The Prudishness of an English Baccalaureate

Piece for The Angle News.

Easy tiger.

The Education Secretary Michael Gove often argues that only the competition of a wild free market orgy should determine failure and success, not an invisible hand of government. But when it comes to his own department, the quasi-anarchist becomes a bit less free-lovin’.

When Gove released his plan for education it was far from the promiscuity of the free market principles he usually defends. The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) hones in on five subject areas that he believes to be the bedrock of education: English, Science, Maths, a modern language and a humanities subject. Focusing on the academic over practical, STEM and social sciences over creativity, Gove’s EBacc is simply a hierarchy of subjects selecting these few over others.

Even if we forgive the free-market-lothario’s uncharacteristically firm-handed intervention for the sake of standards with limited resources, his reorganisation still misses the mark. Our education system was fashioned in the spirit of industrialisation. It is based on an intellectual model of the mind that fetishises academia and knowledge of the classical subjects.

Value is placed on areas that conform to a rigid yet tenuously linked sense of economic and social utility. These, as ever, place a ridiculous emphasis on Victorian recall-based education. Gove suddenly sounds a lot like Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts… You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts.”

We do not use typewriters or telegrams anymore, so an education system born out of the same era seems faintly ludicrous. Gove says we need to raise standards. Of course we do – why would we want to lower them? But to improve the quality of our education system, we should not become preoccupied with academic subjects: they should be a self-evident part of our system, but not an obsession. To focus on certain subjects to the detriment of others is a squeamish decision. Devoid of redistributing opportunity or success, Gove reveals himself as a puritan with prudish tastes.

That’s not to say GCSEs are fit for purpose, but Gove’s reforms are born out of a model of education with in-built assumptions, regarding capacity and social structure that are sluggishly alluring to the electorate. EBaccs are Gove’s prudish effort to enforce conformity and standardisation on a diverse and eclectic population.

Gove is reminiscent of the preacher from that classic piece of cinema, Footloose. Like the overbearing father trying to control his teenage daughter, he looks the innocent fool trying to save a past that doesn’t work anymore.

We need advocates to resist the tide of his straitlaced fetishised arguments and make the case for the arts and skill subjects. We need a rakish Kevin Bacon figure to come and tell Gove to let us dance…or learn…?

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