Gove must challenge our assumptions to find a radical education policy

By Alex Bryan

It is a common narrative among politicians and the media that the proposal tabled by Michael Gove to replace GCSE’s with an Ebacc was one of the most radical pieces of education policy for generations. It would have made a foreign language compulsory and generally would have been an attempt to impose a more traditional education on the young people of Britain. Thankfully, Gove failed, though his general educational philosophy is still likely to be imposed in one form or another.

One of the many reasons why we should be glad that this policy was not passed is that it has allowed us a brief respite from the education debate which has been constant at least since 1997. The Tories want a more traditional system, a focus on rote learning, emphasis on languages and ‘employable’ subjects. Labour want an inclusive system which is more flexible and less focussed on one particular notion of success that the Conservative idea. We have heard it all before.

So in what sense is Gove radical at all? One could argue that the only genuinely radical policy he has is on academies. Gove might argue that in opening up freedom for schools to set their own agendas he is facilitating radical change, though this seems like an abdication of responsibility. The rest is all much of the same, and so are the arguments given by those who oppose him. The one thing both sides agree on is that the school system needs improving, yet neither is willing to move outside of their comfort zones.

What would a radical educational policy look like? We need not look far to find some ideas. One school in Sweden has decided to drop gendered pronouns in an attempt to promote gender equality in a genuinely radical way. In this school, heavily gendered stories or fairy tales are few and far between, with more books promoting equality and freedom.

In Lithuania – which already has a higher literacy rate than the UK – the government has introduced a programme focussed on creative learning. The programme, ironically borrowed from a UK scheme scrapped by the Coalition in 2010, places professionals and experts in the position of ‘creative practitioners’ and to attempt to help students to think creatively about problems or to see things in ways which capture their imagination.

The central point is that in both of these cases, the schools and government have shown an appreciation for the potential of the education system to drive social change. Indeed, they have prioritised this, believing this to lead to a better all-round education. In the UK, we remain fixated by the same old points of debate – exam results, class sizes, faith schools, funding etc. Until we start to think outside of these limited areas, genuinely radical reform will be impossible.

It is highly unlikely that Michael Gove will embrace either of the two examples given, but they demonstrate the sheer power of the school system. They also challenge norms around what ‘teaching’ is. We rarely question whether the way we were taught as children is the right way, we simply see it is the way, the only way. It is not. If the Education Secretary is serious about righting the wrongs of our school system, he must look challenge our basic assumptions and move beyond the standard arguments about education.

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