Going, Gove, Gone

With Michael Gove gone, I am now on my 9th Education Secretary. I haven’t hated them all (Gillian Shephard was my only other Tory, and she was all right) so, for now, I’ll give Nicola Morgan the benefit of the doubt and welcome her in. I know she has a dodgy voting record, but it seems all parts of her face move so she will be an improvement on Gove on that front, if nothing else.
What credit can I give Gove? Some say he put schools at the forefront of the political agenda. I don’t recall a time when education was not politicised, so I’m not sure he wins that bauble. Also, given that he last week accused striking teachers of being ‘politically motivated’, even he doesn’t regard politics as a positive. He is a champion for social mobility, some say. One indicator of that has been his setting (and then raising) of floor targets, and more recently the introduction of ‘Progress 8’ as a measure of every pupil’s attainment. This, some say, has made slack schools sharpen their practice. Perhaps. But he began his stint with a bonfire of quangos and chucked Balls’ targets in the incinerator, claiming they led to ‘gaming’ and caused problems further down the line. Gove, like other animals of his kind, has merely painted new spots to replace the old. Gove has freed school leaders from centralised dictats, and placed power in the hands of those who best know what to do with it. Fine words, but a fallacy, and I believe the ones that finally got him the sack. Gove surely has overseen the most radical up-shake of the school system, with thousands of academies and (fewer) free schools; and their headteachers have been let off their leashes to disapply the National Curriculum and ignore teachers’ qualifications. But this same unleashing has led to tabloid headlines of budget fraud and Trojan horses. (Well, at least he can claim a greater respect for the classics.) And, lest we forget, the decentralising was a mirage as more powers were aggregated to the department.
That was me trying to be nice. When I’m just being me, I get angry at so many things that I’m in danger of being the bloke giving his leaving speech who leaves out lots of people he ought to mention. Do you remember when university education departments ran PGCEs and built up trusted links with local schools? Those departments have closed down, or shut courses, or diluted their subject specialism because schools are now in charge of advertising, recruiting, training, placing, assessing and employing teacher-trainees. The standards they have to meet (well done, Mr Gove, I like these much more than the last set)… well, you don’t really need to meet them if you work in an academy because they can employ ‘unqualifieds’, but if you don’t meet them while working in a local authority school you will get sacked within 4 weeks. We used to have a GTC and a TDA: no more. The NPQH was recognised internationally for its high quality preparation for new headteachers, until Gove said you didn’t need to have it. Labour said it wanted a ‘Masters-only profession’, as an indicator of its commitment to quality in the classroom: Gove ended the funding. We were beginning to address the criminally high rate at which students left school aged 16, with the Educational Maintenance Allowance holding on to the very kids most likely to leave. Gove axed EMA. BSF…
To even begin to discuss what and how we actually teach is a daunting prospect. Gove has meddled with every exam every student will take, with the content of every subject. He has abolished NC levels, altered the meaning of GCSEs and deprived AS exams of significance. He has introduced rigour to the examination system. No he has not. He has driven down success rates and claimed this (surely uniquely amongst the world’s education secretaries) as a success in itself. Teachers start teaching courses this September not knowing how they will be assessed at any key stage. Subjects have got ‘harder’. This means they emphasise knowledge over skills, and are therefore not ‘harder’ at all, just less meaningful. They will be harder to teach in an interesting way, that’s for sure.
Gove has done all of this, and I haven’t even begun to address the issues we went on strike to protest. Below inflation pay rises. Obliteration of national pay-scales and increments. Postponement of retirement until most of us will be joining the kids on the free bus into school. Emasculation of local authorities, the bodies best-placed to collaborate on good practice and to hold schools to local account. The marketization of a once properly ‘public’ sector, tenderising us for the meat-eating academy chains.
Nicola Morgan, you have some act to follow.


