On 5 February 2013 Michael Gove delivered a speech entitled “The Progressive Betrayal” to the Social Market Foundation. A recording of the event, text from the speech and tweets from the event are below.
THE PROGRESSIVE BETRAYAL
MICHAEL GOVE SPEECH TO THE SOCIAL MARKET FOUNDATION – 5th FEBRUARY 2013
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
In shaping education policy I have been influenced by many people.
I have been inspired by the leadership of brilliant head teachers from Rachel de Souza at Ormiston Victory Academy to Andrew Carter at South Farnham primary.
I have been consistently struck – again and again – by the impact of great classroom teaching – whether it was the maths lesson I recently observed in a school in Abbey Wood in Greenwich or the wonderful phonics lessons I saw entrancing pupils in the new Woodpecker Hall Free School.
I have also been influenced by the scrupulously researched findings of scientists such as Daniel T. Willingham or social scientists like the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher who use evidence to make the case for reform in an unanswerable fashion.
But two particular individuals have influenced me more than any others.
The Italian Marxist thinker – and father of Euro-Communism – Antonio Gramsci.
And the reality television star Jade Goody.
Let me explain my admiration for Jade first.
THE ONLY WAY FOR ESSEX
When she first appeared on our screens in Big Brother Jade was regarded as paragon of invincible ignorance. She was derided and mocked because she thought that Cambridge was in London. On being told that Cambridge is in East Anglia, she assumed that to be abroad, and referred to it as “East Angular”. Her other misconceptions included the belief that Rio de Janeiro was a person and not a city.
It seemed to me at the time, and seems to me now, a sort of double cruelty to have mocked Jade for these errors. Deriving entertainment from another’s misfortunes is wrong in itself. But in any case, her lack of knowledge was not her fault but the education system’s.
Because there was no doubt that Jade was intelligent. She exploited the notoriety she had earned to make herself a ubiquitous television and magazine presence, earning huge sums in the process and becoming in due course far wealthier than most of her detractors.
And Jade’s wisdom did not extend merely to making money. She also knew what mattered more than simply material wealth.
At a tragically early age Jade was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Terminally ill, she had to make plans for her two beloved boys. So she husbanded her earnings for them. She might have been tempted to set up a trust fund for them so that when they reached adulthood they could have enjoyed themselves royally. But instead she used her money to send them to the most traditional, academically demanding prep school she could find. So they could enjoy the best education reality TV could buy.
Because Jade knew that the most precious thing she could bequeath her children was not money but knowledge and the best guarantee of their future happiness was not the power to indulge whims with cash but the power to choose your own future through education.
Jade’s ambitions for her children – academic success – were admirable. But they are not unusual. Far from it.
Why are the Harris academies in Peckham and Bermondsey so massively over-subscribed? Why do so many parents in the poorest parts of Birmingham want to send their children to the Perry Beeches Free School? Why are the Tauheedul Girls and Boys schools in Blackburn so popular?
Because parents – especially poorer parents – want their children to get up and get on. And that means acquiring a proper rounded rigorous education. In the hope that they can choose to go to university.
In the recent Millennium Cohort Study, 97% of professional parents and 96% of mothers who identified themselves as working class said they hoped their child would go on to university. The overwhelming majority of parents know academic excellence when they see it, and want it for their children. The idea that there is a significant number of parents who lack ambition for their children, who are not aspirational, who scorn book learning and are hostile to academic excellence is just not true.
FULL MARX FOR EFFORT
So what is holding children back?
Well, for an analysis of those forces which do stand in the way of liberating young people from the chains of ignorance, I would recommend close attention to the work of Gramsci.
Antonio Gramsci was a powerful critic of the power structures of his time which entrenched the dominance of traditional elites in Italian life.
And one of the greatest concerns he had was that one – increasingly fashionable – ideology which was being sold in Twenties and Thirties Italy as progressive – would only end up reinforcing the inequalities and injustices he hated.
The ideology he so feared in inter-war Italy was what we have come to call – with tragic inappropriateness – progressive education.
