Is Michael Gove Lying to Us All?

There is no doubt about it: I have spent long enough ranting about both the internal and external inspection systems in schools.  I think prior readers will by now have realised, maybe even appreciated, my views on the whole disgraceful, downbeat, dour, depressing, damn thing. But, really, I do feel compelled to ask this question at least one more time: ‘How is it possible that there be such a gulf, NO: an enormous, vacuous, gaping, septic, chasm  between what our Secretary of State for Education is advocating and the insidiously-enforced practice that is  actually happening in a great number of schools?

Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conference

Here is just a brief example of his recent words:

“All too often, we’ve seen an over-emphasis on group work – in practice, children chatting to each other – in the belief that is a more productive way to acquire knowledge than attending to an expert”.

(Michael Gove, Sept 2013)

“Attending to an expert”? Remember that, teachers everywhere. That’s YOU he’s talking about!

And It’s not just him, either. The Chief Inspector, no lesser being than the BOSS of the OFSTED inspectors, Sir Michael Wilshaw, for whom we are all trying to perform this toe-deforming, Bolshoi-esque,  never-to-be-truly-perfected dance, also says ‘No!’

“OFSTED should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end.”

(Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools)

So, unless I’m very much mistaken, the message is this: rip  up the rule book; ignore it all!  Do the things that work for you! Don’t worry if you’re  (metaphorically) teaching ‘Agadoo’, as long as the kids are learning and the results are good.

Great, but all the evidence is to the contrary, I’m afraid.


My school is completely fixated on how we can achieve the utopian goal of ‘outstanding lessons’ across the board. They deliver training sessions on the various aspects of this, hand out reams of paper on the subject and never miss an opportunity to remind us what ‘OFSTED will be looking for’. They scrutinise, observe, tick boxes, write reports and check and double-check almost everything we do, with this goal in mind.

On the 8th October last, I was subjected to a ‘learning walk’, which is really just a mini-observation. It was an English lesson, in which I was teaching a mixed-ability year 8 group creative writing skills. The lesson was based on the topic of ‘Our City’. The following day, the feedback arrived in my inbox declaring that, whilst the content was ‘good’ (thanks a lot!) the ‘outcomes were unclear’ (what?). These people observed the first fifteen minutes of my lesson. On which, I had the learning objective: to use a variety of stimuli…so that we can create and describe a setting’

To ‘create and describe a setting’ was ‘the outcome’, which, incidentally, was achieved. It was also noted that the starter activity lasted for ‘2o minutes’, which was too long and also contained too much ‘teacher talk’. No mention of the fact that in that time pupils answered some challenging lexical questions AND read aloud from two of Dickens’ original texts. I really don’t understand the issue? In fact, I completely despair. I was attempting to introduce some higher-level, linguistic techniques to some of the most damaged, disillusioned and disaffected kids in the country.

Instead of supporting and championing this aim, my management staff, -like some kind of zealot, religious converts, claiming to be acting under the auspices of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate – are telling me I’m wrong because my ‘starter activity’ was ‘too long’.

Yet, YET, we are both doing as we think we have been told to do. What exactly is this madness?

Next week I’m to have a lesson observation; I don’t expect it to go well. As I have written about before, I am struggling to mould my teaching-style to fit the particular model that my school requires. I would go as far as to say that I am almost doomed to fail. Is it me, or them? Who is right? I really have no idea. What I am painfully and excruciatingly aware of is that I have, I’m afraid, buckled: I have planned a lesson in which I am trying to meet all of my management’s demands. Why would I do this? Because the only alternative that I could envisage was inevitable failure. This way, at least I stand some minute chance of success.

Teacher observation

All of this actually makes me want to weep. The fact that I find myself staking my solid, eighteen-year-reputation on ideas that are, it seems to me, almost wholly gimmicks and half-truths: three-part-lessons, peer assessment, National Curriculum levels, group work, objectives, targets, outcomes, paired work, pre-planned questions , plenaries and mini-plenaries, Smart Board, ‘Visual, Aural and Kinaesthetic’, etc.

