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Dear Michael Gove: Primaries

09 June 2010

Dear Mr Gove

I HOPE you have settled in well. I’m aware you’ve got plans for primary schools, where it sometimes feels as if we’ve had more initiatives than children to do them with. Many such programmes have been great — for example, the literacy strategy, and one-to-one tuition. Some — such as league tables — have been less welcome.

Christ taught that “Wisdom is shown by its results” (Matthew 11.19). In my school, on an estate where fourth-generation unemployment and disengagement is wired into the family, I can see that some of the results of the Coalition will be welcome, provided they are rooted in sound wisdom.

I long to move from an inflated primary curriculum to more relevant and engaging learning. If it is genuine, I embrace your promise of “greater freedom over the curriculum”; but if it ends up mandating lessons on “the rivers of the UK and the countries of Europe . . . kings and queens”, we’re in for a disappointment.

When he was in opposition, your Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, stressed their importance. So how free will the new “freedom” be? Can I ask why it is so vital to know that Queen Anne existed? Are you all suffering from the sort of knee-jerk policy-making that scuppered supposed curricular freedom for decades? Teachers like me are ready to deliver a curriculum that may not include Queen Anne but will be crowned with the enthusi­asm of young learners. Are you freeing us to do this, Mr Gove?

I welcome your plans to review testing. As Lib Dem education spokesman, David Laws raised the question “whether there is a greater role for teacher assessment”, observing that “one cannot debate the curriculum without debating . . . the testing regime.” Now that he has time on his hands, could you two catch up for a chat, and sort-of- coalesce?

Having established clear standards, our schools need renewed wisdom to use assessment as a tool for learning rather than a tool to slap schools about. If you can move from penalising us to learning with us, that would be a wise move. Teachers are not averse to challenge and the pressure: we’re just averse to what it is sometimes used for. If it is about children’s learning, we’re signed up. If it is about puffing up SATs results, we’re wise to the fact that this won’t secure lasting results.

I am particularly interested in your most significant reform, the setting up of free schools. This proposal has depth. It offers the chance to try new approaches, but this will be at a price.

The frontiers pioneered by US Charter schools are costly. Children and parents contract into agree­ments that involve real com­mit­ment to education. Parents commit themselves to punctuality, attendance at summer school, checking home­work, and maintaining contact with the school. They are also required to acknowledge their influence on the behaviour of their child. Such expectations are part of the bargain.

And do you really mean to free the sacred cow of pay structure, as at Equity Charter schools, where they treble teacher salaries to a whacking $125,000 (with a $25,000 bonus), narrowly focusing on incredible teachers and cutting all else to pay for them?

If I reckon my locality needs to experiment with a model such as the Excellence Charter school in Brooklyn, an all-boys affair where PE is a daily event, with full-time fitness instructors, are you up for that? The results show not just on the sports field but also in the maths class.

Many fear that free schools will become a way of ghettoising the urban middle classes. Would it not be a flowering of wisdom if you made them places of excellence, from which we could all learn new strategies?

It is worth noting that, although you champion Swedish free schools, you neglect to mention that their inception coincided with a national, radical decentralisation of responsibility to the regions.

That’s the sort of free-school system that could tempt me: one where the whole system is being given a bit more wriggle room, possibly working with traditional regional providers such as local authorities — or even churches — to foster trusting interdependence rather than selfish independence.

What I am really longing for, not just for my school but for primary education in general, is some deep wisdom rather than just a quick fix. Can you do a Baker or a Blunkett and genuinely engage with the deeper needs of schools such as mine? Without this, even your promise of a significant funding boost, for which I am grateful, is just money thrown around.

David Laws once said: “The biggest challenge in primary education is to make sure that the 20 or 30 per cent of youngsters at the bottom are inspired by education.” Ideas such as that should be roped into the discussion about what is needed in our schools. Come back, Dave — all is forgiven.

So, I welcome what sounds like a few wise moves, and hope they don’t get offered with one hand only to be snatched with the other. At the risk of sounding like Dr Seuss: How free is free, Mr G?

Huw Thomas, Head teacher of Emmaus Roman Catholic and Church of England Primary School, Sheffield

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