Gove’s ideology: its intellectual supporters.


How good it is to hear a historian’s opinion. The value of the study of history is so often apparent when one who belongs to the profession speaks out on matters of current concern. However, even historians can sometimes mislead us with their own bias, whether it is unwitting or mendacious.


Recently Robert Peal, a young historian, has been voicing his opinion on many education topics. In this post, I shall examine Peal’s stated views on education in general and history teaching in particular. His views are relevant to this week’s spat between Tim Farron, David Lawers and Michael Gove over the latter’s diversion of £400m from the “basic needs” budget for local authority primary places in order to support his Free Schools’ policy.  I shall start with Peal’s blog concerning a new OCR A-level exam syllabus, then proceed to consider his opinions on history teaching and teaching general. [1] These three themes will be drawn together in my conclusion.


Last week, Robert Peal spoke out about OCR’s new English course, in which the texts studied will include writers such as Russell Brand, but not journalists like Peter Hitchens. Clear evidence, Peal tells us, of ‘dumbing down.’[2] I am not an enthusiast for Brand, many of whose opinions and actions I cannot support, but my instinct as historian was to check his writing to see if it had any merit, and then to compare it with Hitchens’ before passing judgement. I chose the pieces each man wrote upon the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death last year. One might have expected Brand to pen a rant, full of intemperate language, unreasoned complaint and ill-considered invective, but not at all. Brand wrote with a very effective and clear prose style, a measured and well-constructed article which Hitchens could not match in any way. It could make a valuable exercise for A-level students to compare the two pieces.[3]


Peal’s comments on the writing of Brand and Hitchens led me to wonder how Peal had formed his opinions on education in general, and whether those opinions would stand up to scrutiny. Peal is a young man who has made rapid progress in the world of education. After studying at an independent boarding school and Cambridge, Peal spent couple of years teaching before he became an education research fellow at Civitas.[4]  The Secretary of State for Education has acclaimed him as ‘one of the brightest young voices in the education debate.’ Peal has certainly been quite prolific in his blog and in print, and has recently published Progressively Worse: the burden of bad ideas in British schools.

I shall start with his contribution to the debate on history teaching. The crux of Peal’s criticism of history teaching is:

the curriculum was uninspiring. My subject, history, had been emptied of content and replaced with a series of bogus ‘skills’ such as ‘detecting bias’ or ‘identifying change’. [5]

The National Curriculum and exam courses I have been following have not yet been emptied of content, though I do recognize the point about ‘uninspiring’. I know that some topics can be more challenging for the teacher who seeks to inspire his/her students. For me, the Cold War was such a challenge, but it was very gratifying to find the students being drawn into this topic, which they quite reasonably found difficult to understand and remote from their own experience. With more than three decades of experience of history teaching, one learns how to make anything interesting, and, in order to achieve that, the teacher must draw upon teaching skills. Peal says of his classroom experience whilst training:

I was criticised for standing at the front of the room and addressing the whole class. Traditional ‘chalk-and-talk’ teaching methods were highly discouraged. [6]

Peal prioritises knowledge, and suggests that history teachers have, with few exceptions, replaced knowledge with ‘bogus’ skills. I have to say that I have never in forty years in teaching met any history teacher or academic historian who has given up on knowledge.[7] Those of us who were trained to teach in the 1970s are familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, the point of which is that knowledge is foundational in learning. Bloom showed that the interesting part of learning and education comes with the understanding, application, creation, evaluation and analysis: these are what pupils and students find most interesting and challenging.

