Sol Day

Sol Day 09Feb2013 – tot desperanda Gove duce et auspice Gove (1)

The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP

There is compelling evidence that there is a need for an increase in Classics teachers across the state and private sector. Classics is in boom, in particular in the state sector. Against this backdrop Gove announced:

And I can announce today that their work will be complemented by Professor Christopher Pelling from Oxford University – who will be leading a brand-new project in collaboration with several universities to develop top-quality professional development for non-specialist teachers of classics in state schools. His work will help state school students compete on equal terms with privately educated students for university classics places.

(See longer extract of Gove’s speech on our blog: Gove: Professional Development for non-specialist teachers of Classics.)

In other words, there will be a new project, led by a top academic at a top university, to allow students from the state sector to compete on equal footing with the students from the private sector for university places in Classics. Yet this is a small passage in a very, very long speech. It announced a policy, but did not detail it. For us Classicists and for Pelling especially there may be compelling evidence for Classics to be provided: provided by quality teachers, provided for a variety of reasons, provided equally across the sector. But did the Secretary of State made equipped with this knowledge? Perhaps he spoke to Boris for evidence, perhaps not, but the Secretary of State has form in trumpeting his ideology on the simple argument of tradition. We would do well to see his motives and reasoning by engaging in a popular past time of Classicists: close textual analysis.

The first half of the text refers to how the initiative is university led. This is politically important to show that Gove is engaging top academics and facilitating outreach; it is also important considering schools and, in particular, A-levels are preparation for a university courses. In the same section of the speech Gove announced : “we’re working with world-renowned, world-class Russell Group universities and Professor Mark Smith of Lancaster University to reform A levels – ensuring they provide students with the knowledge and skills they need for the demands of university study.” This leaves you in no doubt what types of universities Russell Group members are; I hope you are not reading this from Birkbeck, Royal Holloway, Reading or Swansea, Kent. Mark Smith has the honoured for being named because he is from Lancaster, a 1994 group-university. This is akin to saying “all the experts and Mark there…”

The collaboration of such high-end universities in the Classics project allow joint-up thinking as the universities participating are preparing their future students; they can also help allay the criticism of bias against the private sector as, as you read in the final sentence, this is to ensure an equal starting point when applying to Classics courses at university (and we know that all Classicists at school go on to become Classicists at university, don’t we?). Is this a policy to aid the ailing departments of Classics across the higher education institutions of the land? It does certainly no harm, in the sense that Classics department across the land might now be able to report a better ratio of state:private intake. But the final sentence quoted above hints more at reducing the gap between state and private schools or, as most of the media reported it, making state schools like private schools.

So what sort of Classics teachers do state schools have. The article implies that non-specialists Classics teachers will be given professional development. It would be great if any readers can direct us to statistics showing the background of teachers offering Classics in schools as whilst there are statics on offer for demands of teachers, whilst we know there is a shortfall of teachers from teacher training course (JACT Bulletin, 2013), there does not seem to be figures on how that shortfall was met. In my travels I have met a department of  several MFL teachers teaching Key Stage 3 Latin. In one department of 1.3 people, 1 of whom wanted a career change and became the Head of Classics from the Head of Music; he began the department from scratch and built up the department sufficiently to draft in an English teacher with a qualification in GCSE Latin. I know the English teacher would like to be re-trained but can find no opportunity, can this project help? Or more pertinently, how many teachers are seeking a subject change and how many are quite satisfied with their allocation of year 7s and 8s?

This, we are also to know, is a project for the benefits of state schools. Gove went on to say: “Academics of this calibre are serious about the need to give state school students the extra level of stretch and challenge that privately educated students enjoy through extra coaching and preparation.” The assumption can only be that private school non-specialists are automatically equipped with such stretching abilities, or perhaps that there are no non-specialists in private schools. Time will tell if teachers in the private sectors are to compose, Ovid-style, addresses to the doorman begging them to let them into these professional development sessions. The decision is a strange one for readers of the last JACT Bulletin (2013) who might recall that 70% of the posts advertised in TES in the year 2011-12 were in the independent secondary sector, 83% if primary independent posts are also included; the decision is not a strange one for all who are politically minded. Gove could have said independent schools (and academies) could hire unqualified (i.e. non-QTS) teachers, and indeed 41% of independent schools did according to the same article in JACT Bulletin.

So what is the motive behind this initiative? I am not sure. It is a step in the right direction and, anecdotally, I know there are teachers who would be very interested in courses if they are recognised to provide the same opportunities to products of PGCE Classics courses at the end of the course. The announcement was made in a section where many similar initiatives intended to boost the quality of education in the state sector is announced, and the stated method for this is to make schools in the maintained sector more like private schools. By this close textual analysis and by reference to the contemporary setting, the conclusion is that Gove is interested in traditional schools for modern maintained schools.

We will come back with a second installment, published not on a Sunday, to analyse how this initiative relate to the education landscape for Classics.

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