. Unfairly the present government blames teachers – who are in truth working extremely hard to give a good education to all in their schools.  It is a cultural and economic problem – due to the huge gap in our society between rich and poor – not an educational one.



‘Raising standards’ is about exam results and although these are important for getting a job or a place at university, they are but a small part of a good education. ‘Raising all-round education’ is a much better aim.

Schools should be about young people learning to live worthwhile lives both in the present and for what ever may lie ahead in their futures.  That is, of course, what most teachers try to provide.

Young people should learn how to relate to others peacefully and with mutual respect.  They should learn the skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking.  They should learn mathematical skills.  They should learn how to develop their natural talents for creative art embracing perhaps drawing, painting, dancing, making music and other art forms.  They should begin to learn of the cultural wealth that they can spend their lives exploring – in terms of science, history, geography, literature, philosophy, art, music and much else.  They may learn other languages. Hopefully they learn to be moral citizens with ethical standards and learn when to collaborate with others and when to compete, when to be tolerant, when to be assertive and when to stand up for their rights.  In particular they should learn how to go on learning for the rest of their lives – and to expect to find the pleasure of it.

In all this schools should be joyful places, preparing young people for the good life.

These ideas can be expressed in many ways, all of which will portray education as an all-round experience and much, much broader than a preparation for examinations.  Which is why it is worrying to see our politicians ranting about ‘raising examination standards’, using results as performance targets for schools, and being over-impressed by international, but limited, measures of young peoples’ achievements.  



 It is clear that most politicians in this country, and around the world, believe that economic success in the global markets of the future will depend on the education of their young now.

Expressing it more succinctly they believe that economic growth will depend upon examination achievements.  This is because they expect the future to be a straight-line extrapolation of the past.  They fail to recognize that there will soon be a major dislocation in that line.  There will massive and global social disruption from climate change due to global warming caused by the fossil fuels that drive economic growth. The UK has had a taste of it this with major flooding and sea storms damaging coastal areas. Global climate change may not up-skittle our economy during the next five years of most politicians’ horizons, but is most likely during the life-times of today’s school children.

Forget the denials of the Daily Mail, listen to the predictions of the climate scientists.  Global warming due to human activity is happening and is changing the global climate and disrupting familiar weather patterns.

Returning for a moment to the thoughts of Michael Gove, in 2006 he was asked by Mark Ellingham of the Rough Guides, his view on climate change.  He answered:

How we deal with climate change is one of the principal challenges policy-makers face. We have a duty to the next generation to protect our planet.

Unless he has changed his mind since then it seems bizarre that his proposals for the new National Curriculum exclude reference to climate change before the age of 14.


 It is a hard lesson, but rich, industrial countries like ours (which includes all those in the middle range of the above table) need to realise that continuing the pursuit of economic growth requires consuming more energy, much of which comes from fossil fuels, pumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increases global temperatures and exacerbates the industrial damage to our Earth.

It follows that our governments should be developing policies for zero economic growth and seeking other ways for the good life for all citizens.  In terms of education the rich industrial countries should forget the economic pursuit of ‘world class education’ and instead focus on how to promote the good life through schooling without a greedy search for more wealth. 

What would this mean for the UK? 




 The UK economy has flat-lined for several years.  Unfortunately the Green Party is the only one that recognises that this could be the starting point for a safer future. This is not the place to suggest how this could happen[1], but it is where we should ask what the contribution of education to such a change should be. 

Instead of putting increasing pressure on schools to ‘raise examination standards’ by achieving ever higher exam results, government should aim to ‘raise all-round education’ in the terms suggested above.  This recognizes that while preparing their students for adult work they should also be engaging them today and preparing them for tomorrow for enjoyment of the good life.

I believe that this cannot be done by governments telling teachers what to do, but by trusting teachers to do it themselves, working collegially in schools, guided but not directed by national suggestions, supported by their local communities, and providing bottom-up accountability starting with self-evaluation monitored by other schools.

 It is doubtful that Michael Gove and his fellow ministers will be persuaded to adopt this approach, but I have suggested it to the Labour Party on a submission to the YourBritain website.  This is an extract:

As a prime principle, Labour should decide that at a fundamental level it will base its education policies on Trust. It will trust teachers, working collegially in schools and supported by local communities, to exercise their trained, committed and enlightened judgement to do the best for every young person. And it will trust the education community, not government ministers, to develop national policies appropriate for England in the 21st century based on trust in teachers.