Progressive educational theory stressed the importance of children following their own instincts, rather than being taught. It sought to replace an emphasis on acquiring knowledge in traditional subjects with a new stress on children following where their curiosity led them. And that was usually away from outdated practices such as reading, writing and arithmetic.
This approach was deemed democratic – because it replaced the rigid formality of the traditional schoolroom with the teacher as authority figure and placed everyone in the classroom – teacher and child – on the same footing as co-creators of learning.
It was called progressive because it moved away from a set hierarchy of knowledge – literary canons, mathematical proofs, scientific laws, musical exercises and artistic traditions – towards a new emphasis on “learning to learn”. And one did not need to study a subject discipline to acquire these abstract skills.
Progressive educational theory had its roots in the teachings of Rousseau and other Romantics, and their belief that man was naturally good and corrupted by civilisation – and became the dominant world view of many of the institutions of the educational establishment during the last century.
It even recommended itself to Mussolini’s education minister Giovanni Gentile.
But Gramsci saw that – far from being progressive or democratic – this new approach to education risked depriving the working classes of the tools they needed to emancipate themselves from ignorance.
As he wrote, “The new concept of schooling is in its romantic phase, in which the replacement of “mechanical” by “natural” methods has become unhealthily exaggerated….previously pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts. Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order…the most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of school is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but crystallise them in Chinese complexity.”
THE CLASS WAR IS OVER – AND THE WORKING CLASS LOST
Destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallise them.
He could have been describing what has happened in Britain in the last forty years. The nation which invented the concept of meritocracy, where the idea of the career open to talent had propelled social and economic progress has seen social mobility stall. And then move backwards. Wherever you look – Cabinets or Shadow Cabinets – newspaper editorial conferences or FTSE 100 boardrooms – the nation’s galleries or bishop’s palaces – the positions of power and influence are overwhelmingly held by the privately-educated or the children of middle class professionals. The social differences which existed in our society before the Nineteen-Sixties have – in all too many cases – not just been perpetuated but crystallised.
And it is impossible to reflect on this entrenching of inequality without also reflecting on the educational philosophy which has been so dominant during this period.
Throughout the twentieth century – and in particular since 1967 and the publication of the Plowden Report – the new educational orthodoxy was progressive. The role – and authority – of the teacher and traditional subject knowledge was undermined. The teacher was demoted from being “the sage on the stage” to a “guide by the side”. Didactic become a pejorative term.
One of the most effective analysts of the dominance of progressive theory has been the American academic E.D. Hirsch. Himself a man of the left – a liberal Democrat and campaigner for social justice – Hirsch has consistently highlighted how important Gramsci’s insights are for understanding why society has not become more equal in recent years.
In his book “The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them” he explains that Gramsci,
“held that political progressivism demanded educational conservatism. The oppressed class should be taught to master the tools of power and authority – the ability to read, write and communicate – and to gain enough traditional knowledge to understand the worlds of nature and culture surrounding them. Children, particularly the children of the poor, should not be encouraged to flourish “naturally”, which would keep them ignorant and make them slaves of emotion. They should learn the value of hard work, gain the knowledge that leads to understanding and master the traditional culture in order to command its rhetoric, as Gramsci himself had learned to do.”
Hirsch develops the argument, going on to point out that,
“There is not only a practical separation between educational conservatism and political conservatism. There is an inverse relation between educational progressivism and social progressivism. Educational progressivism is a sure means for preserving the social status quo, whereas the best practices of educational conservatism are the only means whereby children from disadvantaged homes can secure the knowledge and skills that will enable them to improve their condition.”
There used to be an almost instinctive understanding on the Left of the liberating power of traditional education. Cultural capital, like every other kind of capital, should not be the property of an elite. The rich should no more have exclusive access to the means of intellectual enlightenment than they should have an exclusive hold on the means of economic production, distribution and exchange. And the desire to give working people access to the best that has been thought and written – very far from being an idealistic enterprise doomed to failure – ran entirely with the grain of working people’s aspirations.
Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” is revelatory about the appetite for intellectual improvement that existed among working people.
It provides both powerful statistical evidence and moving personal testimony which underlines just how hungry working people were for culture.