Peal explains the importance of knowledge thus:

It is impossible to take a first step in ‘thinking’ about history without knowledge of the content. How can you consider why Parliament won the English Civil War if you don’t know what a Roundhead was?[8]


All of us who accept Bloom’s taxonomy will agree with Peal’s observation about the centrality of knowledge to an understanding of history. The difficulty with his syllogism is that his own knowledge has let him down. An appropriate rejoinder is ‘How can you claim that Parliament won the Civil Wars? (NB, the plural) Have you forgotten about Cromwell’s Protectorate and the Restoration of 1660? Or do you mean that Parliament could only claim to have won the Civil Wars in 1688?’ One might also argue that ‘Roundhead’ is a term of limited relevance that had very little currency with contemporaries who were fighting the wars. This is why students studying history, even those in year seven, need some basic skills in order to appraise the reliability and utility of what they are reading.[9]


When Peal was deploying his ‘talk-and-chalk’ methods in an inner-city secondary school, he found the behaviour of his pupils to be deplorable. The reason, he explained, is that ‘discipline is a dirty word’ in schools today, and that indiscipline, which is ignored as a problem, is holding back pupil achievement. Again, my experience is at odds with Peal’s: I do not recollect meeting any teacher in forty years who advocated dispensing with discipline in school. However, Peal is able to explain why discipline has become (he says) a dirty word. The problem started in one small, independent school before the war. The head teacher of Summerhill, A.S. Neill, dispensed with all rules and discipline. This policy was a disaster but was apparently widely adopted in the state school system.

Most comprehensive schools were designed in deliberate opposition to the grammar-school tradition. House systems, school uniform, prize-giving, academic streaming, and competitive sport were largely abandoned.

None of this applied in any of the schools in which I have worked over the last forty years, but of course that is only a score or so, from Brighton to Kendal, via Lancashire.

As a historian I am sure Peal must have researched his topic, but I have to differ with his analysis that suggests that bad behaviour is a phenomenon that originated in the 1960s. There are several secondary histories that tell of the discipline problems experienced in elementary schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I can recommend Hooligans or rebels?[10] which examines what young people were up to, in and out of school. Discipline was certainly no better, and was in general far worse than in recent years, even though teachers were able to beat pupils with impunity.

Peal writes that there has been a decline in teaching since the war, which has been caused by what he calls ‘the Blob.’ Apparently Sir Chris Woodhead coined the term, which was picked up by Mr Gove.[11]

It is a convenient metaphor for what Gove calls the education establishment. Teaching unions, local education authorities, teacher training providers, and education quangos are the core components of the Blob-a bloated morass of vested interests.


It is difficult to form a precise idea of who is in ‘the Blob’ but it is clear that they are united in disagreeing with Gove. It is a large Blob, for in order to defeat it, Gove needs “to abolish the National Curriculum, to abolish Ofsted and to abolish the teacher training system.” Peal has written at some length about the Blob, and has offered some theoretical analysis of the ‘problem’ but the Blob is so vast and Hydra-headed that it difficult to pin down its precise philosophy, methodology or ideology. I shall move on from Peal attacks on the Blob to look at his positive proposals for improving education.


Peal cites the work of Professor John Hattie of Melbourne, who has engaged in a meta-analysis of effective teaching studies, to support his argument in favour of ‘traditional’ teaching methods.[12] Peal reproduces Hattie’s results in this table. (The scores represent the effectiveness of different types of teaching intervention: higher is better, the scale is 1 to 0)

hattie table


Peal uses this table, which is a small extract from a large corpus of work, as evidence which ‘unequivocally shows that students learn best from teachers.’[13] I’m sure that almost everyone involved in education agrees that teachers make a big and positive difference, but Peal implies that Hattie’s work proves that traditional methods including ‘chalk-and-talk’ are better than the ‘progressive’ methods which the Blob apparently promotes. For Peal, the contents of the left hand column are ‘traditional’, right hand column ‘progressive.’ However, many of the strategies in the left hand column are ‘progressive’. For example, meta-cognition strategies (in which pupils learn how to learn, take control of their learning and become active rather than passive learners) belongs firmly under the ‘pupil centred’ heading which is condemned by Peal as ‘progressive’.[14]  Reciprocal teaching, feedback, self-verbalisation, and more are also strategies that are far from traditional.


