Think Like An Education Secretary: Gove’s 2012 Reading List

Michael Gove is no stranger to literature. Not only does he constantly quote classic authors in Parliament but in a recent Spectator interview Gove lamented that he’d “had it up to here” with people arguing working class kids should be ignorant of the canon. After all, his self-confessed new favourite book – The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class – claims that in 1920s Britain working-class children read upwards of 70 books a year, so why don’t they do that now? (One can only wonder what might have happened if at the moment he finished his triumphant speech the interviewer had held up a small sign simply saying: “The Internet?”)

But that Spectator article got me thinking: What else has Gove been reading this year? Here’s what I’ve gleaned from speeches and a few other places:

1. Daniel Willingham – Why Don’t Students Like School?
In November, Gove namedropped Daniel Willingham during his widely reported “The One With The French Lesbians” speech. While Gove’s defense of European poetry was a quick headline, the actual thrust of the speech was that tests are good. In fact, they are so good, they provide a great big rush of adrenaline that children find enjoyable. But this fact of goodness wasn’t just based on Gove’s creepy memories of what got him excited as a child. No, it was science, and that science could be found in Willingham’s book. To his credit, Willingham wrote a response fact-checking Gove’s use of the book (in short: Willingham says hard stuff motivates kids but he doesn’t agree exam preparation inevitably does). Having been taken to task I wonder if Gove will lay off mentioning Willingham again in the future, but the book is still one to watch as  it is currently being passed around the education literati and for this reason I expect Stephen Twigg will likely latch onto it circa September 2013.

2. Jonathan Rose – The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes
Gove’s new favourite book is over a decade old and has been a staple of sociology and politics university courses for much of that time. It hadn’t, however, received a wider audience within education until Gove’s Spectator remarks. Rose’s detailed historical analysis shows how people of limited means have often forged their life’s path through self-education. Ironically, that very moral is actually represented in many ‘low culture’ tales. Think ‘Educating Rita’ or ‘Billy Elliot’ or Nick Hornby’s “21 Songs” and you’ll soon see that people have never forgotten (nor stopped wanting) self-education. Nonetheless, Rose’s offering gives lots of historical evidence, which Gove will like. And it’s hard not to get the warm and fuzzies when reading about people in horrible circumstances nevertheless finding themselves through the pages of a book.

3. ED Hirsch – The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them and Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know
A Radio 4 documentary about ED Hirsch opened many eyes to Gove’s fascination with another American author. Hirsch, a lecturer at a university in Richmond, Virginia, became concerned that his students did not know basic facts of the American revolution. In many ways, this isn’t as surprising as Hirsch makes out. US undergraduates inevitably have patchy knowledge because the US has no nationally agreed curriculum. But Hirsch was incensed, and particularly concerned that this lack of factual knowledge obstructed reading comprehension. In the same vein as an 18th century Noah Webster, Hirsch set out to write a list of all the things an American should know. Since then he’s developed a step-by-step curriculum now implemented in many US schools. Similar experiments are now happening among some primary schools here in the UK with materials developed by the Curriculum Centre.

4. AnnaMarie Tryjankowski – Charter School Primer
Gove’s Free School project is hotting up. 24 schools in year 1, 55 in year 2 and more than a hundred schools slated to open in September the idea of new schools governed by autonomous bodies is gaining ground. Academisation also means more than half of all secondary schools are now outside of local government control. But what happens next? If schools are autonomous who is responsible if they underperform? How are funding issues caused by surplus places resolved? What happens if a school makes a horrible financial agreement and needs bailing out? The US is much further down the route of ‘letting schools go’. The first free schools (known as ‘charter schools’) opened there in 1992. Tryjankowski’s excellent primer explains the varieties of application, accountability, improvement, recruitment and management policies used in different states. It’s only a small book but gives an excellent and entirely balanced overview of what has happened in the US and gives a heads up of what could happen in the UK. If Gove hasn’t read it yet, he should.

5. Brett Wigdortz – Success Against the Odds – the story of Teach First
TeachFirst are still the luvvies of the education world. In June the government announced that it was funding a tripling of recruitment numbers for the on-the-job training programme that takes people with demonstrated potential for being excellent teachers and trains them while working full-time for two years in a challenging school. In December TF also announced it would be going to Wales. Wigdortz’s biography of the organisation came out in September and though it is part-management-guru-handbook, it’s also a genuinely heartfelt and refreshingly honest read. Though the news shows that the programme came good in the end there are times when you can’t help but think: “How *are* they going to get out of this one?” Short, easy, fascinating, and illuminating about an organisation that is notoriously private.

6. Renee Vivien Poèmes 1901-1910
French lesbian poet. Obviously.

And a few books that Gove probably didn’t read this year (buts lots of others raved about)

Paul Tough – How Children Succeed
Known colloquially as “the Grit book”, Tough counterbalances Willingham and Hirsch by arguing that non-cognitive skills are more important than knowing facts. Perserverance and resilience are what really makes a difference in success and so must be developed in students. Hirsch, predictably, disagrees in his review of Tough.

Fabricant & Fine – Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake?
A far more slanted account of Charter School reform than Tryjankowski, Fabricant and Fine do an excellent job of laying out the history of Charters but add to this many of the tricky questions regarding funding, accountability and conflicts of interest once ‘Charter Management Organizations’ became involved. In the US for-profit companies can provide services to school or can even bid to run a school. The consequences, they argue, cannot be shied away from. It’s a compelling and thought-provoking read.

Pasi Sahlberg – Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?
Ah Finland. Where everyone is tall, and healthy, and well-educated, and happy. Why can’t we all be like you? In Sahlberg’s view we can. No league tables, autonomy given to teachers, excellent pay, no standardised tests until the end of school. Of course, Sahlberg isn’t daft. He realises there’s a need for accountability but he’s not at all convinced that high-stakes tests are the way to get it. The imagination involved in that very premise is refreshing if perhaps not realistic for England.

2 thoughts on “Think Like An Education Secretary: Gove’s 2012 Reading List

  1. Thanks, enjoyed the read. A book Gove “must be forced” to read pre-dates many of these – “How children fail”, John Holt. Relies heavily on observational analysis and evidence; makes people with prejudice uncomfortable.

  2. Working class people used to rely for self-education on public libraries and on judicious librarians. In many authorities local libraries are being closed, book funds slashed in favour of costly service contracts and professional librarians sidelined. Even in schools there is scant recognition of the value of librarians. Where is Mr Gove’s wise guiding hand in saving libraries & librarians?

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