PROFESSORIAL ANGST OVER EDUCATION
"What is ignored in today’s litanies to lost youth is the corrosion of education itself, which is in danger of losing its validity as a way forward for new generations. Unconnected to possibilities for practice, displaying knowledge for evaluation and test-taking has replaced learning. Broken down for quantifiable assessment and behavioural manipulation at one end and cramming for traditional exams at the other, this simulacrum of learning disguises the decline in achievement that all teachers recognise." Professor Patrick Ainley, University of Greenwich Letter in Guardian 5 July 2012
"Fundamentally, we urge that schooling should be depoliticised. What happens in classrooms should no longer be micro-managed by Government. … Schools and colleges should shape classroom practice. What is taught (curriculum), how it is taught (pedagogy), whether it is learned successfully (assessment), and how effectively each school tackles its tasks (evaluation) should be the local province of teachers, working collegially, and supported by school governors, neighbouring schools, parents, a constructive inspectorate and, nationally, educational researchers." Professors Stephen Ball, Michael Bassey, Bernard Barker, William Boyle, Margaret Brown, Frank Coffield, Tony Edwards, Ron Glatter, Harvey Goldstein, Mary James, Saville Kushner, Colin Richards, Peter Tymms, and Mick Waters. Guardian 31 March 2010
"Discussion has been blocked by derision, truth has been supplanted by myth and spin, and alternatives to current arrangements have been reduced to crude dichotomy. It is time to advance to a discourse which exemplifies rather than negates what education should be about." Professor Robin Alexander in Children, their World, their Education (2010)
"The education of young people suffers from the narrowing effects of measurable targets, an inflexible system of assessment and qualifications, and unexamined assumptions about the aims of education." Professor Richard Pring www.wholeeducation.org (2009)
"We have come independently to a common conclusion, namely that government policy is no longer the solution to the difficulties we face, but our greatest problem." Professors Frank Coffield, Stephen Ball, Richard Taylor and Sir Peter Scott. Letter in The Independent 2 June 2008
Abolishing a major department of state, as suggested here, demands good reason.
This essay sets out:
If Ainley is right, and I think he is, what is the alternative ‘way forward for new generations’? Strong opinion suggests that recent governments of left and right have caused ‘the corrosion of education’. But if the national curriculum, GCSE, A-level, Ofsted, and league tables are abolished, what replaces them as the structure of education?
I start by asserting that education should be about young people living, and learning to live, worthwhile lives. Anyone seeking change in education should first make clear what they understand education to be and then show how this should develop in primary and secondary education.
EDUCATION AS LIVING AND LEARNING TO LIVE WORTHWHILE LIVES
This can be expressed in three parts.
So, if education has been ‘corroded’, as Ainsley suggests, how can the corrosion be scraped off and education become gold-plated? I find it helpful to answer this question in terms of these three different aspects of education.
SCRAPING OFF THE CORROSION TO REVEAL EDUCATION AS WORTHWHILE NURTURE
Obviously there will be different views on what constitutes ‘worthwhile living’, but we might hope that parents, teachers and governors would look for ideas of harmony and co-operation with others, of respect and loyalty, of trusting others and building friendships, of moral and civilised behaviour, of support for the disadvantaged, of care for the environment, learning to cope with disasters, fostering a sense of humour, and finding joy day-by-day in work and play.
It is this flexibility and opportunity for spontaneity that I believe has been lost in primary schools.
SCRAPING OFF THE CORROSION TO REVEAL EDUCATION AS WORTHWHILE CULTURE
What do we mean by ‘culture’? I find helpful the views of Jon Hawkes, an Australian planner, set out in The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture’s Essential Role in Public Planning, published in 2001.
Somehow, from this enormous canvas, schooling tradition has carved out those elements that have been deemed both worthwhile and capable of being taught in school. They are formulated in terms of subjects: English, Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, Art, Music, Foreign languages, Physical Education, Religious Education etc. Until 1988 what was taught within these subjects was partly chosen by the teachers but mostly by the examination boards for school leaving certificates. These boards in turn were dominated by university academics representing the various disciplines. More recently, government has taken over this role by defining a national curriculum, but one hugely influenced by tradition and initially overwhelmed with the demands of subject specialists. There have been a number of complete revisions of the national curriculum in the years since the Education Reform Act of 1988, but it is still defined by national government and its advisers and more or less enforced by OFSTED.
