Photograph of Michael Gove sermonising

Tory Education Minister Michael Gove

What’s the difference between Michael Gove and a plastic surgeon? A plastic surgeon tucks features, but Gove…

For a while, Michael Gove was one of the coalition government’s biggest jokes. Between the vanity projects, the prat-falls, and his Pob-like features, it’s easy to see why he’s the target of satire, but those who laugh at the Education Secretary risk seriously underestimating him. While Gove is wrong about a lot of things, he’s not stupid; he knows exactly what he’s doing, which is taking apart the state education system so that it can be re-made in the Tory image. And one of the fundamental parts of this plan involves discrediting the very people who have the knowledge to put up any real opposition: teachers.

It all started around the time of the 2011 strikes. Not just with the increased retirement age and decreased pension that gave public sector workers legal grounds to call a strike, but with Gove’s response to the them. In order to minimise the disruption to working parents, Gove suggested that volunteers should take over in classrooms for the day. He followed this up by allowing first free schools, and then academies, to employ people without a formal teaching qualification to work as teachers.

Most of us appreciate that teaching is not an easy job (and having dropped out of a PGCE, I’d be one of the first to admit that it’s bloody difficult), but what a lot of people don’t realise is that teaching is intensely theoretical. Yes, teachers need a certain set of soft skills as well, but the theory is hugely important. As well as knowing what to teach, teachers need to know how to teach it; and although an unqualified teacher might eventually figure it out, what happens to the kids they teach in the meantime? And the colleagues who have to spend extra time coaching them through the basics?

What Gove is trying to do here is undermine the idea that teachers are specialised professionals. It sounds like a counterproductive thing for an Education Secretary to do, but it’s tactical move because teachers and education academics are the people who have the training, knowledge, and evidence to show why Gove’s plans are ridiculously impractical. This gives them an advantage over him, which he’d trying to chip away at by constantly suggesting that they aren’t knowledgeable, or that their knowledge isn’t important, making himself appear more credible in comparison.

The current retro theme in Tory education policy of putting “rigour” back into the school curriculum is just another way of manipulating the public perception of teaching, reducing a teacher’s role to simply standing at the front of the classroom imparting facts. It’s a style of teaching that was common back in the days when you didn’t need any special training to work in education, and there are solid, evidence-based reasons why most of these methods have fallen out of use. They might work quite well for the bright, able kids who arrive at school ready to absorb whatever they are presented with, but in real world not all kids are like that – certainly not to begin with, anyway.

There are many reasons why Finland – which has arguably the best education system in the world – gets such good results, but one of the things that contributes to that success is having teachers who are all educated to Masters level. However, Gove seems to think that England’s teachers can do without the training if they just make the kids do their sums in Roman numerals and use the subjunctive twice a week. You can’t improve results by simply telling teachers that they must do better; they need to have tools like evidence-based practice and comprehensive training to do their jobs properly.

The next few years promise to be difficult for teachers, and the NUT are describing strike action as “inevitable”. Amongst the current issues is a decision to change the Ofsted inspection category of “satisfactory” to “requires improvement”. This will make previously acceptable schools, and by extension teachers, look as if they are failing. We could see more schools like Downhills Primary (which, although labelled as a “failing school” had test results above the minimum acceptable level set by the goverment) being turned over to academy chains run by Tory donors, against the wishes of their local communities.

As the government’s austerity agenda continues to push more families into financial hardship, more children will have to live in homes that are cold and never have quite enough food, and it won’t be social conditions that take the blame for their declining performance at school. And while social and economic circumstances make teaching more difficult than it needs to be, the Department of Education will take full advantage of the opportunity to throw teachers under the school bus.