Michael Gove: An Idiot Abroad

Sonny Leong, chair of Chinese for Labour, discusses Michael Gove's controversial comments on Chinese education.

Sonny Leong is the publisher and chair of Chinese for Labour

I am in total despair. Every time Michael Gove opens his mouth, extravagant foolishness and ignorance spews from it. In a recent Telegraph article, he claimed:

“I was in the Far East last month, to see what I could learn… where I am happy to confess I’d like us to implement a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China. Like Chairman Mao, we’ve embarked on a Long March to reform our education system.”

His ignorance of history is baffling and a cause of concern. Where do we get these politicians?

The Cultural Revolution was a violent mass revolution resulting in social, political and economic upheaval with over thirty million deaths. Mao singled out his enemies – landlords, rich peasants, intellectuals. In the fight against “class enemies” and “bourgeois reactionaries”, teachers and people with a college degree were targeted. Entire schools of elite musicians and teams of athletes were sent to labour camps. Intellectuals were kept in prisons.

In the Cultural Revolution, learning was a crime. The crackdown on teachers, professors and intellectuals was particularly nasty. In secondary schools students humiliated and denounced their teachers. In high schools, teachers wore dunce caps and spent the whole day reciting “I am a demon” in front of classrooms filled with mocking students.

Is this what Gove is advocating?

If this is a case of “metaphorically speaking”, then his analogy is pure contempt for the Chinese in Britain. Many have lost relatives and family during that period in history, and many are just coming to terms with the horrific memories of that period. The frequent usage of Chinese analogies by politicians recently is nothing short of repugnant and gutwrenching to listen to.

Spending only a few days in the Far East does not make Gove an expert on education there. Like Manuel in Fawlty Towers – he knows nothing!

Yes, teachers and students in Shanghai and Singapore have to be congratulated in coming out tops in a recent leading global study of secondary school performance in maths and science. This is no surprise at all; to really understand why, one needs to look inside a Chinese family. The pressure on these kids to perform well comes from within the family, school and society.

Chinese students work extra long hours on school days and continue to have classes on weekends and holidays. These children are victims of a test-oriented education system. Failures in such tests bring shame to themselves and families leading to the high suicide rates amongst them.

Whether it is maths or reading, the more you practice, the better you can get. They are taught to memorise, parrot fashion, and regurgitate what they have studied for exams. Any analysis, discursive or exploring other concepts or ideals are alien to their learning processes.

These students fail abysmally at non-standardised tests – open-book; open-notes; multiple choice questions (MCQs); and true/false assessments. Why? Because they do not know how to pass exams that they have not practiced for. Their incapability to apply knowledge acquired in a classroom to real life or non-standardised exams is a cause of concern for many parents and educators.

Students grow up lacking social interaction, interpersonal, teamwork and communicating skills because they have not been allowed to acquire or develop these skills. All their waking hours are spent on memorising and more memorising.

In Singapore, from the strict design of pedagogies and curriculum to the series of standardised examinations, students are moulded into productive units of labour for the future. The introduction of more testing and streaming for younger students is leading to an overheated pressure cooker further damaging their youth and future generation.

The recent deaths of two junior college students have once again highlighted the primary ramification from a highly-competitive and rigid education system: tremendous stress and pressure. Another cost worth considering is the dearth of creativity like research among Singaporean students.

The other problem which almost never gets any attention is the complete lack of development of critical thinking skills among Singaporean students. They are unable to read texts critically, offer interpretations, construct good arguments, and communicate clearly. As a Chinese father, I would not be happy at all in schooling my four-year-old daughter in Singapore or Shanghai. I wouldn’t want my child to go through the ‘pressure cooker’ educational system where she is taught just to pass exams and incapable of any further comprehension.

We should all take pride in our schools and teachers; yes, we need to do more to raise standards and expectations in our schools; yes, we need to encourage our students to take up sciences; yes, we need to invest more in our children’s future; yes, we need educators who are motivated; and yes, we need a fairer system where children have access to good schools in their communities.

To all educators, teachers, head teachers and governors out there, do not allow Michael Gove anywhere near your school. Stop this dangerous political vandalism in our school and education system before we start counting the number of suicides amongst our children.

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