Unless one counts educationalists as celebrities, I rarely come across celebrities in my day to day life. I used to teach Alison Moyet’s son, and very clever he was too. Rowan Atkinson used to turn up to watch his son’s matches in a McLaren F1 and I’ve talked all things English cricket with Mick Jagger as he came to watch his son make a first ball duck one pleasant sunny afternoon circa 2000. We had fun-sized mars bars at cricket tea that day and it is one of my life’s greatest regrets (thus far) that I didn’t at least raise an eyebrow as he tucked in – so many witty asides to choose from, and I chose none.
I recently spent a few days with my wife in Tel Aviv, and I managed to run in to Michael Gove and family not once but three times during the course of our first full day there. The fact that we saw no more Gove during the next two days are probably the result of him avoiding his one and only stalker. We had the chance to chat briefly (I cornered him in a gift shop) and I told him what a fine job I thought he had done as education secretary. He was very pleasant (as one might expect when receiving a compliment) and though I expect he was slightly disappointed that I teach at a selective 450-year old Boarding School and not a City Academy, he didn’t let on.
Whether one agrees with Gove’s approach/ideas/philosophy or not (and it is inevitable there will be members of both camps), I don’t think anyone can argue to hard that the man is able, displayed integrity as education secretary and left people in little doubt of what he was trying to achieve (perhaps a hollow compliment, but not one that can be applied to many politicians). I can’t have been the only person to note the irony of DC choosing to replace Gove with Nicky Morgan at the same time as declaring a ‘war on mediocrity’ in education. Gove clearly believed in the transformative power of education; the fact that cultural capital is not the preserve of the wealthy; that great works of art and literature are for all, not to be whisked away from ‘kids like these’; that by focusing so much attention on the C/D GCSE boundary for English we adopt an overly-reductionist approach to the teaching of the subject; that it is important to pass on an educational ‘tradition’ that is strong in the key academic disciplines; that not all subjects offered at GCSE are equal and that chasing grades by offering a slew of non-academic courses does not represent valid educational practice; that attempting to gain grades by multiple re-sitting of the same papers at the expense of spending time on teaching and understanding is educationally corrupt.
I have no idea whether literature from the C19 is beyond many children, but I do know that it is the job of teacher and parents to foster a sense of intellectual curiosity in their pupils/children and to make sure they retain an ambitious approach to learning. I prefer to believe that you can teach virtually anything to anyone, at least at some level. If the child is enthused, they are more likely to become an auto-didact, and learning doesn’t just take place in School. My experience of teaching tells me that rarely are children (or adults) working at capacity, and that when the bar is raised, most people are able to jump higher. I have been amazed at the response of 13-year old pupils to T S Eliot this year – they may not have loved The Wasteland or understood all (much?) of it, but they’ve gained plenty from the text and all of the connections (Classics, History, Art) one can make to it.
Gove clearly failed to bring the vast majority of teachers on board with him. He will be remembered at least as much for his utterances about ‘enemies of promise’ and ‘the blob’ as he will about the rhetoric that was supposed to empower teachers and to encourage them to be ambitious personally and ambitious for their pupils. In the end, tone matters, and lots of teachers didn’t much care for his. It is unusual that so many teachers who can object to his combative logic consider it reasonable to launch personal attacks that are little to do with educational philosophy and more to do with their own emotional.
I doubt that our paths will cross again, and certainly not any time soon, but the last I saw of him was enjoying a lengthy quiz with his children. In half an hour over a family lunch, it was noticeable just how much knowledge was absorbed by the kids, and just how much they enjoyed it. Each question from the top of his head was connected to the last, and a subtle build-up of of connected ‘grammar’ (in the Trivium sense) was palpable. Maybe we’re all guilty of thinking the world right in front of us can be extrapolated further and applied well beyond our immediate sphere, and admittedly they were his own children, but if he ever wanted a teaching job, I’d hire him like a shot.