Day after day, year after year, I arrive at work, log on my computer, check I have my lessons in order for the day, then go and teach them. I will do a bunch of other things too: perhaps a duty, or a line management meeting, or a lesson observation. Always some colleagues to talk to. The days never seem to repeat as you do them, but, taking the long view, they certainly shuffle into a pattern. And at the end of each month there is a salary slip, and the prospect of recuperation at the end of term. It’s a job, innit, and not a bad one.
For some reason, however, we see it as more than that. Perhaps it’s uncommon these days to hear people refer to it as ‘a calling’, but most teachers I know do do it as though they were responding to some higher moral purpose. They will let their tutor group in to see them at lunchtime, or lay on a homework club on a Thursday after school, or reply to a tweacher friend while watching the football. They will go through the motions as they would any job, then they go through some more. Why?
I write this in the week that teachers have gone on strike for the third time in one academic year. The government tells us we are the enemies of hard-working families (as if we weren’t also hard-working), that we are politically-motivated (as if politics were something that should be left to politicians), that were are pay-obsessed (as if we were the ones who fought for PRP.) Our principles have been questioned: how can we call ourselves professionals, and how can we say we want the best for every child, if we then down chalk and walk out? The principles of fair pay (when others are on zero-hours contracts) and the right to retire at a reasonable time and on a reasonable pension (when others will not, and have none) are up for debate for any worker, and not just teachers. Are we more righteous than the next?
I entered the classroom at the same time as Ofsted did. The notion of a government inspectorate on this scale was an abomination, and schools pledged to ignore it. Performance management was mooted soon after, and we railed against the unnatural grafting on of business ethics. The Threshold was introduced some while later: colleagues boycotted it, insisting that they oughtn’t to have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to be paid a decent sum. There were principled objections to all of these (and I remember holding them), but there are few now remaining in the staffroom who do not accept these as part of the landscape. Indeed, a whole alternative moral framework can be built around this new reality: Ofsted and the rest have made us more accountable for the increased funding schools have received over these 20 years, and actually teaching is better and student outcomes are better too. Does it mean were are unprincipled, or shallow, if we now accept what once we campaigned against?
What are the shibboleths of today? What are the trigger-words that test our principles, and place us either on the side of the angels or of the Gove-devils? Local Authority vs Academy school – that could be one. Champions of the former believe in local accountability, inclusion and the collective; academy adherents espouse the freedom to experiment, to drive from the front and the devil take the hindmost. If you are at one, you look upon the other with either fear or envy. What about performance-related pay? What place can it possibly have in a profession dependent upon team work, and one where we understand that gains are incremental, sometimes invisible and often fuzzy? On the other hand, if we want talented linguists, mathematicians and engineers to ply their trades in the classroom; if we recognise that the person sitting next to us in the staff briefing truly is exceptional: should we not embrace PRP and inspire more to aspire more?
Right now, I know where I stand. (I’m an LA kinda guy, and PRP is a Pretty Reprehensible Practice.) I am fortunate to have an employer whose instincts tally with my own. But if I were in a different setting, I cannot say for sure which of my cherished principles would remain intact, and I do not castigate my co-professionals for supping with a shorter spoon. We all do what we must.
If I am at the hinge point of my career, and if I therefore swing forward another 20 years, on what moral ground do I suspect I will still be standing? First, last and always, we must saddle up alongside the notion of publicly-funded schooling; this funding must keep pace with demand so that we can continue with an education system as good as any in the world. Second, our system must have children at the centre – not as proto-adults, not as future drones, but as the gloriously inventive and energetic things that they come to us as already. It must be a place that attracts the best as teachers: the smartest of their generation, the most dedicated, even the most principled. The pull factors might include a more competitive pay structure, but some little respect from our political leaders would go some way too. And that would be all (it would already be a lot.) These are the principles – a world class education as a right, respectful of the rights of the child and built upon the glorious efforts of the many – that make it more than just a job.
Now, where was that pay cheque?

Finding Dan – the synopsis


SPOILER ALERT. If you would rather buy the novel than read this synopsis, then go to http://www.findingdan.com


