The Blob Strikes Back! A review of Schools at Risk! Gove’s School Revolution Scrutinised edited by Trevor Fisher for the Socialist Education Association


Gove has characterised his critics in ‘the academic educational
establishment’ as ‘The Blob’. If there is an academic educational
establishment, some of the authors of this pamphlet were certainly members
of it. Now they have come out fighting and furious at the damage Coalition
policies are doing to schools and, especially, the teacher training many of
them have long defended.

Geoff Whitty, for example, formerly Director of the Institute of Education,
draws attention to the consistent and repeated attacks on teacher training
throughout his career and originally emanating from Thatcher’s guru, Sir
Keith Joseph. In his contribution Geoff quotes himself from 1991, ‘One of
the reasons why some members of the New Right can believe,’ (just like
today) ‘at one and the same time, in permitting the entry into teaching of
people with little or no training, while imposing increasingly stringent
criteria upon the content of established routes into teacher training, lies
in its belief that there are “enemies within”.’ In otherwords , the
‘Marxists practising subversion’, as Gove also abused the 100 Professors
who signed a letter protesting his policies.

Tim Brighouse in his statement as Chair of the New Visions for Education
Group, a think-tank on schools made up of some of the UK’s leading figures
on education, shows the ‘haphazard’ consequences of Gove ‘giving up the
need to plan teacher training places nationally’. As Tim concludes, ‘The
question of the partnership between schools and universities is ever
changeable but to divorce them completely is a mistake and to suggest that
teachers need no training at all is a grave error.’ Where this is coming
from is the dominance of the private schools where no training is demanded
of those who are ‘born teachers’. Where it is going is indicated in Richard
Hatcher’s contribution.

Richard points out there are at least two ways to make profit out of public
education. One is to sell off the institutions and allow the private
investment that Gove favours in the chains and trusts of academies and free
schools that have already been created in competition with residual
‘council schooling’. The other is to sell schools on-line individually
bespoke teaching materials already available through the growing industry
of home schooling and private tutoring. Richard details some of the
corporate interests involved, including Murdoch and Pearson, to show again
how ‘The foundations, the preconditions have been put into place’ and are
‘well suited to the so-called knowledge-based curriculum favoured by the
Tories…’ Most importantly, ‘online-based education doesn’t need qualified

Michael Bassey also describes the ‘bewildering array of “non-local
authority” arrangements: philanthropic start-up sponsored, charity/
university sponsored, converter, multi-academy-chain’ that make up, as his
title indicates, ‘The Willing, the Pressurised and the Forced’. On the
basis of research evidence, Michael contests whether these multifaceted
arrangements are doing anything to ‘raise standards’, especially for ‘the
“Tail” of underachievement which is rightly seen as a major problem for the
English educational system’.

Against these, David Pavett’s contribution on Finland describes the way in
which the education system there reflects the more general values of the
society. As he argues, Finland is relatively egalitarian in terms of income
distribution but this is also reflected in the willingness of the country’s
population to pay higher levels of taxation in the interest of the public
good. Austerian EU policies also affect Finland however, even without the
free market policies unleashed on neighbouring Swedish schools.

Greta Akpenye also offers a spirited defence of the comprehensive ideal
which she describes as ‘a work in progress’ that contributed to ‘the
transition from apparent mono-culturalism to acknowledged
multi-culturalism… raising the consciousness of our children beyond narrow
academic and economic achievement’. While Trevor Fisher lambasts ‘the
Westminster consensus’ supported by a Media so ‘besotted with Gove’s
anarcho-syndicalist belief in school autonomy’ they hardly question its
contradiction in ‘a highly centralised system’.

As Trevor rounds off the collection, there are ‘Two years to go to an
election whose outcome is unpredictable’. The Socialist Education
Association offers these essays as a stimulus to focussed and purposive
debate to come up with ‘A better future for our schools’ that the Labour
Party launched earlier this month. Its recommendations however rely upon
taking back control over all state-funded schools by the local authorities,
not recognising how these too have been changed by outsourcing and
unbundling under relentless pressure of punitive funding cuts while Gove
only accelerates the Adonis brief for schools.

For the pamphlet does not contextualise its criticisms within a wider
analysis to show, for example, how comprehensive schools were introduced in
a period of economic expansion when a changing occupational structure
allowed some limited upward social mobility (without people having to move
down as they generally do today). Both the continued ‘professionalisation’
of teachers, particularly the increased role played by university education
departments and the major step forward in pedagogy and curriculum were also
important positive developments from this period.

In contrast, the Gove agenda – like Willetts in HE, a sector where
inequalities are as pronounced as schools – is designed to correspond with
economic flat-lining and falling living standards; but also a more general
crisis facing young people in terms of employment opportunities. With
attainment levels in schools producing a generation ‘overqualified and
underemployed’ exams need to be made ‘harder’ to more clearly differentiate
success from failure and numbers going on to university need to be
restricted by the tripling of tuition fees. This means that we need to
develop a wider programme of reforms in the interests of young people that
go beyond reforming the school system. Nevertheless, this pamphlet is an
important contribution and should be widely circulated.