Trust is the antithesis of accountability. If parents trust teachers to educate their children effectively, top-down accountability is unnecessary. The evidence is that most parents do trust the teachers in their children's schools.

But ever since the 1980s, politicians of both left and right have steadily taken much control away from schools in the pursuit of 'raising standards', but to the detriment of all-round education. Accountability is part of the managerialism that has swept through western society with targets, league tables, bench-marks, inspection, and blaming-and-shaming and has sometimes led to bullying, intimidation and job-loss. Starting in the business world of industry and commerce, it has been pushed into the teaching profession by politicians who have not understood that the complexities of classroom teaching demand a response system of practitioners that cannot be measured or promoted by jejune accountability statistics.

School teachers today are in nearly every case highly competent and professionally committed to the young people in their care: they should be trusted, not trampled on. Top-down accountability by national managers should be replaced by bottom-up accountability, in which self-evaluation by schools, moderated by neighbouring schools and discussed within local communities, is fed upwards through governing bodies to local authorities and on to, say, Parliament.

Bottom-up accountability puts responsibility on the collegiality of a school in terms of teacher weakness, on parents reporting to governors if they feel their children are not well taught, and on governors raising problem issues with the head and, if necessary, calling in inspectors from the Local Education Administration. 


If the notion of ‘world class schools’ is focused on examinations geared to future economic growth my answer is ‘No!’

But if it is about promoting the good life for everybody, the answer is ‘Yes!’ 

 [1] See, for example, my Convivial Policies for the Inevitable: global warming, peak oil, economic chaos, Book Guild 2012





 As I noted in the previous essay (“World Class Schools”) shortly after Michael Gove became secretary of state for Education In 2010 he declared his programme to the Conservative Party conference with these ovation-inviting words:

"This Government, at this time, has been called to restore hope to our nation;

This, Government, at this time, can at last ensure we have world class schools for the next generation;

This Government, at this time, has the chance to liberate our poorest children from the shadow of ignorance and the chains of dependency;

It is a fight I feel privileged to be part of – it is a fight, with your help, we will win."


I showed in that essay, how his concept of ‘world class schools’ is ill-conceived.  Here I examine Mr Gove’s approach to the worthy aim of ‘liberating our poorest children’, show that it too is woefully inept, and search for better ways of achieving this essential aim.

In a speech at the National College for Teaching and Leadership on 25 April 2013 Mr Gove expressed his ambition that schools should be such that every young person should be able to decide their future for themself.

"I want young people to leave school with the qualifications, the confidence and the character to be able to decide their future for themselves - to become authors of their own life story."

It is another of his ovation-inviting passages, but examine it logically.  What if every school leaver decided that their future was to become prime minister?  But at a less exotic level it is clear that those who want to become doctors and have gained the appropriate school leaving qualifications are restricted by the number of places available in medical schools, and likewise there are extrinsic limits on entry to other professions such as teaching, nursing, the law etc. and local limits to the numbers of hairdressers, gardeners, post workers, shop assistants, plumbers, electricians etc. who can be employed.

Were I making this speech I would put it differently, viz:

 I want young people to leave school with the qualifications, the confidence and the character to be able to enjoy a good life and choose well from such life opportunities as come their way. 


Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, five hundred years ago:

"I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves."

Of course, the influence of chance or choice varies from life event to life event and from person to person and while we may try to weight the odds towards choice by good education there will always be elements over which we have no control.

Michael Gove, in the above cited speech went on to express his aim of ‘liberating the poorest children’.

"Sadly, there are still young people who leave school without the exam passes, without the literacy, without the numerical ability, without the strength of character, to choose their own future. They are unable to choose the jobs they want, unable to buy a home in which to raise a family, unable to play a part in a modern democracy as fully engaged citizens. Those young people are, overwhelmingly, from our poorest homes."

I share his concern for the lack of educational achievement of children from some of our ‘poorest homes’ in terms of the literacy needed for a full adult life, but reject his measurement of educational success in terms of ‘exam passes’ and challenge his derogatory phrase about young people from ‘the poorest homes’ lacking ‘strength of character’.