All of these have their place, here and there; but you cannot compact and compartmentalise them into neat lesson component parts as if you were rote-constructing a Mini motor car on a factory production line. Real lessons don’t work this way. Real lessons are fluid or malleable; real lessons are more like trying to concoct something delicious from the turkey after Christmas: crumble in a stock cube; throw a bit more cream in and leave to simmer. A handful of peas; a pinch of salt and some garlic; a peck of pepper, perhaps. I wonder if I dare chuck some chilli in?

That’s what real lessons are like. If I happened to speak for more than ten minutes, it’s because I felt it was necessary; because that’s how the lesson evolved. It is simply because that’s what I felt was right at the time. Kids are people, not products to be constructed and churned, all shiny and ‘educated’ off a production line. Oh, and while I’m about it, teachers aren’t sightless, mindless, manufacturing machines, either.

Students reading

Interestingly, no one had ever said to me that I was ‘requiring improvement’ until last July, which was well into Mr Gove’s tenure. Perhaps no-one cared enough under the Labour rule that had dominated the country for the majority of my teaching career. Something has changed, though. That much I do know, for sure.

So there it is: gauntlet thrown down. Are you causing all of this, Mr Gove? Can you hear me, Mr Wilshaw? I work with some of the most damaged kids in the whole of the country, but they aren’t the lunatics that have taken over the asylum. You mentioned before, your intention to give teachers more freedom and autonomy. It’s certainly getting no better for me, no matter what you say. In fact, it has never, ever been this crazy.

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36 Responses to Is Michael Gove Lying to Us All?

  1. Reblogged this on Scenes From The Battleground and commented:
    A blogpost that really illustrates the gap between the aspirations of those at the top of the education system and the reality in the classroom.


  2. Cazzypots, you speak for us all. Or at least for me. In over twenty years teaching, I have never been labelled “requires improvement” until recently. GCSE and A-level results (not that they are the be-all and end-all, but they are important “tells”) in my groups are consistently above the school average, excellent uptake at A-level, and yet over the last 12 months I’ve had an almost uninterrupted stream of 3s, for exactly the same reasons as you outline. Half-digested ideas from a half-forgotten CPD attended over half-a-decade ago. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you use the words ‘best practice’…

    You are not alone. You are not crazy. And in the face of an SLT intent on reality-denial, who can blame you for doing a “tick-the-box” lesson? Not me. I wish you well.


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  4. Passionate and important writing – thanks.

    Gove operates from a position as a thick-skinned ideologist, believing in his myopic way that everyone else is like him – obsessed with facts and dismissive of ‘fluffy’ things like art and children having fun. Fun for Gove was probably a book on economics. That he can operate as Education Secretary in a near vacuum, with no obligation to take heed of alternative opinions, means that he can afford not to care one jot about what others think. He has no background in education and is too thick-skinned to appreciate or care that someone with 18 years of education experience might be able to correct his viewpoint. There is a deep streak of egotistical arrogance that runs through him that is sadly amplified by his political position. Try to speak to him and you might well get ‘Yada Yada’. That he continues to operate unchecked is a scandal of the highest order, as he rapidly destroys the massive and gallant efforts of thousands of vocational teachers.


  5. Robbie Mitchell says:

    I echo all this. I have been teaching for nearly 30 years and have been a successful and highly regarded classroom practitioner throughout. But now my SLT want me to change everything I do – even though we just had OfSted and got ‘good’ …. Because we’re not outstanding. The Greeks had it: the best is the enemy of the good. Good teachers everywhere leaving the profession because of Gove, Wilshaw, and the tired old notion that experienced teachers don’t know what they’re doing. Meanwhile the children look increasingly puzzled …


  6. Mcallister1 says:

    This last year has been awful and I think you express the frustration and fear so many feel. It must all be connected to the new ofsted framework working it’s way through. I’m dreading the next observations even though my results were good. That is no longer enough. But where are all the outstanding teachers waiting to replace those who have a solid record of good teaching for years?


