Friday, November 11, 2011

In Need of Education, a Review Essay: Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching – From political visions to classroom reality – John Bangs, John MacBeath & Maurice Galton (Routledge 2011)

International comparison of school systems cover multiple hidden assumptions, differences that should caution against the drawing of hasty conclusions. The English system, which is the subject of Reinventing Schools, however, gives rise to questions about politics & the quality of “education debate” here: why is it that the governance of the English school system jumps to so readily to structural reform & why does that reform show so little positive improvement for society as a whole & for the majority of pupils? What is it about the education debate in England that encourages education ministers to rush in, where their equivalents in Scotland (& much of the rest of Europe) tread more warily? How did, “Education, education, education”, become “School, school, school”, without anyone appearing to notice the substitution?

Culture, using the word in its widest sense, is the second skin of civilisation. The first, fundamental, is the web of relationships that sustain the bases for survival: adequate hydration, food, sex & nurture. Hand-in-hand with language, culture grows with these: matters of fact become matters of significance. It is culture that educates the human animal to grow towards a fuller humanity. Only when a group is under the severest stress do rules, rites, rituals & myths begin to degenerate, though waxing & waning of social norms in normal to the rebalancing of vibrant cultures. Much as organic structures elaborate over time, so too do cultural forms, though the latter’s cycles tend to be more rapid & variety more speculative[1]. Education has a particular role in the process by which the skin of culture extends itself, adapts & is adapted by each new generation. Schooling institutes education, but frequently fails to educate unless it can embody a symbiotic elaboration of what families & familial relationships begin & can support, engaging young people in a socialising dialogue with the cultural frameworks that surround & uphold their development.
Reinventing Schools illustrates with much force the way in which the nature of contemporary political argument has tended to distort & disrupt the dialogue between citizens which is the soul of culture. The spectacle of a generation that has, notionally, been subject to more “education”, including in civic institutions, “social, moral, cultural & spiritual education”, than any before, rioting for the joy of destructive acquisition on the streets of our major cities gives this a keenly ironic significance. Political reform of education tends to lack context, producing a wailing feedback loop within the institutions needed to sustain cultural life. As Enoch Powell, had he been less self-obsessed, might have said, “All politics ends in failure”! The politicising of education has clearly failed the test of social quality, even while claiming to have improved “results”.     

Reinventing Schools is certainly a good read, a combination of detailed research & genuine insight into the way politics is done: a book of seriously evidenced “gossip”. There are reports of thirty-seven interviews with some of the key figures in the educational debate of the last three decades or so. These varied accounts make compelling reading. Away of the political war-front & given the opportunity to reflect on the results of policy, contributors speak candidly, sometimes with regret, occasionally in self-justification, rarely to boast of success. Intercutting sections of interview with statements made at the time, with keenly chosen research & international & historical comparisons gives the book the momentum of a thriller, but not so much a “whodunit” as “howd’eydundit”. What the book does not quite manage is to focus its evidence on the deeper questions. If there is a criticism to be levelled at this book, it would be that its tone tends to be acquiescent to the prevailing orthodoxies of the political debate.     

Anyone disposed to accept reassuring claims that education policy is based on evidence, should find him/herself bewildered by the picture that appears here. With a few honourable exceptions, education ministers & many of their advisers are seen puffed about under the influence (acknowledged or unacknowledged) of parliamentary expediency, “headline” issues, vocal constituency members, school memories (achievements & failures) & popular assumptions. Gillian Shepherd, who with Estelle Morris, is one of the ministers to emerge most sympathetically from these pages, has one of the most tellingly humorous lines, ruefully describing Kenneth Clarke’s negative view of local government & adding, “I used to say that he had perhaps been bitten by an Alderman when he was in his pram”. Shepherd & Morris are distinguished from the rest in their care for the realities of teaching & deep engagement with the actualities of education. The policies of the last two score years & more seem mainly determined by a fear of being seen to do nothing, by endless agenda that lacked any serious rationale.

What becomes clear through these pages is that the structure of political life - the parliamentary term, the ability of governments with secure majorities to push through their “reform programme”, the failure or avoidance of proper evaluation of those reforms, the continual temptation to restructure the way education is provided rather than address the more difficult question of teacher education & professional development – tended to incoherent, piece-meal, initiatives, good ideas not followed through & bad ones forced into life like Frankenstein’s creation. Below the party political surface were many advisers with genuine knowledge & commitment, but their contributions seem all too often to have been pushed to the margins (as in the sad the story of Prof Tim Brighouse & the Education “Task Force” at the beginning of the “New Labour” administration). Meanwhile, the Department itself seems to have become increasingly a reserve in which the “brightest & best” beaver in policy teams, with little idea of life in the average classroom, & unhindered by institutional memory. Given politicians’ traditional distrust of educational research the Molotov cocktails of continuous revolution were well primed.   

