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Socialist Explainers

Michael Gove's determination to demoralise and destroy public sector education appears to be boundless

Michael Gove

The latest targets of Gove's insatiable urge to demotivate teachers and pupils are the lengths of the school day and the summer holidays.

The death of Thatcher, his milk snatching heroine, seems to have spurred Gove to take on the mantle of holiday snatcher. At a recent conference organised by the right-wing 'Spectator' magazine, he outlined his latest hare-brained scheme to chain teachers to their desks for longer in the day and to shrink their much-cherished summer break.

The increasingly unhinged Education Secretary claims the former should be extended to 4.30 pm and the latter shrunk from six to four weeks. Predictably, Gove's justification for this motivational massacre has nothing to do with educational philosophy and everything to do with capitalist competition. Gove told the conference:

"We've noticed in Hong Kong and Singapore and other East Asian nations that expectations of mathematical knowledge or of scientific knowledge at every stage are more demanding than in this country. If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap."

One of Gove's underlings at the Department of Education somehow managed the remarkable feat of expressing this philistinism in even more crass terms:

"We can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we'll all soon be working for the Chinese."

Ironically, for someone whose entire educational ideology is about exhuming nineteenth century values, Gove also claims this plan is about modernising the system:

'I remember half-term in October when I was at school in Aberdeen was called the tattie holiday the period when kids would go to the fields to pick potatoes. It was also at a time when the majority of mums stayed home. That world no longer exists and we can't afford to have an education system that was essentially set in the 19th century.'

The last bastion

Ask most school teachers and they will tell you the reality is their mental health cannot afford any reduction in the summer break. Thanks to the exponential workload Gove and his predecessors as Education Secretary have dumped on teachers, the six weeks off in the summer is an essential period for psychological recovery from an increasingly draining job.

The other breaks in the year such as Christmas and Easter are often consumed by writing reports, marking coursework or wading through some other sea of paperwork. The first week off in the summer is spent mentally winding down and the last week is spent mentally winding up again as the return of stress looms again. That leaves four weeks in between in which teachers can genuinely afford to switch off.

Many teachers will think threatening this last bastion of their working conditions could be the final straw in terms of their ability to sustain self-motivation in the face of Gove's relentless assault. With teacher recruitment falling but the need for them rising, Gove's proposal would only serve to deepen the staffing problem faced by many schools.

Shrinking the summer break would also have an adverse effect of the mental development of pupils, psychoanalyst Alice Jones points out:

'Long summer holidays engender skills that cannot be taught from the blackboard or measured by Sats scores. They are about learning to climb trees, and to get on with your siblings. There is more to life than sitting at a desk and striving to win the global race which is presumably why Gove and his fellow MPs will enjoy their seven-week recess as normal this summer.'

Mental Space

Gove's Gradgrinery scheme would reduce further the ability of children to find mental space from the growing psychological demands imposed on them by a market-driven education system. The extended summer break is a unique point in the year when children can explore and learn about the world around them in a relaxed and care-free manner. Already, many youngsters are struggling to cope with growing up in an age of austerity. Last year, the Children's Society reported that one in eleven British children between the ages of 8 and 15 have a low sense of well-being. Another survey indicated one in ten of that group have a clinically diagnosed mental disorder.

Wendy Eyllatt of the Save Childhood Movement commented:

'Children in the UK are among the most pressured, unhappy and commercially vulnerable in the western world. The cultural and environmental tensions are unprecedented. And in this country more than others, we have focused away from children and the family, and on to work and the economy.'

Slashing the summer vacation would undoubtedly exasperate this phenomena. It would also eat further into the quality time parents and carers are able to spend with their children,lumbered as they already are with either longer working hours or precarious part-time contracts.

Thumbs down from the private sector

Even the private sector - which Gove likes to hold up as the model for the other 93% of the education system - does not see fit to consider his longer academic year. Anthony Seldon, master of the ultra posh Wellington College, is scathingly dismissive by Gove's latest Eureka moment :

'The Education Secretary greatly admires independent schools, which achieve results far outstripping state schools in Britain, and indeed the schools in the Far East and in Scandinavia which he so admires. But we do so with much longer holidays than state schools enjoy. At Wellington College we have 19 weeks of holidays, compared to 13 in state schools, which Gove wants to cut still further.'