There is a tendency for most people, and regrettably some teachers, to see the teaching of this subject-based culture as simply and only a matter of transmission from the teacher and acquisition by the student. But there is so much more to the educational concept of culture for it entails each person taking hold and making it their own in acts of creation and discovery, of developing and conserving it in their own terms and images and, later, perhaps coming to it again in a renewal of acquaintance.
Writing this just after the London Olympics of 2012 I find these words of Danny Boyle, creator of its mind-blowing opening ceremony, written in his programme notes, as applicable to education as to his event:
Here, of course, Boyle uses ‘Jerusalem’ not as a geographical site revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, but as a metaphor for a better world. As such it has been used across the political spectrum and in the 1945 general election Clement Attlee said Labour would build ‘a new Jerusalem’. It is a cultural concept that should be at the centre of education.
So, how should schools and academies respond to this aspect of education? Working collegially, how should they determine the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment of the young people that they teach and who are entrusted in their care.
This requirement is essential if they are to meet the literacy and numeracy demands of secondary schools. Handled intelligently by teachers and built into the day by day activities of each year, this should not be a burden.
Beyond that it should be for the teachers, working collegially, taking the views of governors, parents, local community and national guidelines into account, to decide on curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.
Many will find that the work of the Cambridge Primary Review of 2010, carried out by a team of 70 researchers led by Professor Robin Alexander, is a valuable guide to many aspects of primary education. In terms of primary school curriculum it proposes eight domains: art and creativity; citizenship and ethics; faith and belief; language, oracy and literacy; mathematics; physical and emotional health; place and time; and science and technology.
This is how Sarah Cassidy reported on the publication of the Review in The Independent. "The biggest inquiry into primary education for 40 years concluded yesterday that Labour’s tight, centralized control of England’s primary schools has had a devastating impact on children’s education. Micromanagement, meddling and a succession of ministerial edicts have killed spontaneity in the nation’s classrooms. Teachers have been stripped of their powers of discretion. And the net result of new Labour “reform” has almost certainly been a decline in the quality of education that the young receive. It would have been better, concludes the Primary Review, if the government had done nothing at all."
The Tomlinson report of 2004 suggested replacing GCSEs and A-levels with a diploma awarded at one of four levels. Aimed at students in the age range 14-19 it would be based on a curriculum of core and main studies."Core learning would cover developing basic skills and would include mathematics, literacy and communication, C&IT, an extended project, wider activities entitlement (work experience, paid jobs, voluntary work, family responsibilities), personal review, planning and guidance. There will also be a focus on common knowledge, skills and attributes (eg personal awareness, problem solving, creativity, team-working, and moral/ethical awareness). The extended project would replace much of the externally set coursework.
Main learning. Most of a young person’s time would be spent on main learning which would focus on their subject specialisation. The content of GCSE and A-level curricula would be maintained as diploma components. Diplomas could be ‘open’ or ‘specialised’. For the ‘open’ option, learners would choose a mixture of subjects and/or vocational options. All pre-16 diplomas will be ‘open’ to ensure breadth of study. For the ‘specialised’ option, studies would cover individual academic disciplines and vocational areas (eg an employment sector)."
Sadly, the Labour Party, which had set up the enquiry, rejected the proposals, mainly for fear of backlash because of A-levels being subsumed. But the Nuffield funded review of The future of Education and Training for 14-19 year olds, published in 2009 (led by Professor Richard Pring, with eight academic colleagues), reiterates the need for a unified qualifications framework. This wise, erudite and evidence-based study argues for:"A radical reshaping of the future in the light of a broader vision of education – a greater respect for more practical and active learning, a system of assessment which supports rather than impoverishes learning; respect for the professional expertise of the teacher; a more unified system of qualifications ensuring progression into higher education and employment; the creation of strongly collaborative and local learning systems; and a more reflective and participative approach to policy."
Pertinent to this essay is the authors’ ambition for an educated 19 year old: "One who has a sufficient grasp of those ideas and principles which enable him or her to manage life intelligently, who has the competence and skills to tackle practical tasks including those required for employment, who has a sense of community and the disposition to make a contribution to it, who is morally serious in the sense that he or she cares about fairness and responsibility for others, who is inspired by what has been done by others and might be done by oneself, and who has a sense and knowledge of self – confident and resilient in the face of difficulty."
They add: "Such an educational aim is open to everyone, irrespective of ability or background. Such an aim should shape the education for the future."