Finding Dan – Synopsis
Finding Dan is part historical fiction, part genealogical detective story. Daniel O’Rourke was ‘the most dangerous man in Dungannon’; Mal is his great-nephew, determined to find the real man behind the legends told by his family. Was he the stubborn patriot, refusing prison clothing and food? Was he truly a great of Gaelic football, despite being broken by prison? And could he really have disgraced his family by fathering an illegitimate daughter?
Finding Dan is a discontinuous narrative. It is, firstly, the tale of how Mal, born in Tyrone but now living in London, makes an uneasy return to his family home to investigate, with his father Frank, the legend of Daniel O’Rourke. This is a legend of evasion from arrest, internment on a diseased ship and hunger strike; it is the legend too of glories on the Gaelic football pitch, and a lifelong principled stand against all things British. But, the more that Mal and Frank search, the less they find of this Dan. Instead they discover a different man, surrounded by people but ultimately alone, never at home from the moment he is on the run, defying description by both family and authority. A new legend is constructed, but is interrupted by the ragged edges of Ireland’s past, its troubles both distant and recent but always ongoing.
The novel begins one day in Coalisland, with Dan spotted pushing his bike up Main Street. This is an unexceptional day, but it will be the last of his life.  Mal, his great nephew is seen first as a boy. He finds an abandoned car, apparently primed to explode. It’s a memory that endures and explains his distance from his place of birth. Mal ignores the warnings of his uncle Phelim not to meddle, and returns to Northern Ireland to take up the research that Frank, his father, has already begun. Records reveal that Dan was considered very dangerous. He was arrested for possession of a Colt revolver, he was heavily beaten in prison for refusing to conform and, before he could be released, he was interned in a workhouse in Larne. Winnie is Dan’s sister, with memories of his time on the run and on the prison ship SS Argenta, of how only a letter from the president of Ireland could persuade him off hunger strike, and of how he came out a ‘broken man’. He had a sweetheart, a girl from Rostrevor, who would have married him only he was ‘not one to marry’. Then Mal hears the startling news of a man in Coalisland who insists that his wife is the daughter of Dan O’Rourke. Is this the mystery, alluded to in a memoir written by Dan’s sister, Molly?
By now the narrative has already been broken. Sean Hales and Padraig O’Maille are two TDs in the new Irish parliament, patriots in the war of independence but now marked men in Civil War Ireland. They talk through the night in a Dublin hotel of their times with Michael Collins, and of his ambush and assassination. They themselves will be gunned down in the morning. Elsewhere, Hegarty is an Irishman, imprisoned in an English gaol for the brutal murder of his landlady. Upon release he will make his way back to Limerick, to kill his disloyal wife in front of the child who is not his. Later we are introduced to a journalist, known only by his by-line Slemish. Following the mysterious death of Breen, his colleague, Slemish inherits the prestigious Searchlight column. He is dogged by McGuffin, both the source of all of his stories, and the apparent possessor of the key to Breen’s death. Is Slemish himself the murderer? Will Slemish evade arrest and board the liner to New York with the sharp-tongued Molly?
We next see inside Dan’s prison file, to read letters from the Home Office demanding his internment; letters to him from his mother and supporters; letters from him to his sister, Molly. Mal is introduced to McConaghy, a man who knew Dan better than most, but who seems at first to shed no new light. McConaghy is the same man who, more than 30 years before, helped a Dublin sportswriter track down Dan to the shed in Creenagh that had become his home. Dan had been merely “a scribbled note in the margins of another man’s story.” The other man was Bob Stack, star of the four-in-a-row Kerry team, who paid an unlikely visit to Coalisland and who made an unlikely friendship with Dan. In his quest for Dan the journalist finds Mrs Jackson, the admirable owner of a Rostrevor guesthouse, who might just have been the girl Dan once loved. Dan tells the writer his whole story, as if it is his last chance to be remembered, but the hack is a has-been and cannot do it justice.
Grim comic relief is offered by the committee to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. While a hapless technician tries to rig up the aerial which will bring to them their 37 seconds of fame, the members of the committee bicker and bring to the fore conflicting and diverging strains of Irish nationalism.
Frank finally receives Molly’s memoir. Contained within it is a denial that Dan fathered a child, and the revelation that he had had a vasectomy performed upon him in prison. Frank is not satisfied until he can read the birth record of the child involved. Dan was not the father. But Frank’s research takes him further, to suggest that Dan had not been on hunger strike either. By the time he meets up with Mal, he is unsurprised to learn that documents fail even to place Dan on the Argenta. The meeting they had put off – that with Dan’s surviving brother, Patsy, in Creenagh – now seems too late. But Patsy and his wife Phyllis will escort them to the boggy cemetery, where Dan lies below a gravestone engraved with the wrong date.
The novel finishes with the events that took Dan to that grave. He is in his new home, too large for him. He is expecting Phyllis, the sister-in-law he rejected but who nevertheless still attends to him, to arrive with his dinner cooked. There is a total solar eclipse and life shuts down. Dan is overwhelmed with regret for a life of missed loves, and he is heart-stricken. Phyllis will find him, and Phyllis will make the trip into Dungannon to register his death. Freed from her burden, she returns to her home in Creenagh.