In 1940, on average, boys from every background were reading six books a month and girls over seven.
When I suggested recently that school students here emulate school students in some American charter schools and read 50 books a year it was regarded as either hopelessly utopian or dangerously Gradgrindian. Amongst working class boys in 1940 it would have been regarded as slacking.
A 1944 survey of unskilled workers showed that almost half had grown up in homes with substantial libraries.
And these working class readers were not only reading widely – they were reading deeply.
As Rose points out in his work, housemaids read Dickens and Conrad and kitchen maids saved up money to attend classical music concerts. The servant girl Dorothy Burnham, who grew up in care, “found herself in Keats, Tennyson and Arnold”, confessing,
“Communication between these poets and myself was instantaneous. I saw with delighted amazement that all poetry had been written specially for me. Although I spoke – in my backstreet urchin accents – of La Belly Dame Sans Murky, yet in Keats’s chill little poem I seemed to sense some essence of the eternal ritual of romantic love. And Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur” bowled me over. So the poets helped me escape the damns of communal living which now, at thirteen, were beginning to be intolerable to me.”
A girl of 13 in care finding solace – and stimulus – in Keats and Tennyson.
And working men too sought out high culture. The Labour MP J.M. Clynes started his adult life working in an Oldham mill – and became politicised after he was nearly sacked for sneaking a look at Milton’s Paradise Lost during his shift.
V.W. Garratt set up a mirror on his work-bench, while he soldered gas fittings in a Birmingham factory at the beginning of the last century, so he could see the foreman coming and hide his copy of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.
The Labour party activist John Ward had a library of almost 700 books which he shared enthusiastically with other working men, and his encouragement of their reading led him to proclaim, “today navvies are amongst the keenest and most intelligent critics of political and social questions, and I am proud to think that my work amongst them has helped to awaken them.”
At the age of fourteen the Durham collier Jack Lawson discovered a treasure trove of books in the local miners’ institute. In his own words,
“Like a Fenimore Cooper Indian I was tireless and silent once I started. Scott, Charles Read, George Eliot, the Brontes; later on Hardy, Hugo, Dumas and scores of others. Then came Shakespeare, the Bible, Milton and the line of poets generally. I was hardly sixteen when I picked up James Thomson’s “The Seasons” in Stead’s Penny Poets…I wept for the shepherd who died in the snow.”
A hundred years ago that was the experience of a boy from the Durham coalfields.
And that experience was empowering.
Because the accumulation of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility.
When those who have money choose an education for their children it is – almost without exception – in institutions where the acquisition of knowledge and immersion in traditional subject disciplines is central to the school’s mission.
Visit the most exclusive pre-prep and prep schools in London – like Wetherby in Notting Hill – where artistic and creative leaders like Stella McCartney send their children – and you will find children learning to read using traditional phonic methods, times tables and poetry learnt by heart, grammar and spelling rigorously policed, the narrative of British history properly taught. And on that foundation those children then move to schools like Eton and Westminster – where the medieval cloisters connect seamlessly to the corridors of power.
Those who enjoy wealth and power in our society – however bohemian their lifestyle, artistic their circle or ostensibly progressive their politics – over and over again find themselves choosing schools with the most traditional of structures and academic of curricula for their own children.
Timothy West and Prunella Scales, Polly Toynbee and Alan Rusbridger, Will Self and Deborah Orr, Mick Jagger and Bryan Ferry, Keith Richards and Keith Allen, Gary Lineker and Richard Curtis all chose to spend their money on rigorously academic schooling for their children in the private sector. As did, of course, Stella McCartney and her husband Alasdhair Willis after complaining that there was no decent state school in their particular stretch of Notting Hill.
But while I would never criticise any parent’s choice for their child I feel that the McCartney-Willis’s were missing a trick.
Because a short walk from their home is a primary school every bit as rigorous as the prep school they eventually plumped for.
Thomas Jones Primary is one of a tiny minority of schools where every child achieves at least a Level 4 in Maths and English when they leave year 6.