Children who perform badly at GCSE have become known as ‘the Tail’.  A recent book by that name has the subtitle ‘How England’s schools fail one child in five – and what can be done’.  It has a number of interesting and some disturbing chapters but in particular two of the contributors draw on the fascinating work of Chris Cook.



The National Pupil Database, among much other data, gives the GCSE results for every single candidate in England, year by year.  Chris Cook, a researcher and education correspondent on the staff of the Financial Times, published analyses[i] of the relationship between GCSE results in 2010 and the relative poverty of the neighbourhoods in which students live.

In 2010 just over 600,000 students in England took GCSE examinations.  Their results are on the National Pupil Database which among much else gives home post codes.  Chris Cook computed a score for each student’s GCSE result based on English, maths and the three best other subjects,  giving 8 for A* down to 1 for G and then calculated the average of this measure for the pupils in each of 32,000 groups of post-codes in England called Super Output Areas (SOAs).  Each SOA contains about 670 households.

The Department for Education has a measure of child poverty called the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) with a score and rank for each SOA. It is a combination of income, employment, health, crime and educational achievement statistics.  The government website says that

"Deprivation covers a broad range of issues and refers to unmet needs caused by a lack of resources of all kinds, not just financial. …  It is important to note that these statistics are a measure of deprivation, not affluence, and to recognise that not every person in a highly deprived area will themselves be deprived. Equally, there will be some deprived people living in the least deprived areas."

Chris Cook plotted a graph of IDACI rank (child poverty) in each post-code SOA (x axis) against average GCSE results for each SOA (y axis) in 2010.

It shows very clearly a relationship between deprivation and exam results.  If there were no connection, the graph would be a horizontal line: it slants across the page..  It has been known for a long time, and is still true, that children from what social thinkers see as deprived homes are disadvantaged in school examinations.

Mr Gove, clearly concerned about this relationship, believes that it is the fault of schools if they have not lifted the performance of disadvantaged children and ensured that they do well at GCSE.  In order to get schools to ‘up their game’ he established a ‘floor target’ for secondary schools which expected, in 2013, that at least 35% of their students gain five A* to C grades in English and maths and 3 other subjects.  Schools that do not reach this target are open to government interventions, which include closing the schools and replacing them with academies, with heads losing their jobs. Year by year Mr Gove is raising the floor target. 

Chris Cook took her analysis one stage further.  She plotted data for every secondary school in England with the y axis the GCSE score for each school and the x axis the SOA rank order of its GCSE average performance. It produced a line which rises steeply at the very low performing end, then shows a gentle incline containing about two-thirds of the schools and ends with a steep rise at the high performing end.  This is the shape that would be expected.  But Cook then plotted on the graph, in the same rank order of schools, the average results at GCSE of young people who were designated as ‘poor’. It shows that for about one sixth of the schools, at the low performing end, the average GCSE results for the school were the same as for their ‘poor’ students, but further up the scale students from homes described as ‘poor’ on average achieved less than the other students in their school and this was true for even the highest achieving schools.  

Chris Cook says:

"This is the graph that ought to haunt the dreams of every school reformer.  The problem is not that there is a small number of weak schools serving a lot of poor kids.  It is that poor children do badly in the majority of schools."


But we must recognize that this analysis is based on the assumption that GCSE results are the sole measure of a ‘good education’.  Of the many alternative, but unmeasurable, ways in which a ‘good education’ can be construed it is worth reflecting on what the Labour Party Manifesto of 1945 said:

Above all, let us remember that the great purpose of education is to give us individual citizens capable of thinking for themselves.



Michael Gove has a clear idea of the culture that he would like every pupil to be immersed in.  It is the culture of the intelligentsia.  No doubt most who possess it would commend the idea that it should be owned by all.  Gove described this in his speech of 5 February 2013 to the Social Market Foundation.

"Unless you have a stock of knowledge - about our nation's history, European history and art history, about Biblical stories and classical myth, about colour, line and perspective - then many of the works on display in the National Gallery will just be indecipherable cartoons.

"Unless you have a sense of our nation's political development and a decent vocabulary, and an appreciation of concepts like anointed monarchy, usurpation and legitimacy, then Shakespeare's history plays will just be fighting and shouting.

