Tag Archives: Michael Gove

Mistrusted, mistreated, misgivings

People say we’re in a time of opportunity, a time when we can shape our educational future like never before.   I hope that’s true.   It has caused me to reflect a little on what has gone before and there are some underlying themes throughout our recent history that are worth considering.

In his book ‘Unfinished Revolution’ John Abbott asks do we want ‘battery hens or free range chickens?’  This strikes me as a good metaphor for our curriculum journey.   It gets to the heart of the debate about whether the curriculum develops independent thinkers, confident learners who are resilient, reflective and like taking a risk, or whether it sacrifices these qualities for coverage, pace and shallow learning experiences.   Education is contstantly at the forefront of political debate these days, it’s a vote winner if the cards can be played to suit the electorate.   The curriculum was firmly grasped by government in the late 70s.   The Tyndale affair and Jim Callaghan‘s subsequent Ruskin college speech led to a standardised model which meant schools could no longer follow their own teachers’ interests and enthusiasms.   Callaghan claimed the landscape was uneven, the quality of provision too variable.   The National Curriculum followed and with it a whole raft of new powers for government.   It saw the end of a long period without government intervention and heralded in the 1988 Education Reform Act and a period of constant tinkering and meddling.   Subsequent governments have not been bold enough to go the whole hog in terms of reform and for fear of losing anything (and upsetting middle England) they simply added more and more content to an already overcrowded curriculum.

The 1988 Act introduced us to the ‘Kentucky Fried Curriculum’ (you run the restaurant, we’ll set the menu) and ‘karoake teaching’. It ushered in an era of mistrust and misgivings about the profession to such an extent that a DfE spokesman in the early 1990s saw fit to announce:

‘We have set out arrangements for what is effectively a ‘teacher proof curriculum’.   Centrally dictated, centrally controlled and centrally monitored.’

Such sentiments hardly imbue you with the belief that teachers were going to be treated with any professional respect!  That lack of trust has been a constant over the last 30 years.   A time where politicians have intervened with the electoral clock ticking behind them as they unleash one masterplan after another bent on winning votes and keeping them in office.   The problem with political interference is it has a short shelf life, and education needs time – long term solutions not quick wins as Andy Hargreaves so  convincingly argues.   It is no good for policy makers to continually look back at their own halycon, often privileged education and use it as a benchmark for taking us forward.   We need more than this if we are to meet the needs of learners for an uncertain future.

If this is the time of opportunity we’re being told it is, then policy makers have to show a some professional respect for educators, some trust in our ability to know how to develop learners and some faith in us to plan a curriculum that meets children’s needs.

Sources: Unfinished Revolution – John Abbott, Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching – Bangs, Macbeath and Galton

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Mind the Gap!

Many people argue that standards in education have reached a plateau and that initiative after initiative have done nothing to close the gap between the richest and poorest in our society.       One of the surest ways to narrow the poverty gap is certainly to abolish league tables.

League tables continue to divide schools along societal lines.   Many colleagues who work in more affluent areas assure me that their children continue to succeed seemingly regardless of the quality of teaching.   Areas with high social capital tend to do well in the league tables  and this is the measure by which our schools are judged.   Schools with little support beyond the classroom don’t fair quite so well.   Many schools in more affluent areas confirm that coaching and high levels of parental support helptheir children perform highly in the snapshot that is the Key Stage 2 SATs whereas children in poorer areas are seldom afforded that luxury.

No one would dispute the need for schools to be accountable – they are the recipients of a fair amount of public money after all, but such a crude and unfair method will not help close the gap.   While league tables are published, and parents are told that this is how schools are best compared, recruitment of pupils and subsequent funding will be skewed in favour of the more advantaged sectors of society.

The current testing regime also places an inordinate amount of emphasis on the acquisition of facts.   It relies on the recall of factual knowledge and skills because they can be easily measured.   They aren’t necessarily the most important things to measure – but they are the easiest to measure, and there is a crucial difference here.   In 2001 the DfEE commissioned a report from The National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Eduction entitled ‘All Our Futures’, this report was compiled to make recommendations to the then Secretary of State on the development of Creative and Cultural Education in England.   The committee’s chair was Sir Ken Robinson who noted in the report that the high stakes testing prevalent then, as now, took ‘little account of experimentation, original thinking and innovation’.   The danger is that too many schools still shun creative and innovative approaches because of the spectre of SATs that looms over them.   Exciting learning opportunities are relegated to ‘post’ SATs activities when they should be at the centre of a broad and balanced curriculum.   Such an approach will not only  ensure a rounded learning experience for children it will provide an equality the current high stakes testing system fails to do.

I return for a closing word to ‘All Our Futures’ a publication that many would have missed due to the government’s concerns over its findings and recommendations.

The understandable tendency among pupils, parents and teachers is to respond to what the assessment system values most: and for education as a whole to fulfil MacNamara’s Fallacy: ‘the tendency to make the measurable important rather than the important measurable’ (Roundtree 1977)

A fresh approach to the curriculum and the abolishment of league tables will go some way to closing the abiding poverty gap.