Even someone of Seldon's background is more appreciative of the commitment of state school teachers than the Education Secretary who is putatively their boss:

'A major incentive to join the profession is the prospect of a six-week summer holiday in state schools, as well as two weeks at Christmas and Easter. Most teachers don't squander this time, but use it to enrich their minds, travel, read, attend courses, and simply to relax. They deserve it.'

Ideological hatred

Characteristically, Gove's proposal is based on an ideological hatred of the concept of state education, as opposed to any actual evidence. His claim that 'East Asian' schooling is dominated by the notion of an extended academic year is total nonsense.

The English academic year is currently 190 days long with 11-12 weeks of holidays. That is about 7,250 hours of classroom time. That is already significantly longer than the OECD average of 6,732 hours. In Japan, the figure is about 6,300 and in South Korea just under 6,000. Even in Shanghai, one of the Chinese mega-cities idolised by Gove, children and teachers enjoy 14 weeks of holiday every year. Finland is frequently cited as having the world's best education system (notably based on the complete absence of a private sector). The hours of instruction there are 5,750.

The length of the school day is also conspicuously shorter in many of the 'competitor' economies that Gove wants to emulate. In Germany,the school day ends at 1pm; Finland at noon; Japan at 3 and Indonesia at 2.

Hellbent Gove

So if Gove's proposal is not based on something as prosaic as facts, why is he floating the idea? NUT Deputy General Secretary, Kevin Courtenay, has rightly identified the real motivation behind the speech as an increasingly transparent attempt to wreck the social democratic project of comprehensive education.

'The best education systems in Europe, like Finland, have shorter days and longer holidays. Pupils should be able to enjoy their holidays, not constantly studying for exams. Gove is simply hellbent on deregulating teachers' pay and conditions so private companies can step in.'

Gove is also clearly trying to goad teachers into taking industrial action in the same way Thatcher explicitly set out to confront the miners in the 80s. The teaching profession is still densely unionised and Gove perceives breaking the strength of the NUT and the NASUWT as an essential starting point for full privatisation of the state sector.

This latest 'make it up as you go along' brainwave from Gove comes on top of a sequence of serial attacks from his department. Last summer,he announced academy schools would be free to recruit under-qualified staff. The following November, he advised headteachers to dock the pay of NUT and NASUWT members involved in work-to-rule action.

Then the teachers' pay review body announced it was ripping up national pay scales and handing over the allocation of pay awards to the patronage of individual heads. He has also turned Ofsted - led by his attack dog, Michael Wilshaw - into a politicised weapon to intimidate schools into converting to academy status. Commenting on the longer day notion, Wilshaw says:

'As a head I would make it clear that if you teach well or try to teach well, if you work hard and go the extra mile, you are going to get paid well. You are going to be promoted. Somebody who is out the gate at 3 o'clock in the afternoon is not. Isn't that fair? Am I being unfair?'

Er...yes! Wilshaw is willfully ignorant of the fact that many teachers may have to leave at that time to collect their own children and when they finally get home they are often confronted by a pile of marking that they work on deep into the evening. Gove and Wilshaw are oblivious to this invisible workload, even though most teachers would say it is the hardest aspect of the job.

Can Gove Teach?

Fortunately, for the thousands of teachers and parents who treasure public sector education, Gove has not had it all his own way recently. His Ebacc plan to scrap GCSEs was humiliatingly thrown out by the Education Select Committee earlier this year. Another imaginative move to knock Gove off his perch is a petition doing the rounds in staffrooms demanding that he try teaching in comprehensive school to see the reality of the job.

However, we cannot rely on these forms of opposition to safeguard the comprehensive system forever. Teachers in Denmark are currently showing the best way to confront attacks from the neoliberal agenda. They have been engaged in a three-week lockout as part of a campaign to block a Gove-esque assault on their conditions. Hopefully, when they win they will be able to switch off and enjoy a long summer holiday.