In 1870, when the Elementary Education Act paved the way for universal state education in Britain, the population was 27.5 million.
Over half of these people lived in industrial towns or cities. Over a quarter of them lived in London. Acts of Parliament had restricted work for children and new technology like the threshing machine had industrialised farming.
Yet Michael Gove claims that the school day is based on a Britain of agricultural production, with holidays to allow children to help on the farm. Perhaps Gove thinks that working-class children in London used to rush home from school to help their parents in Bow and Poplar farm the family smallholding, raise a pig or grow some potatoes in the shade of factories, using polluted water. They would be joined later by their parents returning from their 11 hour day at work. The “strength” of the new history curriculum finds its mirror in the Education Secretary’s knowledge of history!
However, Gove is not just wrong about history.
On 18 April, Gove said that comparing British education with “the length of the summer holiday and the extra tuition and support children are receiving elsewhere” shows that “we already start with a significant handicap”. By “elsewhere”, he meant “Hong Kong, Singapore and other East Asian nations”.
In England the school year is 190 days long for students and 195 for teachers. There are 13 weeks of holiday and the day is 6-6.5 hours long. In Singapore, the day is 5 hours in primary and 6 in secondary, with 12 weeks’ holiday. In Hong Kong the day is 7 hours long, with 190 school days. In Shanghai, the school day is 8 hours long, but with a 1.5 hour break for lunch and 14 weeks’ holiday, including a two-month-long summer holiday. So — much the same as England when added up!
Michael Gove’s latest idea has little to do with providing a good education. Teaching union leaderships have abdicated from the pensions fight and proposed little concrete action over performance related pay. Gove feels confident that he can keep pushing to get more work out of teachers.
He says he wants the school day to match up with the needs of working parents. Or rather: the school day should suit employers who don’t want flexible working hours for parents.
This comes close to seeing education primarily as childcare, something which the state should, but doesn’t, provide.
Our programme is flexible working hours for everyone (including but not just parents) and free childcare.
There is a discussion to be had about the long summer holiday. Children can return to school after six weeks less confident and having forgotten things. This can be especially problematic for working class children who have less access to intellectual stimulation and activities during the holiday. The answer is not more time in school, shorter holidays or reducing the number of school holidays. Rather, working class families should have access to good quality, wide ranging out of school activities — groups, experiences, sport, travel and learning opportunities.
At root the discussion raises political issues about the purpose of school-age education, the treatment of children and their right to a childhood; issues about conditions for teachers and social and industrial issues around flexible working for parents and childcare provision. Teaching unions must address this newest step by Gove as part of a campaign of industrial action against the immediate attacks on pay, pensions and workload whilst developing a political campaign that puts forward a positive plan for education in the interests of students and school workers.
The Local Associations Network Action Campaign (LANAC) Committee will meet to discuss how to respond to these attacks in Birmingham on 18 May.