  7. Tm says:

    That was perfectly put. Too similar to my recent experiences of teaching.


  8. My local school is busy grinding experienced teachers into the ground with all these boxes to be ticked, including the absurd idea that progress must be seen in every child in the class every 20 minutes, as if education works like that! Schools leaders are obsessed with their interpretation of what OFSTED wants. Even OFSTED inspectors seem unsure of what is required and many encourage SLTs to continue on their ridiculous quest. What I see locally is a school (where people used to move house to get their kids in) now in special measures, teachers exhausted and demoralised, some kids being taught GCSE by unqualified teachers barely older than the pupils (yes, it’s now an academy) and kids being subjected to this ‘one style fits all’ type lesson, crammed with everything possible over 90 minutes. How utterly boring for them. I now work in the independent sector where we are left to get on and teach and TRUSTED to do a good job. No NC levels, no stopping the lesson to get the kids to prove what they’ve learnt every 20 minutes, no formulaic prepared-for-the-whole-year-in-advance typed up lesson plans (how is that even possible?). I made the move 10 years ago when justify-yourself-by-data was just starting. I don’t regret it! I feel nothing but sadness for the plight of my former colleagues and anger at the damage being done to state education.


  9. Becca Leech says:

    As an American educator, I have been experiencing the same change in administrator observations over the past few years, albeit only in-house observations at this point. I fear we will soon imitate Britain’s Ofsted-style governmental-observation-and-public-humiliation model. I have come to the conclusion that this tick-box method exists because those who are observing us are unqualified to judge effective teaching and are almost always less qualified in the subject area they are observing than the teachers who are being judged. The last observation I had in my secondary special education Algebra class was by a former athletic director and sports coach turned discipline principal. If the politicians are willing to concede that we, the teachers, are the experts, then no one less than an expert in our field is qualified to judge our lessons.


    • JoeN says:

      You’ve spotted something of huge significance Becca. In the secondary sector, the teacher as a professional with similar, transferable skills, whatever the subject they teach, has become the dominant type policy makers, governments and strategists all buy into. Not what the limited research there is in this field actually says. If you look into this (I was commissioned to by a former employer) then you find that excellence in the secondary classroom is achieved primarily through subject specialist passion and knowledge. Generic, teacher skills come way down the list.


    • cazzypot2013 says:

      That is a very good point. So sorry to hear that the US is going down a similar route. Evidence gathering at the expense of education. I often wonder how the inspectors themselves would fare if they were asked to deliver a lesson. Are they really all so wonderful?


  10. LG Surgeson says:

    Reblogged this on scaling the chalkface and commented:
    I could have written this myself but instead, as all teachers know, it’s better not to reinvent the wheel. So in someone else’s words…


  11. Aidan Clarke says:

    Cazzypots absolutely spot on. Sparse consolation to say we will look back on this and laugh.Here is a poem I wrote on the issue a few months ago


    Oscars are officially called Academy Awards of Merit and are therefore appropriate prizes for outstanding performance in a former School now known as an Academy. Some experts argue they should also be used to recognise the achievements of major political figures. The Oscar in this poem is currently the most fiercely contested in the UK

    The Chap-in-Charge of the English Faculty
    Who puts mistakes, contradictions and invention
    Into the feedback for a potentially
    Career-ending lesson observation
    And adds insult to injury by ever so slightly
    Misusing he big word juxtaposition
    Is widely tipped to win the Oscar
    For Top Stone-Thrower in a Glass House.

    The Chap-in-Charge of the Academy
    Is also one of the nominees
    For spending months condemning
    Too much teacher-talk per lesson,
    Allowing himself “15 minutes max”
    In the agenda for a training session
    And blithely speaking for an hour
    In a stultifying brain-stalling mono-drone.