Like Mao’s “cultural revolution”, the period in question seems characterised by a hacking down or undermining of institutions that had provided for educational thinking anchored in the practical world, replaced by a cadre of young & brilliant apparatchiks heading up an array of “Units”: plenty of “know how” but little “know why”. While the General Teaching Council in England was created to support & regulate teachers as professionals, in spite of the best efforts of Lord Putman, who became its first Chair & brought to it a strong commitment to the cause of teaching & ability to work with the Media, it could not rescue it from an over-blown remit, vague funding arrangements & morale-sapping press statements such as Alistair Campbell’s: “Today marks the end of the bog-standard comprehensive”. Not surprising then to find the current government intent on winding up the GTCE. Yet, as Estelle Morris, recognised, the professional development of teachers, supported by education specialists, is understood (& international research confirms the point) to be the most effective route to improving educational standards. The Best Practice Research Scholarships & Early Professional Development Morris was able to champion were soon discarded in favour of more top down approaches &, greater emphasis (e.g. through the introduction of the National College for School Leadership) on headship as a catch-all answer to quality assurance. During the same period, of course, the Office for Standards in Education, Ofsted, emerged from the bowels of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, as a means to enforce government initiatives.

The full story of Ofsted is still to be told, but its genesis, & consequently the way in which schools are evaluated, is clearly laid out within the pages of this book. Ofsted quickly took on a political direction that the older Inspectorate might not have permitted. Although subsequent Chief Inspectors have done much to ameliorate Ofsted’s role as “enforcer”, success has been at best partial. The die was cast by Ofsted’s first incumbent, who, while doing all he could to claim independence for his personal position, seems to have seen schools & teachers as recalcitrant beasts to be driven by a virtuous & unimpeachable inspectorate. A school inspectorate worth the name should surely be composed of people who have the experience & discernment to characterise the quality of schools visited, but the ability to tell difficult truths depends on trust & an element of collegiality. During a period when inspections became increasingly a matter of assessment by numbers, schools responded, naturally enough by playing a numbers game & teachers by “teaching to the test”, or according to required formula. The crude categories of judgement: “Failing”, “Satisfactory”, “Good” & “Outstanding” may have the appearance of clarity & objectivity, but that is far from the case. The assumptions, the official, if hidden, theories of education that inform these stamps of official approval or disapproval, make them far from apolitical, but they justified the laying down of more managerial layers, a quasi-audit mentality, demanding “data”, in place of discernment. Ofsted, joined politicians in an endless third-rate courtroom drama intent on weeding out “failing teachers” (the wrong‘uns) who prevent children from learning, followed by a lengthy list of villains: ineffective heads, incompetent administrators, feckless parents & feral children. But for these the school system would be working perfectly.

Ultimately education depends on the cultures it serves. Learning of essential skills & capability is concentrated during the school years, but meaning & significance, in fact, all that makes learning these things worthwhile, comes from nurture & the context of culture. Thus, education is co-creative & an imperative for the survival & renewal of society. Learning to write, read & reckon stand alongside a host of interpersonal & intra-personal skills in a continuum of lifelong learning (another temporary government initiative, you might recall). While politicians tend to follow the media scrum over basic skills, business leaders no less than educationalists recognise such things as motivation, ability to work with others, creativity, ability to empathise, & other “soft-skills” (often dismissed as incidental) as fundamental for modern economies & are critical in the context of contemporary citizenship. Schools’ role in passing on & challenging values & assumptions is not in fact divisible from “the basics”. But this also makes it obvious that communities, schools, teachers & students are totally inter-dependent. Of course, there were those who understood these things, but their actions, or the decisions they could not alter, in a highly fragmented, multi-agency, set of procedures, set a course of unintended & often damaging consequences.
Governments, of every sort, prefer to avoid the thought that social policy, differences between rich & poor, access to influence & opportunity, things over which they have greater direct influence than schools could ever have, predicate children’s  entry into education. For decades politicians have tended to turn upon schools for failings in social equity or social wholeness even when they dress their criticism in less utopian terms. Introducing “market forces” & the skills & expertise of the “dynamic private sector” (remember that before the banks crashed?) was always going to be a diversion, & has often proved to be a dangerous one. On the other hand, attempts, such as Extended Schools & Children’s Centres, well-intentioned though they were, can bury schools in superfluous “agendas”, just as Ofsted has suffered from a loss of educational focus by adding Children’s Services to an already wide remit. For Primary schools in particular, extra demands have been made at the same time as insistence on increasing standards narrowly focussed on a few core subjects & skills, hammered into place by Department initiatives & the tests: all this while under-valuing teachers & giving little practical encouragement or recognition to schools as learning environments that depend upon fostering the development & study of learning.

