Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Throughout their educational career, students are led to believe that their efforts will be rewarded. They are constantly lured into a mindset that demands they focus all their mental energy onto a set of examinations and told the future that lies ahead is wholly dependent on their current efforts – despite the fact that some are guaranteed success simply because of their status.
Students in the UK are coerced into believing that our “meritocratic” society favours those most willing to conform ; that an individual’s academic success, or lack thereof, is the definitive marker of a person’s worth and value. Since the start of this decade, the UK education sector has incurred irreparable damage, suffering extensively under the hands of one man: Michael Gove (pictured below).
Michael Gove was appointed as Education Secretary following the formation of the Conservative and Lib-Dem coalition government in 2010 and served in this role until 2014. Prior to this, Gove was elected as Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. In his four years as Education Secretary, Gove’s decisions saw him become a particularly controversial figure of the Conservative party, where he was heavily criticised in 2013 by the National Association of Head Teachers for the “climate of bullying, fear and intimidation” he had created – a group that subsequently went on to pass a vote of no confidence in his policies.
In 2015, it was revealed that a staggering 50,000 of the UK’s teachers had the left the profession, with a further 50% of teachers considering quitting in the next five years. In 2013 that the National Union of Teachers (NUT) argued Gove’s policies were based on little more than “dogma, political rhetoric and his own limited experience of education.” The NUT unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in Gove – the first time in the union’s history that such an action had been performed – and called for his resignation.
Various initiatives of educational reform under Gove have left visible scars on the British education system. Many have since reflected on Gove’s actions as being responsible for “butchering” the education system. Throughout the time Gove served as Education Secretary, GCSEs were made more “rigorous”, with modular assessments being scrapped, and “resit culture” was finally put to bed – a decision motivated by Gove’s belief that resits were neither beneficial to teaching staff, nor their students. Likewise, the National Curriculum was rewritten to improve the “core knowledge” of pupils and GCSE Performance League Tables were introduced, allegedly to foster aspirations of students and improve the overall quality of teaching. Then, of course, was the introduction of Free Schools: state-funded schools that were exempt from teaching the National Curriculum, where teachers suddenly found themselves rendered helpless at the hands of thoughtless changes. Teachers were silenced and denied the right to question how these changes would implicate the running of their own schools.
Perhaps one of Gove’s more controversial actions was his involvement in the radical alterations made to the approved texts of English Literature. Suddenly, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was banned from being studied and the works of Byron, Keats, Dickens and other famous material from across the English Literature canon was reinstated. For some, studying texts from British authors exclusively would help students to appreciate their national heritage and identity. Many, however, saw through this rather transparent change, and criticised Gove for imposing his own prejudices onto the British Education system. In addition to this, due to the blatant lack of female authors that were approved for study, it was also argued that Gove was instilling in pupils “the belief that the only voices worth hearing in our society are those of a dead, white, English, male establishment figure.”
It was Gove’s prerogative to ensure that the arts were continually under-funded, under-valued and made to be seen as increasingly undesirable. These “soft” subjects were frequently mocked by Gove, the results of which are still emerging several years later. In 2016, it was revealed that a decline in students taking at least one arts subject at GCSE level has dropped by 53.5% – the lowest level recorded in a decade. It was also announced during 2016, following the cull of these “soft subjects”, that examination board AQA would be dropping its A Level in The History of Art from 2018 – the last of its kind to exist in the UK.
Ultimately, the fact remains that Gove’s reforms to the education system continue to force teachers out of their profession. Teachers are admitting defeat against a system that has been made increasingly problematic by traditionalist ideologies. Pupils suffer too, through a frightfully limited choice of subjects and experiences of performance anxiety. Children are merely taught to pass exams, not to become independent thinkers. Any creative impulses are suppressed, pangs of curiosity are dismissed and genuine areas of interest are not pursued because these are skills that are seldom seen as valuable in the educational climate Gove created.
Gove’s legacy is one that still proves contentious. The lack of thought given to staff and students is deeply saddening, and with rapid changes still ongoing, one can only question what the future of the Britain’s education system will look like.