SCRAPING OFF THE CORROSION TO REVEAL EDUCATION AS WORTHWHILE SURVIVAL
For their survival, young people need to develop cognitive skills, environmental and social sensitivities, and civic skills. Cognitive skills and environmental sensitivity are needed for gaining environmental understanding. In addition, environmental and social sensitivities are needed in order to acquire and develop convivial values. Conviviality is the joy that comes from being in harmony with one’s environment, one’s fellows and with oneself. Convivial values and environmental understanding, as well as cognitive skills are needed in order to engage in critical reflection on society’s actions. Civic and cognitive skills are needed for students to acquire empowerment to act, and this is needed, in conjunction with critical reflection, in order to take steps to achieve a sustainable way of life. This holistic view is completed by recognising that a sustainable way of life is needed for the survival of life. It needs to be taught in the context of concern for the quality of life, and so should be learned with joy and not through drudgery.
Hopefully every primary school will have at least one teacher, who at sometime will be class teacher for every child, with exuberant enthusiasm for wild life and natural things which can be shared with the children. It should prove to be the beginning of experiencing harmony with the environment.
THE TRANSITIONAL PATH FOR SCRAPING OFF THE CORROSION
Removing so much of the contemporary fabric of education from central government and vesting it in collegially organised schools and academies would be a societal shock and teachers would need to reassure parents and pupils that it would considerably enhance the quality of education and improve the life-chances of the young.
No doubt to begin teachers would play it safe and continue to teach as before, but through collegial discussion would begin to recognise the potential for the creative development of their work and the opportunities for enlightened thinking. As is made clear in paragraph 11.1 in the proposal it will be vital to ensure that there is effective inservice training to prepare teachers for the new freedoms.
But before teachers can think about changing their practice it will be necessary for Parliament to make this possible.
It is very unlikely that a Conservative government would give schools the freedoms suggested in this pamphlet. (Be not misled by Mr Gove’s ‘free schools’ whereby parents and others can set up state-funded schools and decide what will be taught and how, nor by the apparent freedoms given to the new academies. In practice the secretary of state has firm control of all of these, when he chooses to exercise it.)
It is also clear that the Labour governments of Mr Blair and Mr Brown were not sympathetic to school freedoms. Of the Labour secretaries of state for Education only Estelle Morris had any personal insight into teaching and she could not turn the tide of state control.
Dare we hope that the current leadership of the Labour Party will see the logic, sense and coherence of the proposals put in this pamphlet and, once in power, act accordingly? I guess I wouldn’t be writing it if I didn’t have some optimism that this could happen.
Before looking at the proposals it is worth going back over recent years and seeing the extent to which others have noted the ‘corrosion’. The following are from press cuttings posted on my website www.free-school-from-government-control.com
There has been extensive criticism from a wide range of educationists of government policies on national curriculum, inspection, testing, and centralised micro-management of schools, but little evidence that those in power have taken much notice.
PUBLIC EVIDENCE OF THE POLITICAL CORROSION OF EDUCATION
Politicians have tried hard to micromanage the work of schools - with some dire results.
2003 Secretary of State: Charles Clarke
This year the Department for Education and Skills, the Office for Standards in Education and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority between them sent 1855 pages of documents to secondary schools and 1213 to primary schools.
Sir John Cassells, director of the (independent) National Commission on Education, said If there is one over-arching message that keeps coming through, it is this: the concentration of educational decision-making at the centre has led to a situation where ‘command and control’ dominates, and this has now reached a point where it is seriously counter productive.
2004 Secretaries of State: Charles Clarke/Ruth Kelly
Sir Anthony Greener, chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said he condemned the disjointed initiatives and lack of vision of the Department for Education and Skills’.
At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ conference Mary Bousted, general secretary, said: New Labour needs to curb its ‘control freakery’ and obsession with charging ahead with policy without consulting those who have to implement it.
2005 Secretary of State: Ruth Kelly
Peter Hyman had coined the phrase bog-standard comprehensive when a speech writer for Tony Blair. Subsequently he worked for a year as a teaching assistant and wrote a book on his experiences, 1 out of 10: From Downing Street Vision to Classroom Reality. The TES reported that he calls on his old government colleagues to stop trying to micro-manage schools, and asks: Why can’t politicians acknowledge that those on the front line might know more?
Criticism of the English testing/league table system came from an international report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It said that pressure on schools to boost league-table performance risks undermining pupils’ learning and teachers often feel compelled to “teach to the test” at the expense of children’s long-term education.
2006 Secretaries of State: Ruth Kelly/Alan Johnson
England’s General Teaching Council recommended that national testing should be scrapped and replaced by a sampling system (1 pupil in 50) in order to end teaching to the test while giving ministers effective information on how school standards are changing.
