In the past few weeks I have tried something quite difficult. I have refrained from joining in any Gove-bashing, in order to see just how deep hatred of Michael Gove goes in the teaching profession. Anytime someone raised the subject I would casually say “I suppose any Minister for Education is controvers-” but, before I could finish my sentence, colleagues, lecturers in education, tutors, teaching assistants and even some students would interrupt. “No”, they would make it clear, “Michael Gove is different”.
And different he certainly is. Michael Gove was chosen by David Cameron as a calculated insult. He has made no attempt whatsoever to listen or debate, negotiate or compromise. His contempt for the teaching profession is explicit. That is why this week he dug into his arsenal of insults and slandered us in the way he thought most damning – he called his critics “Marxists”.
Gove says we are the “enemies of promise”. We are getting in the way of students learning to “communicate in formal settings, appreciate the arguments in newspapers’ leading articles and understand the context behind big political decisions.” Michael Gove understands that the role of plebs is to communicate formally, then read the Daily Mail, understand why we have to go along with the decisions of the elites. That is the ‘promise’ of which he speaks.
For me being called a ‘Marxist’ is a wonderful badge of pride and integrity. Leaving aside the hypocrisy that only a few weeks ago Gove was celebrating Antonio Gramsci (one of the great Marxist thinkers of the 20th century) the attack reveals both desperation and cowardice. Marx was a champion of the poor. He also championed rational scientific thought, a materialist analysis of society and an end to superstitious, religious and mystical versions of human history in favour of scholarship, research, evidence and logic.
Gove’s article in the Daily Mail (surprise!) will be of great use to me in teaching American history. It is a modern day example of the tactics of McCarthyism. On the one hand it attacks those who use the Marxist method to analyse and respond to the modern world and on the other it encourages non-Marxists to distance themselves from colleagues and their ideas, creating tensions between them while simultaneously discrediting Marxism as a dangerous ideology with government disapproval. The more people go out of their way to argue that they are not Marxists, the more outrageous it becomes to subscribe to the ideas of the founder of modern sociology.
In addition to this attempt to sow discord among the teaching profession, Gove’s comments amount to a shocking attack on academic freedom. Here we have a government minister who has responded to criticism of government policy by attacking not just the personal politics of his critics, but their academic methodology and interests. Would the Daily Mail have tolerated such an attack on the thousands of University professors who have hollowed out economics courses of their political content in favour of ever more abstract pure-maths modelling? What if he had attacked Kant or Locke or – imagine the horror – Adam Smith?
Of course Michael Gove has no idea who Marx was or what he said. If he had ever read anything Marx had written he’d find it very difficult to write what he does – but then Michael Gove is not an academic, so the fact that Karl Marx was one of the most important proponents of social education in England (against Tory protests in favour of private, home-schooled children) escapes him. If Gove’s party had had its way, there wouldn’t have been schools for working class kids in the first place!
Why is the education secretary so worried about the influence of a 19th century radical? Well, because Michael Gove is a mercenary of the City of London. Britain’s elite needs the next generation of young people in Britain to accept lower wages, fewer rights at work, longer working hours, a longer working lifetime and so on, to protect its profits. To do that, education needs to be reformed in the interest of British capital. Anyone who stands in the way of the great sell-off of schools, paycuts for teachers, attacks on pensions, academies and free schools, cuts in funding, reclassification of special needs or new teaching standards is a dangerous communist. It’s downright unBritish! These teachers are the enemies of promise. So they must be…well…Marxists.
So Gove, let’s talk about me. I am a teacher and unlike the vast majority of teachers (or lecturers) I am a Marxist. I come from a working class background in Derry – a city systematically deprived by successive British governments. I moved to Glasgow (same story) to study law. I paid for my education through part-time employment and got a good degree. After many years of hard work I emerged in 2007 into an economy going through the ravages of economic collapse thanks to your donors in the City. After many years in low-paid employment I got onto a graduate programme for teachers who wish to “address educational disadvantage”. I Start work 8:30am in the morning and when I come home from work at around 5:00pm I get my laptop out and do, on average, another three hours of work. When I go to bed I have dreams – good and bad – about school and I get up the next day and do the same. Nothing – not hunger at lunch time, not being sick or tired or skint or stressed – is allowed to get in the way of my singular goal. That goal is that the kids in one of the poorest communities in London will come to my school and leave with better prospects than their parents. There are hundreds of thousands of teachers like me. We got into education to help every child progress, to nurture them, develop their talents, and help them overcome challenges.
Now let’s talk about you, Michael Gove. Since becoming Secretary of State you have stopped the school building programme. You have been responsible for driving the academies agenda, putting more schools in the hands of non-governmental organisations and away from accountability, often against the will of entire school communities. Your new curriculum claims to solve the problem of child literacy by introducing kids to Byron and Austen (we teachers obviously weren’t aware of any canonical authors before you mentioned them). Your desire to re-introduce “norm-referencing” would be disastrous for schools like mine, condemning them to low expectations while other high-performing schools would be allowed to excel year after year. You have pulled all Citizenship issues from the curriculum, withdrawing any mention of Human Rights, the economy, media, government accountability, public services or activism. Instead pupils are to be told about the history of Parliament and advised to be “financially responsible”. The curriculum is designed to be so boring it will drive schools to become academies and be free from your monotonous drone. You are preparing – quite openly – for an apartheid system. Your government has cut child benefit, destroyed EMA, tripled tuition fees and overseen a massive drop in University applications among the poorest students. Students failed by your system can look forward to a guaranteed job in the workfare system – they just won’t get paid for the work they do. You, Mr Gove, are the enemy of promise.
How you have ever survived this long is a mystery to us – but perhaps you said it best – “rich thick kids do better than poor clever children.” On the other hand, we Marxists believed the poor should be neither punished nor patronised – that is the basis on which we try to build a society where – as Marx put it – “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.