"And unless you know something of Ireland's history, its people's sufferings, its ecology and iconography as well as a scientist's vocabulary, then Seamus Heaney's poems may be little more than spoken music.

And unless you have knowledge - historical, cultural, scientific, mathematic - all you will find on Google is babble.

"To make sense of a turn of phrase from Polly Toynbee or a literary reference from Martin Kettle, to interrogate a political argument from a Daily Mail leader which references Thatcher or Churchill, to follow Stephanie Flanders on economics or wrestle with Richard Dawkins on genetics, you need knowledge."

Gove wants everyone to acquire this level of culture and believes that this will only happen if schools are reformed.  His speech continued, saying that:

"unless that knowledge is imparted at school, in a structured way, by gifted professionals, through subject disciplines - then many children will never, ever, find it. No matter how long they search across the borderless lands of the internet."

This is probably true of, as he puts it ‘many children’ and for those of us that have the kind of intellectual background that he describes, it is a sadness that so many others do not share this. 

But how do people acquire this level of knowledge?  With a colleague I was responsible for collecting the signatures of 100 university academics for a letter published In the Independent and in the Daily Telegraph (on 20 March 2013) that warned of the dangers posed by Michael Gove’s proposed new National Curriculum for primary schools.  We said:

The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, fact and rules.  This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Much of it demands too much too young.  This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding.  Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralization.

Strangely, instead of defending his proposals, Michael Gove chose, in the Mail on Sunday (24 March), to shower us with abuse.  He wrote:

"Why I refuse to surrender to militant Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools. … The new Enemies of Promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need. "

Several articles in the Daily Mail added to his condemnation of our letter, one writer describing us as ‘nitwits’.  While being amused at the use of opposition by abuse rather than argument I felt we should try to put to the two million readers of the Mail our concerns and sent an article to the editor.  

"We understand and share Mr Gove’s desire to raise standards, and so intended our letter as an appropriate warning that the new curriculum would be counterproductive on the grounds that it is overloaded with factual knowledge for young children to memorise and this will damage their development of understanding, problem-solving and creativity.

"It was disappointing that the Secretary of State for Education chose to abuse us by claiming we are “hell-bent on destroying our schools.”  Nothing could be further from the truth. To describe us as “a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need” is gross rubbish.

"Improving the educational achievements of children from impoverished homes is as much a matter of concern to academics in universities and teachers in schools as it is to Mr Gove.  It will not be achieved by an over-demanding National Curriculum that will inevitably set up many pupils, their teachers and their schools, for failure.

"It is encouraging that we have now been joined by thousands of teachers and parents on similar petitions, as well as by the unions and associations that represent almost all teachers and heads.  It is time for Mr Gove to abandon this reform."

It wasn’t published!  But the saga of our letter lasted for several weeks.  At the beginning of May we were awarded the ‘Bad Grammar of the Year’ award by a panel of two ardent supporters of Mr Gove and a grammarian who chided us for breaking one or two of his grammatical rules.  It proved to be a welcome addition to the publicity for our concerns.

To return to Mr Gove’s speech to the Social Market Foundation, he tried to link employers need for literacy with ‘the accumulated learning of our civilization’.

There is no skill more central to employability than literacy. … But literacy is not a skill learnt in abstract isolation from the culture around us - it reflects the accumulated learning of our civilisation.  And if we want students to be literate in English we have to introduce them – early – to the knowledge which allows them to be culturally literate.

What Michael Gove does not comprehend is the scale of the problem for teachers in trying to bridge the gap between the culture of the intelligentsia and the varying forms of popular culture of the majority of people. Television networks beam into many homes a diet of simplistic quizzes leading to a few exorbitant prizes, comedian slots with built-in laughter, chat shows with celebrities, panel games with hyped-up audiences, and the advertising industries’ worship of the body beautiful with constant pressure to tell viewers what ‘they need’.   The tabloid press provides a little political news but mainly page after page of celebrity stories, murder investigations and sex scandals while social media such as Facebook and Twitter engage people mainly in trivial exchanges.  Often the ‘high’ culture that Michael Gove aspires for everybody is rejected as ‘too clever’ or ‘too boring’.

His ambition is that his new curriculum proposals are universal.