    The Chap-in-Charge of the UK Economy
    Has become the Bookies’ favourite
    Because of his breathtaking talent
    For overshooting and ignoring
    His own flagship Inflation target
    While simultaneously imposing
    Ruthlessly cynical spending cuts
    Based on pseudo-economic targets.

    But why separate the trio?
    Let them share the trophy
    And spend the big-money prize
    On state of the art, stainless steel shutters
    To protect their own glass.
    Then, as they acknowledge the applause,
    They might even have the grace
    To blush.

    Aidan Clarke
    11th July 2013


  12. Jill Berry says:

    Seriously – think about a change of school?


  13. RJ Evans says:

    Great article. I am undergoing an internal (sound a little rude!) at the moment and am anticipating a similar result – exasperating is hardly the word. Anyway, have posted this up on the FB page Michael Gove Must Resign which some of my students (at least he is helping to politicise a whole generation) set up a year or so ago. Best of luck with your school!


  14. Heather Yates says:

    Love that… I am so fed up of seeing my talented, hardworking, caring, quirky, funny, enthusiastic, intelligent colleagues looking so worn out and beaten. We have Ofsted tomorrow… Wish me luckxx


  15. Jean says:

    I wonder how many of the Cabinet have their children attend State Schools? I loved teaching for 35 years but can’t say how pleased I now am to be out of it, I have a life and Suday evenings are no longed angst-ridden! Good luck to all still doing their best by our children, no one will emerge from this carnage unscathed. 😦


  16. I am in my last year of teaching after 35 years. I can only echo the sentiments of all the previous contributors. With nothing to lose I’m going to stick with my tried and tested teaching style in the event of any observation. What would be the outcome nationally if we all stuck to our guns and ignored the ridiculous constraints placed on us by deranged education ministers?


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  19. Karen Hyde says:

    Thank you! After a HMI inspection last week (before a full blown OFSTED inspection now due for January), I was left speechless and, for once in my life, unable to articulate my feelings (I think of utter despair) at the feedback we received. I feel so sad that we have to be so formulaic when what is important is inspiring those in your classroom to have a love of learning and enquiry, not whether they make ‘progress per minute’ as we have been told. (How on earth can you meaningfully quantify progress per minute for goodness sake?!! What’s all that about?!!). I don’t want my own children to be educated in this way and I feel helpless to be able to do anything about it…. I am beginning to seriously question if teaching is really the calling that I had always believed it to be. And that is almost too unbearable a question to answer…..
    Thank you for explaining things so well but what can we do about it?…… 😦


    • cazzypot2013 says:

      Thank you for your comment. I’m delighted you found the blog helpful. What exactly we can do about this madness is a very good question! I only wish I knew. The response that I have had re my OFSTED blogs is very encouraging and suggests that change may be possible. We get what we settle for, maybe?


  20. We could ask (not unreasonably I think considering the importance of the outcome) to show every teacher in the country the ‘perfect’ lesson most of us are trying to emulate-then carry that out in every lesson and Ofsted will be out of a job-BUT methinks the goalposts will be moved again.


  21. Hi, this weekend is nice designed for me, because this occasion i am reading this wonderful educational piece of writing here at my home.


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  23. Joe Baron says:

    Wonderful article! Today I’ve been judged, during an internal observation, inadequate. Apparently, thirty minutes into the lesson, I was still on the starter activity. In my opinion, though, the class discussion had developed so productively that I couldn’t justify abandoning it in an effort to follow a lesson plan that I was forced to write, despite the fact that Ofsted no longer require the pointless production of such plans.

    Actually, I suspect dishonourable motives, courtesy of the fact that I believe in enforcing the school rules and have, perhaps naively, made my feelings clear to our senior leaders. Needless to say, I’ve become a thorn in their uber-liberal sides. After ten years in the profession, my time is coming to an end. Very sad. But the kids,alas, are stuck with these fools.


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