Following recent policy announcements from both Gove and Twigg, one would expect there to be a clear dividing line between the two. But the amount of smoke and mirrors in their recent speeches, plus a media scramble to cover everything in realtime, plus daft fights like today, means their messages are becoming blurred. Having been away myself I therefore set out to look at the last few weeks and figure out what, precisely, is happening. Sadly, what we appear to have is one with a clear narrative but incoherent policies, and one with clear policies but no narrative.
Given the furore two weeks ago when Gove made his fourth Parliamentary announcement about “GCSE reform” you would be forgiven for thinking the education world as previously known was ending. Sifting through, it actually appears all we are getting is a change to the content of some exams and a bizarre switch from lettered grades to numbered ones. Modular exams, an organisational nightmare for schools, were already gone anyway. A change in the amount and type of subjects coursework has routinely happened about every four years for the past two decades anyway, so it’s barely worth batting an eyelid (though it will induce much eye-rolling for schools reworking lessons plans for the umpteenth time). The only really new ideas were the suggested (now seemingly dropped) I-Level name and the change from A – G grades into 8 – 1, for which no sensible reason has so far been given.
On the other hand Twigg’s speech last week seemed quite dramatic, if only because they were the first squeak of real education policies from Labour. Essentially Twigg argued he would solve the problem of an alarming lack of school places by only opening Free Schools in areas with places deficits, and he would solve the problem of low quality teaching by requiring weaker schools to collaborate with stronger ones. Unfortunately while the messages as written here sound fairly straightforward they were actually hidden in a pile of nonsense about renaming free schools and firing people. Also how he would do these things, or why he would do them, (or if they are even possible) was entirely missing.
So, despite Twigg’s good ideas, Gove is still the one with the coherent narrative. Even people who think Gove’s ideas are untenable can at least tell you his intended mission is “restoring rigour to our exams”. When asked about Twigg’s mission the most common response, at least until Tuesday, was “not a lot” and then after the speech it became “Doing what Gove does but, sort of, better and nicer?”.
None of this is good for the profession. Reading David Blunkett’s autobiography this week I was struck by a passage where he described the vital importance of creating strong policies that solve problems and then messaging the policy intention correctly:
“The message and the policy went hand in hand. If the people implementing our policies and those benefiting from them understood what we were trying to do, the chance of success and delivery on the ground were much greater.”
When Education Secretaries (or their shadows) fail to communicate well people start believing the most exciting idea that fits their world view. This leads to confusion, then disillusionment, then disaengagement across the profession. Very few people will go and look at the actual policy documents. Hence he who explains well, controls the ground*. Gove knows this, and so uses his journalistic experience to ensure his messages are crystal clear, even when his policies are tantamount to a deeper shade of nothing. Tell people you’re doing something often enough it seems, and nine times out of then they will start to believe it. But when it comes to implementation, if the policy is not coherent, it will fail.
Hence, Gove has the world believing that “rigour is coming” when really his proposals are a nip at coursework, a couple of additional topic prescriptions and a switch to a grading system exactly the same as the current one but which uses numbers. This is not a revolution, it is a media campaign. Schools would do well to ignore the hype and keep focusing on the real issue of improving the way teachers get knowledge and skills from one head into another. It’s a big enough challenge as is, hence the first politician to stop making me unpick policy needles from blusterous haystacks will be the one who gets my support.
*Or she. Just not at the moment.