It is a school where ten year olds can compare the tragic flaws of the heroes in Julius Caesar and Macbeth with the confidence and fluency of adults twice their age. It is a primary school where children are called scholars and are encouraged to think of themselves as heirs to all the achievements of Western culture.
And it is also a school with a majority of children eligible for free school meals, a majority of children who come from homes where English is not the first language and a majority of children who live in social or subsidised housing.
But because its teachers believe in academic rigour with the same degree of passion and commitment as the teachers of Wetherby or Hill House or any other establishment prep school, its children enjoy the same opportunities to learn.
Thomas Jones is one of the feeder schools for a comprehensive which one had a reputation as one of London’s worst.
Holland Park School was – until quite recently – an academic basket case, dominated by the NUT, in hock to progressive educational theories, a tear-stained concrete monument to the comprehensive ideal gone wrong.
But in the last ten years – under a dynamic leadership team committed to academic excellence, traditional subject teaching, high culture and exacting standards – the school has been transformed.
Its corridors and classrooms are permeated by an atmosphere of calm study and scholarly reflection, its students are attentive and engaged. And this year 91% of its students secured five good GCSEs including English and Maths. A record which puts it above scores of independent schools and other selective establishments.
What the success of Thomas Jones and Holland Park teaches us is that children from every background are as capable of success – as able to grasp for the glittering prizes – as children from the wealthiest backgrounds, if they are given access to the sort of education which the rich have always felt they should enjoy by right.
Look at any of the schools which are now giving children from the poorest of homes the greatest of chances and you will find they are all – like Holland Park – places where academic learning is taken seriously, where an entitlement to knowledge and cultural capital is baked into the brickwork.
Visit King Solomon Academy in Lisson Grove in the poorest part of Westminster and you will find children from Somali and Kosovar homes who are all – all – expected to go to university, being taught in the most academically-demanding fashion by graduates motivated by love of subject and love of children. The same high standards characterise Paddington Academy, Pimlico Academy, any Harris Academy and every Ark Academy.
But despite the abundant proof that children from every background can succeed academically there is still a remarkable resistance – especially among many on the left – to asking our education system to ensure more children do succeed.
NO EXCELLENCE PLEASE, WE’RE LABOUR
Two years ago we introduced a measure in GCSE performance tables which revealed – for the first time – just how many students were getting the core elements of a liberal education. The sort of education those who can pay for their children’s schooling demand as of right.
The measure was called the English Baccalaureate and it recognised students who had C passes or above in English, Maths, two sciences, a language and a humanities subject – either history or geography.
Just six GCSEs. At C. A pass you can secure in some papers with just 30% of the questions correct.
And remember this was just one of a number of measures in the tables – just another piece of performance information – not a statutory obligation or regulatory requirement.
But the reaction from the Labour Party, the teaching unions, teacher training institutions and all too many figures ostensibly dedicated to cultural excellence was visceral horror.
How dare anyone – let alone the Department for Education – reveal how many state school students were getting the sort of education that enables the children of the rich to dominate British life?
A series of criticisms were made.
The EBacc was elitist – suitable only for a minority, some alleged.
But the best comprehensives have no trouble getting children from every background to study – and succeed in – those subjects.
The EBacc squeezed out creativity, some claimed.
So does that mean scientists from Rutherford to Dawkins are arid and uncreative mechanics? Mathematicians from Pythagoras to Turing are enemies of creativity? Historians like Schama or Gombrich are dull philistine souls? Explorers, cartographers and geographical pioneers from Mercator to Palin are presumably humdrum intellectual backmarkers and the study of authors such as Dickens or Eliot, Gunter Grass or Alain-Fournier a form of spiritual imprisonment.
The EBacc restricted options, some argued.
Ignoring the fact that the subjects in the EBacc are the most liberating of all options in school – they are facilitating subjects, which are a precondition for many universities, while at the same time providing a solid foundation for any student who wishes to pursue a technical or vocational course after 16.
The EBacc was backward-looking, some said.