John Dunford, general secretary of the (newly named) Association of School and College Leaders, reckoned that up to 1 in 5 schools may be being misjudged by Ofsted. He said, At present, as a central part of the multi-layered pressure on schools, Ofsted is part of the problem, not the solution.
Baroness Pauline Perry, HMI chief inspector of schools in 1981-8 (before Ofsted) said that Ofsted was flawed, overly punitive and dysfunctional. She added: There is a huge crisis of teacher morale. We can’t improve education unless you have confidence and trust in teachers and treat them in a way which improves their morale.
Another Baroness, Shirley Williams, who was education secretary 1976-79 in the Callaghan government and now a Liberal Democrat peer, said the testing and targets regime introduced under Labour had had a hugely negative impact. Some of the joy has gone out of education: the actual fun of learning has been increasingly overtaken by examinations and a focus on league tables. Kids are quite stressed out by the age of eight. I’m sorry to sound so sentimental, she said, but joy and fun are absolutely central to education.
The National Audit Office criticised the Department for Education and Skills, saying that it was fit for purpose on only two of 14 key targets by which the department should be judged.
Mick Waters, director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Assessment Authority, suggested that the schools’ curriculum could be a turn off for many pupils. He said, For too many young people, the last thing the curriculum does is inspire and challenge. That’s why so many young people walk away from school.
A parliamentary question by the Liberal Democrats revealed that headteachers received, between 1997 and 2004, a new piece of government guidance every two-and-a-half working days.
2007 Secretary of State: Alan Johnson/Ed Balls
Like his predecessors Ed Balls was soon seen by teachers to have initiativitis. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, had counted 242 press releases trumpeting new initiatives for schools in 2007 under Johnson and Balls, and the year before, under Kelly and Johnson, 192.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: Schools now find themselves in an Alice in Wonderland situation where what was once considered satisfactory is now unsatisfactory. Inspections are in urgent need of review. Accusations of blame and failure are not the best ways to achieve school improvements.
The Commons select committee published the 52 submissions that it had received of which only one paints the testing regime in a favourable light – the one from the Department for Children, Schools and Families!
Opposition to the current testing regime came from five teacher unions, the General Teaching Council, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Association for Science Education, the Mathematical Association, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Institute of Educational Assessors and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority among other bodies.
2008 Secretary of State: Ed Balls
Keith Bartley, chief executive of the General Teaching Council (the regulatory body for teachers), made a fierce attack on what he called the over-cluttered national curriculum and high-stakes testing. The research indicates that everything in year six drives towards the test, but in year seven they have forgotten what they learnt because the only purpose of learning was to pass the test.
The House of Common’s select committee for Children, Schools and Families called for national tests in the current form to be scrapped. They considered that test data do not necessarily provide an accurate picture of school and teacher performance, or of pupils’ deeper understanding. They argued that a small sample of pupils should be tested each year to monitor national standards.
2009 Secretary of State: Ed Balls
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, spoke out strongly in a TES article: Mr Balls, throw away your big stick. … It’s not an excuse to say that schools in socially deprived areas face bigger challenges. … The case is clear: the research has been done. Children in poor, inner-city areas do not fail because of the school they go to, but because of their social class. … Schools do what they can to counter the impact of deprivation and social exclusion. Staff wrestle daily with the problems poverty brings.
She went on to say that these staff need neither performance league tables nor the army of advisers and inspectors who turn up, destroy their confidence and morale, tell them to do things differently, and then disappear, leaving them bruised and battered to carry on teaching.
In June the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education was published: a substantial review lead by Prof Pring of Oxford University with strong recommendations and the major concern that government vision of learning was too narrow. It seemed, like the Cambridge Review of Primary Education, (both cited above) to be ignored by Government.
2010 (till May) Secretary of State: Ed Balls
The classroom is no place for politicians was the headline of an Education Guardian article by Estelle Morris, Baroness and former Secretary of State for Education. She expressed concern over the takeover of pedagogy by politicians and the lack of evaluation of policy initiatives. She wrote: If politicians really want to exercise influence in the classroom, they have to develop a much better understanding of the process of achieving change.