"I think the things we need to protect and enhance - a love of literature, pride in our history, scientific curiosity, beautiful written English, innovative and creative mathematical thinking, joy in discovery, colleges and universities, liberal learning and openness to the world, female emancipation and social mobility - are all better protected if we make them as universal as possible.

"Our new curriculum affirms - at every point - the critical importance of knowledge acquisition. … This new curriculum will provide parents everywhere with a clear guide to what their children should know in every subject as they make their way through school."

So there we have it.  Mr Gove, a journalist member of the intelligentsia, is giving ‘parents everywhere’ a ‘clear guide to what their children should know in every subject’.  It is with such a curriculum that he expects to ‘liberate’ children from ‘the shadow of ignorance’. 



 The previous section shows Mr Gove’s ambitions for schools.  How is he trying to achieve these and how will the level of failure which is represented by the Tail be reduced?

Floor standards

The ‘floor standards’ that Mr Gove has devised, such that schools that do not rise above them will be closed and re-opened under new management as academies, were mentioned above.  Year by year Gove plans to raise the floor.  He presumes that this will put sufficient pressure on schools to ensure that they will reduce the number of students who do not reach the ‘good’ GCSE results.  But it is clear from Cook’s analysis that Mr Gove’s drastic penalties for schools that are below what he sets as a ‘floor standard’ for GCSE results, rising year by year, will only make a slight difference to students – but will be a major disruption for the schools involved..    

Pupil premium

The pupil premium, which is the one Education policy that the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition have achieved, is a better attempt to reduce the ‘Tail’.  This statement on the DfE website, posted on 25 April 2013, explains. 

The Government believes that the Pupil Premium, which is additional to main school funding, is the best way to address the current underlying inequalities between children eligible for free school meals (FSM) and their peers by ensuring that funding to tackle disadvantage reaches the pupils who need it most.

 The Pupil Premium was introduced in April 2011 and is allocated to schools to work with pupils who have been registered for free school meals at any point in the last six years. …

 The Government believes that head teachers and school leaders should decide how to use the Pupil Premium.  And then the DfE shows that schools have not got a free hand!

 They are held accountable for the decisions they make through:

•        the performance tables which show the performance of disadvantaged pupils compared with their peers

•        the new Ofsted inspection framework, under which inspectors focus on the attainment of pupil groups, in particular those who attract the Pupil Premium

•        the new reports for parents that schools now have to publish online.

The Pupil Premium was introduced in April 2011 and for 2011-2 amounted to £488 per FSM pupil; in 2012-3 it rose to £623 and £900 in 2013-4. 


Suggestions for how this might be spent are set out by the Sutton Trust and Educational Endowment Foundation in an impressive on-line ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’ that was developed by academics at Durham University.  It provides guidance for teachers and schools on how to use their resources to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils by describing, analyzing and costing ‘Approaches that Do Work’ and ‘Approaches that Don’t Work’.  The most successful ‘Approaches that do Work’ are: effective feedback, self-regulatory learn-to-learn strategies, and peer-tutoring.  ‘Approaches that Don’t Work’ include employing more teaching assistants, ability grouping of pupils, performance pay for teachers, encouraging pupils’ aspirations, and school uniform.  Strange that the last three of these are strongly supported by our Secretary of State!

Raising the requirements for achieving good grades in GCSE

What does not make sense in terms of the Tail is Mr Gove’s determination to raise the standard for achieving good exam grades in the different elements of the GCSE.  The DfE made this announcement on 1 March 2013:

GCSEs will be comprehensively reformed, to ensure that pupils have access to qualifications that set expectations that match and exceed those in the highest-performing jurisdictions.

 There will be an increase in the demand at the level of what is widely considered to be a pass (currently indicated by a grade C). … This will be achieved through a balance of more challenging subject content and more rigorous assessment structures.

The changes will apply to GCSEs in English language, English literature, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, combined science (double award), history and geography for first teaching from 2015. Changes to other subjects will follow as soon as possible after that, with the aim that new qualifications are in place for teaching from September 2016.

Mr Gove justified this decision in a speech to the National College for Teaching and Leadership on 25 April 2013.

"All children can succeed in school - and many, many more than we allow for at the moment can secure outstanding exam passes, complete demanding apprenticeships, achieve our new, and aspirational, technical baccalaureate standard or go on to university.