This is not an argument to reprieve schools of their public responsibility, nor does it lessen their duty to ensure that children get the best possible start for lifelong learning. It does not remove the need for (appropriate) accountability, but a tangled knot has wound itself around assessment & high status has been given to relatively crude procedures resulting in a narrowing view of what the education & with it “teaching to the test” (which is what “delivery”) actually implies. Tangles in the assessment knot were there from the beginning of SATs. Ken Boston, when Head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is reported to said that the assessment regime had 22 aims, &, it seems, each of these could be further subdivided. So, we have assessment for: checking additional needs (“no child slipping through the net”), guiding future learning (but that is a daily necessity) , checking effectiveness of teachers, checking school effectiveness (league tables), checking school leadership (results being taken for inspection purposes as a measure of “management & leadership”), “ensuring value for money” & the effectiveness of local authority education departments...Meanwhile, international comparisons suggest that formative assessment (mentoring for learning, advice or further challenge within the classroom environment) is the surest method to improve children’s learning. The waste of opportunity represented by the Tomlinson proposals for reform of the 14-19 curriculum, the manner in which these were undermined through fear before an election that the accusation that these would lead to an undermining of the “gold standard,” A-Level, is a salutary lesson. State-decreed curricular & assessments will always tend to fall victim to the vapid intentions of party politicians worried about votes.   

The heart of the dilemma for education lies in the question: what qualifies anyone to teach? The simple formulaic answer: a certificate conferring Qualified Teacher Status; will not do here. What must lie behind QTS is complex, but essentially comes down to the fact that a teacher has been judged adequate to represent the best values & cultures of their communities. Education alongside a commitment to light fires of enthusiasm for learning is the only proper basis for teaching. Those most embedded in the process of education become educators. “Embedded in the process of education” helps to explain why it is that teachers have tended to remain stubbornly collegial & why, unsurprisingly, efforts to introduce “performance measurement” & “payment by results” have had limited success.
Nonetheless, political distrust of teachers & teaching has been a major theme for several decades. The result has been teaching “strategies” that are safety-first, sometimes patronisingly unchallenging to students & often formulaic. (In one classroom a teacher who had failed to give the class the lesson objective before starting to teach was interrupted by a “good student” pointing out, “Please, you haven’t written the aim of the lesson on board yet”). We should ask, what picture of the profession (& thus of the value of education) do children receive implicitly, if teachers are publically distrusted to the extent that their role becomes, in effect, delivering a State-designed educational prescription? 

Much has been said, & many extravagant claims have been made on the back of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results that place Finland at the top of the world table. But it is not a simple matter that the countries at the top of the table provide better education for their children than others. Nordic institutions are very different from our own. What does seem particularly relevant about the Finnish example, however, is that teaching there is a highly prized & sought-after profession; that those working in comprehensive schools, for children aged 7-16, are required to hold Masters degrees may not of such relevance as what that betokens. Finnish teachers are given much greater autonomy (or “self-efficacy”) than those in England enjoy & their approach to planning & record-keeping is far less pressurised, with greater national emphasis on an integrated curriculum & social-cohesion.      

Michael Gove had much to say about Scandinavian models of education when in opposition. It remains to be seen whether this amounts to more than the usual window-dressing. So far the emphasis seems to be on how schools are described & constituted rather than on what happens within them. One hopes that he reads Reinventing Schools & that he requires his junior ministers, officials & advisers to do the same. Anyone with an interest in education & the future of our children should do the same. Ultimately, if education policy (or any policy for that matter) is as irrational as appears here, if evidence is disregarded (in spite of the industrial collection of “data” that goes on), if ministers listen only to highly interpreted proofs of policy success, isn’t this a failure of “education”? If so, we need a profound social reform, certainly a “bigger” society, one in which individual civic action is not neutralised either by bossy governance or mere complacency justified by half-truthful economic reasoning, otherwise “Physician heal thyself!"

[1] I would suggest Superfluous cultural forms & artefacts are essential for cultural health. Much as culture itself thrives where there is a degree of “surplus” at the level of basic needs, so variation within culture (horizontal diversity) helps to maintain its quality (paradoxically, since “bad culture” is also part of the variations) & diversity between cultures tends to reciprocal invigoration in depth (vertical diversity)   

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