Tim Oates, director of assessment and research at Cambridge University’s exam board, Cambridge Assessment in April accused the government of arbitrary and “faddish” changes to the examination system. He said that over the last 15 years, politicians have banned and then reintroduced the use of calculators in maths GCSE examinations seven times. In 2000 government had split A-level courses into six modules, then changed this to four modules, allowing students to retake module exams in order to obtain higher grades. He noted that universities complain that since the percentage of students gaining three A grades has risen from 7% in the mid 1990s to 17% they can no longer differentiate between top students. So a further grade has been introduced of A*. He argued that it should be universities, schools and employers who instigate change, not government.
How do you mend Ofsted? was a banner heading in the TES in February. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said Fear of being judged by Ofsted as failing has promoted a culture in schools where doing things to please inspectors competes with professional judgements about the learning needs of pupils as the prime motivation for action.
But it was Professor Chris Woodhead, first chief of Ofsted, who truly put the boot in, saying: It pains me to say it, but Ofsted might as well be abolished.
Keith Dennis, inspections consultant of the Association of School and College Leaders, referred in March to real fear among heads. He said, In nine years of working on inspections I have never known fear like it. It is people doing everything possible who are sometimes constrained by things beyond their powers. It might be that they can’t recruit an English teacher, or a maths teacher goes off on maternity leave at a crucial time and results drop.
An article by Hannah Frankel in the TES Magazine showed one of the consequences of government obsession with results. In 2004, 30 heads and deputies of secondary schools were sacked for failure to deliver what were deemed acceptable results: four years later the figure was 150. She asks, Is the next generation of potential school leaders running scared of an inspection-obsessed culture and ‘football manager’ syndrome?
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, commented that Ofsted has driven many good schools to the wall for no valid reason. She also said that the tests for 11-year-olds contravene the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Under this convention, children are entitled to a broad education which develops their personalities, talents and abilities to their fullest potential. She said that the effect of the Sats is to reduce children to little bundles of measurable outputs trained in a mechanistic model of education.
William Stewart reported in the TES on April that more than 80 MPs have told Parliament that they are seriously concerned about reports of Ofsted making “arbitrary” judgements, leading to schools being unfairly marked down and failed. They claim that parents and the general public will be given an erroneous and misleading impression of school standards.
The House of Commons select committee in April published a substantial report entitled From Baker to Balls: The Foundations of the Educational System and came out strongly against Sats. The way that many teachers have responded to the government’s approach to accountability has meant that test results are pursued at the expense of a rounded education for children. A better approach would be for the government to place more faith in the professionalism of teachers and to support them with a simplified accountability and improvement system which encourages good practice.
June 2010 - July 2014 Secretary of State: Michael Gove
Oh dear. What can one say? While Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail lauds him as the hero who will reverse Britain’s education disaster, most educational professionals see him as the worst disaster that has befallen education. Quotes from a couple of letters of mine to The Observer reflect widely held views.
So, Michael Gove is ‘in open warfare’ with the experts he commissioned to advise him on the national curriculum. Gove has published plans for a new national curriculum for primary schools with rigid year-by-year requirements on the teaching of mathematics, reading, writing, a foreign language, learning poetry by heart from the age of five, and a strong focus on spelling, grammar and rote learning.
Professor Andrew Pollard is one of four experts appointed by Michael Gove to advise on the new national curriculum. Recently he has described Gove’s reforms as ‘fatally flawed’. He says they are so prescriptive they will prevent teachers from using their own professional judgement in the classroom.
And I haven’t mentioned that Mr Gove is looking to a future of state schools run by for-profit companies, that notwithstanding the Olympic surge of interest in school sports, school fields can now be sold off or used as building plots, that he plans to replace the GCSEs with what looks like a two-tier system, and that new school building will have reduced spaces in dining areas and corridors.
WHO WILL REMOVE THE CORROSION AND GOLD-PLATE OUR EDUCATION ?
I hope this all explains why, with sadness, I have adopted Patrick Ainley’s phrase of ‘the corrosion of education’ as a theme for this essay.
I can’t see any Conservative administration tackling this corrosion in the way that many professionals urge. And I recognise that the recent Labour administrations of prime ministers Blair and Brown wouldn’t have done so either. But Labour is moving on – and we must hope that at least some of the anxieties expressed above and the ideas for tackling them, will begin to influence its policy makers.
I believe the positive suggestions of this essay are in accord with the words on the back of the membership card of everybody in the Labour Party:
Hence I have confidence that the next Labour administration could take forward the idea of creating a National Education Service.
This was written in the spring of 2014 before Michael Gove was sacked - and when there was hope that the next government would be Labour!
 This paragraph is extracted from my Education for the Inevitable: schooling when the oil runs out (Book Guild Publishing 2011) where the ideas are further developed.