Heedless of the fact that the highest performing educational jurisdictions all expect students to study their native language and literature, a foreign language, maths and the sciences and another subject – usually a humanity – to at least 16. Some even mandate it. The fastest-improving education nation in Europe – Poland – recently altered its curriculum to stop students dropping academic subjects before 16 and saw achievement rise across the board while gaps narrowed between rich and poor.
And – most perversely of all – the EBacc narrowed the curriculum, some said.
But the Ebacc is only a performance measurement.
Its introduction does not mean anyone is mandated, required, obliged or statutorily commanded to do anything.
It no more prescribes a menu of subjects that must be digested than a set of scales can force-feed anyone who weighs themselves.
Measurements can influence behaviour. But the act of measuring does not mandate.
What is however – inviolably – in the national curriculum is a requirement to teach art and design, music, design and technology, while all schools must also teach religious education. And there is a strict statutory entitlement that all schools must give all students the chance to choose a creative subject in their GCSE options.
In any case it is those schools which do best in EBacc measurements which – invariably – have the best record in nurturing and supporting creativity.
The truth is that the EBacc did not inspire opposition because it cast a shadow over creativity. It inspired opposition because it revealed how poorly served so many state students were.
The comforting story we had been told about rapid and relentless educational improvement – based on GCSE results – was shown up as a far more complex narrative of inequality and untapped potential.
But instead of using this information to demand that poorer children at last enjoy the education expected by the privileged, far too many on the left attacked the very idea that poor children might aspire to such an entitlement.
Ed Balls, Stephen Twigg and Ed Miliband – Oxford PPEists all – have been united in opposition to the EBacc.
Even though it has exposed inequality in our society much more starkly than any Gini coefficient calculation could.
At the moment just 16% of students in the state sector secure the EBacc. Only 23% are even entered for it. More than three-quarters of state school students have been denied access to the qualifications which will empower them to choose their own path.
But for Labour that’s not only no cause for concern – it’s a truth which should be suppressed.
The current leadership of the Labour Party react to the idea that working class students might study the subjects they studied with the same horror that the Earl of Grantham showed when a chauffeur wanted to marry his daughter.
Labour, under their current leadership, want to be the Downton Abbey party when it comes to educational opportunity. They think working class children should stick to the station in life they were born into – they should be happy to be recognised for being good with their hands and not presume to get above themselves.
HOW CAN YOU ASPIRE TO LIVES YOU’VE NEVER BEEN SHOWN?
The lack of ambition evident in those figures was reinforced for me recently when we launched an initiative – open to every state school in the country – to enable their students to visit a top university, see for themselves how welcoming and exciting such places could be – and tempt them to apply.
Only 766 schools responded. Less than a quarter of the total number of secondary schools.
How can we possibly make our society fairer and more just when so many children are denied the chance to glimpse a liberating future? As the comprehensive-educated columnist Janice Turner wrote, in a beautiful, moving and powerful article in this week’s Times, “how can you aspire to lives you’ve never been shown?”.
She painted a heart-wrenching picture of school life where, as a teenager, she had to seek out the novels which make up the canon of English literature for herself, because even though she was in her school’s top set there was no sense that she and her working class schoolmates deserved or were entitled to be introduced to the most amazing, intricate and beautiful artefacts in the store of human knowledge.
But for the self-styled educational progressives nothing could be as redundant as imparting knowledge. If you want knowledge, they argue, Google it.
Well, it is true that Google is open to all comers. Just like the National Gallery. Or the Hollow Crown on BBC2. Or Seamus Heaney’s verse.
But unless you have a stock of knowledge – about our nation’s history, European history and art history, about Biblical stories and classical myth, about colour, line and perspective – then many of the works on display in the National Gallery will just be indecipherable cartoons.
Unless you have a sense of our nation’s political development and a decent vocabulary, and an appreciation of concepts like anointed monarchy, usurpation and legitimacy, then Shakespeare’s history plays will just be fighting and shouting.
And unless you know something of Ireland’s history, its people’s sufferings, its ecology and iconography as well as a scientist’s vocabulary, then Seamus Heaney’s poems may be little more than spoken music.
And unless you have knowledge – historical, cultural, scientific, mathematic – all you will find on Google is babble.