However, Hattie has considered ‘chalk and talk’ teaching and concluded:


Less teacher talk, more listening

One of the findings of Visible Learning is that the proportion of teacher talk to listening needs to change to less talk and more listening! ….. Further, the more the instruction was challenging, relevant, and engaging, the less the teachers were talking. …… Teachers love to talk, but unfortunately most of their talk, even when it calls for a student response, fosters lower-order learning. In addition, a lot of teacher talk is aimed at controlling behavior so the teacher can continue talking, “Keep quiet, behave, listen, and then react to my factual closed questions. Tell me what I have just said so that I can check that you were listening, and then I can continue talking.” Of course some imparting of information is necessary, but this imbalance needs to be addressed. Part of why we need teachers to talk less is because it is important for them to listen.…… By listening, teachers show they truly value and are modeling deep communication skills more than just the transmission of knowledge.


To summarize the key point of Hattie’s work: teachers need to talk less and listen more, they need to study and employ the most effective teaching strategies. Ie, training is good, chalk and talk is bad, which is what Peal’s advisors told him when he was a trainee teacher.


However, Peal and Gove have reached a different conclusion: that teaching needs to be liberated from the ‘education establishment’, that ‘progressive’ and ‘pupil centred’ learning strategies cause underachievement,  and teacher training must be reined in. This is why they have advocated the employment of unqualified teachers. Peal has, for example,  lavished praise upon the Phoenix Free School in Oldham, which was to be run by former military personnel.[15] (No problem with discipline there, eh?) Unfortunately for Gove this plan was a non-starter. As the Department for Education said: “Unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of the proposers, it has become clear that the school will not be able to meet the rigorous criteria set for free schools.”[16]


I remain unconvinced by Peal’s arguments and conclusions. He has, like his mentor Gove, become part of an ideological campaign which is based upon half-baked ideas and inexperience. He has ignored or mis-represented evidence to support his case. This is why the Lib-Dems this week have attacked Gove for his ideological obsession with Free Schools.[17] Peal, like Gove, relies upon a puerile attack on an ‘enemy’ which is its own invention, ‘the Blob.’ Those who are critical of Gove’s policies are attacked as Marxists. I will perhaps be so accused myself, though anyone who takes the trouble to read my academic work will see that I am clearly not a Marxist in any way or form. I recommend that Robert Peal reads Hattie’s work fully before he returns to the classroom, or launches his next attack on the ‘education establishment’ and ‘the Blob.’




[2] Excuse me for rePealing Peal’s cliché. I notice that many people in public life today use clichés, preferring to use one instead of giving a reasoned response when a difficult question is asked.

[4] I think these two years include his year as a trainee on the ‘Teach First’ programme, but it is difficult to unravel from his blogs the precise details of his school experience.

[7] I have met and spoken with Alun Munslow, who asks serious questions about the pre-eminence of factual content in history, but he is a long way from giving up on knowledge. I can recommend his writing.

[9] How easy it would be if all that were needed were someone at the front telling the kids what they needed to know. It is a beguiling idea, for if these methods were effective, there would clearly be no need to employ qualified teachers, nor indeed to train teachers. All the Secretary of State would need to do is to issue to instructors a list of all the knowledge that school pupils have to learn. There have of course been regimes which have adopted such policies.

[10] Humphries, S., 1995. Hooligans or rebels? an oral history of working-class childhood and youth 1889-1939. Oxford: Blackwell. Humphries is a Marxist historian, which may prejudice a protégé of Mr Gove against it. I am no Marxist, and have in my own writing disagreed with some of Humphries analysis, but the work is useful in revealing something of the working class experience and view of education. Marxist historians have so often led the way in examining the history of the working class (vide E.P.Thompson).

[12] Hattie’s findings may be found in a very good summary here: I am grateful to Peal for introducing Hattie’s work to me. Since moving into academia, I have been less assiduous in keeping up with developments in pedagogy. Hattie’s book is very good and I can recommend it to all those who wish to examine and improve their teaching skills.

[14] In fact, meta-cognition comprises deep learning, but Peal specifically criticizes this as a ‘fad’ and one of the ‘worn out creeds of progressive education’.

3 thoughts on “Gove’s ideology: its intellectual supporters.

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