That is why I am deliberately setting higher and higher standards for our state school system every year. Because I know we can meet, and surpass, those higher standards. And every time we do, more children are emancipated from ignorance and liberated to succeed."

How many more children will achieve ‘outstanding exam passes’, and how this will ‘liberate our poorest children from the shadow of ignorance and the chains of dependency’ is not clear.  What is fairly certain is that it will push some schools below the ‘floor standard’ and cause the Department for Education to close them and replace them with academies.  It is extremely difficult to see how this will help the education of the ‘poorest children’.  Potentially it will be the most disastrous of the many changes that Michael Gove has wrought on our education system.



Why indeed?  Since the age for completing full-time education is being raised to 18 there would seem to be a strong argument for moving the ‘passing out parade’ of examinations to that final year and abolishing GCSE.  The Tomlinson Report, commissioned and then dropped by Tony Blair’s Labour government is still a useful blueprint for such a change. 

Of course all young people should be able to meet the literacy and numeracy expectations of their employers – and their customers if they are self-employed.  But they deserve good levels of literacy and numeracy for themselves in order to handle the bureaucratic demands of modern life and, when hardship hits, make effective claims for support; to be able to engage in and enjoy much of the written cultural wealth and heritage of the world; to be able to pursue paths of life-long learning in areas which might interest them; to be able as citizens to understand the political issues aired in elections; and in terms of eventually becoming parents, to rear their children in homes which are culturally rich. I fear that Mr Gove ignores the humanity of education and focuses too much on its mechanics.



Mr Gove, and his bully boys in Ofsted, seem to believe that ‘the Tail’ have not achieved good GCSE results because their schools are failing them.  They cherry pick the examples of a few schools where, by the intensive efforts of teachers, driven by charismatic and demanding headteachers, GCSE results have been exemplary.  But in other schools, notwithstanding heroic efforts by their teachers, this has not happened.  It needs to be understood by government, as it is by many teachers, and as Basil Bernstein showed in the 1970s, education cannot compensate for society. 

Frank Field MP led a team of social researchers in 2010 that resulted in a report entitled Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances.  He doesn’t use the term ‘the Tail’ but the report is about how children come to belong to it – and what could be done to avoid it.

 We have found overwhelming evidence that children’s life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life.  It is family background, parental education, good parenting and the opportunities for learning and development in those crucial years that together matter more to children than money, in determining whether their potential is realised in adult life. The things that matter most are a healthy pregnancy; good maternal mental health; secure bonding with the child; love and responsiveness of parents along with clear boundaries, as well as opportunities for a child’s cognitive, language and social and emotional development. Good services matter too: health services, Children’s Centres and high quality childcare.

 Later interventions to help poorly performing children can be effective but, in general, the most effective and cost-effective way to help and support young families is in the earliest years of a child’s life.

 By the age of three, a baby’s brain is 80% formed and his or her experiences before then shape the way the brain has grown and developed.  That is not to say, of course, it is all over by then, but ability profiles at that age are highly predictive of profiles at school entry. By school age, there are very wide variations in children’s abilities and the evidence is clear that children from poorer backgrounds do worse cognitively and behaviourally than those from more affluent homes. Schools do not effectively close that gap; children who arrive in the bottom range of ability tend to stay there. 


Field is quite clear that it is cultural poverty rather than necessarily financial poverty that damages life chances and it is the child’s experiences in the years before schooling that can damage their life chances.  He lists the existing support services, but worries that their impact is fragmented.   

There is a range of services to support parents and children in those early years. But, GPs, midwives, health visitors, hospital services, Children’s Centres and private and voluntary sector nurseries together provide fragmented services that are neither well understood nor easily accessed by all of those who might benefit most.

It is here that we can envisage that primary schools could make an impact.  If every primary school had one or more teachers primarily responsible for working with the families of young children in their school catchment area, co-ordinating the existing services and augmenting them by creating democratic self-help groups of parents aimed to raise the cultural profile, it would make an enormous difference to the children’s achievements once they started school.

This could be the best use of a primary schools’ pupil premium.    

I have set out the case for this in a pamphlet entitled Primary Education Sure Start and Tackling ‘The Tail’


[i] Chris Cook, ‘The social mobility challenge for school reformers’ FT Data blog  22 February 2012 


This page was posted on 28 February 2014 and slightly revised on 13 March and 10 November 2015