To make sense of a turn of phrase from Polly Toynbee or a literary reference from Martin Kettle, to interrogate a political argument from a Daily Mail leader which references Thatcher or Churchill, to follow Stephanie Flanders on economics or wrestle with Richard Dawkins on genetics, you need knowledge.
And unless that knowledge is imparted at school, in a structured way, by gifted professionals, through subject disciplines – then many children will never, ever, find it. No matter how long they search across the borderless lands of the internet.
Indeed unless that knowledge is imparted in school then students from poorer homes will continue to perform less well in the exercise of every basic skill that one needs to be employed in the modern world.
There is no skill more central to employability than literacy. Whether it’s reading the instructions accompanying a deep fat fryer, running through the health and safety drill on an oil rig or processing an application for citizenship, literacy is the absolute precondition for holding down any job today.
But literacy is not a skill learnt in abstract isolation from the culture around us – it reflects the accumulated learning of our civilisation.
And if we want students to be literate in English we have to introduce them – early – to the knowledge which allows them to be culturally literate.
E.D. Hirsch, the American academic I referred to earlier, conducted research into the reading levels of two groups of students from different backgrounds arriving at the college where he taught.
The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal published an account of Hirsch’s experiment.
“Members of the first group possessed broad background knowledge in subjects like history, geography, civics, the arts, and basic science; members of the second, often from disadvantaged homes, lacked such knowledge. The knowledgeable students, it turned out, could far more easily comprehend and analyze difficult college-level texts (both fiction and nonfiction) than their poorly informed brethren could.
The problem of inadequate background knowledge began in the early grades. Elementary school teachers thus had to be more explicit about imparting such knowledge to students—indeed, this was even more important than teaching the “skills” of reading and writing.”
Hirsch’s work was attacked by many in the world of educational theory and teacher training. But it was followed closely by many of those actually charged with improving poor children’s education.
In New York, charter schools encouraged by the former Clinton staffer Joel Klein adopted a curriculum which reflected Hirsch’s emphasis on core knowledge.
In Massachusetts the Democratic administration adopted a whole state curriculum – and annual exam system – modelled on Hirsch’s approach.
The results were powerfully persuasive.
A study of the New York programme found that second graders who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge program scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than did those in the comparison schools.
It also tested children on their social studies and science knowledge, and again found that the Core Knowledge pupils came out ahead.
In Massachusetts, a Hirschean knowledge-based curriculum for each grade was adopted in 1993. The history curriculum requires students to be taught in rich factual detail about their heritage. The curriculum asks schools to “impart to their students the learning necessary for an informed, reasoned allegiance to the ideals of a free society.”
Following the adoption of their knowledge-based curriculum, Massachusetts has consistently come top in every measurement of state-by-state educational achievement in the US. In national tests in 2005, Massachusetts ranked first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth- and eighth-grade math. It then repeated the feat in 2007.
As the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal reported,
“No state had ever scored first in both grades and both subjects in a single year—let alone for two consecutive test cycles.”
The success of those schools – and states – which have followed a core knowledge approach should not surprise us.
Because the best current research into how the brain works – and how students learn – reinforces the power of the Hirsch analysis.
Professor Daniel T. Willingham is one of the world’s most respected cognitive scientists. In his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” he synthesises the best recent rigorous scientific research on teaching and learning.
And the definitive conclusion of all that research is that “the sort of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyse and think creatively – require extensive factual knowledge”.
Willingham cites the work of Recht and Leslie in the Journal of Educational Psychology which shows that the deeper the level of factual knowledge about any subject, the more any piece of prose can be understood, appreciated and enjoyed.
It is only when knowledge is secure in the long-term memory that it can be summoned up effortlessly and the working memory can be freed to deal with new and challenging tasks.
Willingham’s conclusions are buttressed by the work of the academics Alexander, Kulikowich and Schulze published in the American Educational Research Journal which shows that the more people know about any subject domain the easier it is for them to store and utilise new information creatively.
Cognitive science also reveals that critical thinking skills – such as analysing evidence in scientific experiments or interrogating sources in history – depend on extensive background knowledge – about what should be the expected outcome of an experiment or what might be suspicious omissions in a contemporary account of events.
This accumulation of evidence – from schools, states and scientists – comes as close to being irrefutable as anything in public policy.
A TRULY 21st CENTURY CURRICULUM
And that is why in reforming our curriculum and examination system we have sought to incorporate the lessons we have learnt from the most advanced cognitive science.
So our new curriculum affirms – at every point – the critical importance of knowledge acquisition.
We have stripped out the rhetorical afflatus, the prolix explanatory notes, the ethereal assessment guidance, the inexplicable level criteria, the managerial jargon and the piously vapid happy-talk and instead simply laid out the knowledge that every child is entitled to expect they be taught.
There is new and detailed content on the mathematical processes every child should master – including early memorisation of tables, written methods of long division and calculations with fractions – which was either absent or obscure before.
There is clarity on the scientific principles and laws which drive proper understanding of the natural world.
There is detail on grammar and punctuation, clarity on the essentials of clear composition and a requirement for proper knowledge of pre-twentieth century literature.
In history, rather than a disconnected set of themes and topics there is a clear narrative which encompasses British and world history, with space for study of the heroes and heroines whose example is truly inspirational.
In geography, proper locational knowledge with an understanding of how to use maps and locate rivers and oceans, cities and continents.
And in foreign languages, there is a clear emphasis on the importance of translation – including the study of literature of proven merit.
This new curriculum will provide parents everywhere with a clear guide to what their children should know in every subject as they make their way through school.
Of course, academies will have the freedom to vary any part of the national curriculum they consider appropriate. Already it’s the case that Pimlico Academy has used its freedoms to create a more demanding knowledge-based curriculum and Ark Academies are implementing an even more rigorous mathematics curriculum in their primary schools.
But with this new curriculum laying out expectations of what every child should be able to know with such clarity, all the pressures in our education system will be for greater rigour.
And that will be reinforced by the changes we are planning for the national curriculum tests which all state primaries must ensure their pupils sit and the changes we propose for GCSEs and A-levels.
We are clearing away the outdated and counter-productive assessment methods of the past. So that more time – much more time – is available for teaching, for reading around the subject, and for the cultivation of the habits of proper thought.
Instead of students wasting time on modules and resits and instead of eight weeks of teaching time being taken up by internal assessment we will examine the holistic understanding of subjects at the end of courses.
Of course there are some disciplines where course work is vital. Field work in geography, the assembly of a portfolio in art, the design of products in technology, performance in dance, drama or music. But these are all individual forms of learning specific to each subject which deepen knowledge, rather than assessment methods applied across the board which take away from acquiring knowledge.
And to help ensure a knowledge-rich curriculum can be delivered as effectively as possible we do need to support teachers more. Which is why we are investing more in high quality teacher training and professional development. A subject I’ll be returning to very shortly.
THIS GOVERNMENT’S LIBERATION THEOLOGY
I began tonight by arguing that for those of us who are political progressives it is also necessary to be educational conservatives. And there is a sense in which all great education has a conservative element – we wish to pass on – protected and if possible enhanced – the whole repertoire of human accomplishment to our children.
But while I am proud in many ways to be a conservative I think – in a spirit of proper candour – that I should actually come out and accept that this Government’s educational philosophy is not really conservative at all – but rather uncompromisingly radical.
Because conservatives have always tended to suspect that many of the things which need to be protected from generation to generation – the Royal Opera House, the House of Lords, the Bar, Oxford High Table, agreeable homes with lovely views over the Downs, marriage, the bench of bishops, Lord Lieutenancies and Tate Gallery directorships – can only be protected if they’re enjoyed by a minority.
I don’t look at the world that way. I think the things we need to protect and enhance – a love of literature, pride in our history, scientific curiosity, beautiful written English, innovative and creative mathematical thinking, joy in discovery, colleges and universities, liberal learning and openness to the world, female emancipation and social mobility – are all better protected if we make them as universal as possible.
And I suspect that even if not every Conservative agrees with me, Jade Goody and Antonio Gramsci would.