Free education from political meddling and hand control to teachers
5th January 2013
Last week I was chatting to my dad. He’s a retired head teacher who taught for 50 years (starting in 1957), I’m a teacher who started 17 years ago. We were, as teachers do, putting the world to rights. The conversation included Gove (of course), Ofsted (how annoying Wilshaw is), the exam mess, funding, unions, SATS, and so on, the usual topics. This is, on the whole, the same conversation we have been having for nearly 20 years. Swap Gove for Baker, Wilshaw for Woodhead. But this time the conversation ended differently. Usually we have a whinge, discuss how things could be done differently and agree we would do a better job given half a chance. We like to complain (what teacher does not) but we always ended our conversations agreeing things are, on balance, better than they were in the past.
Essentially we are both educational optimists and although we complain about the specifics we have always believed things are generally improving. Although the people who run the education system are politicians who know nothing about education (with a few notable exceptions), they are mostly motivated by a desire to improve the life chances of all children (I told you we are optimists) and are striving, in their wrong-headed politician’s way, to make the system run as well as it can.
Ed Balls was a good example of this kind of minister, motivated by all the right reasons to do all the wrong things, not because he’s out to wreck the system but because he’s an economist and does not know anything about teaching. Wilshaw is another example, but from a different category (like Woodhead). Someone who used to know a lot about education but since becoming a politician has forgotten what he once knew. He does, I believe, sincerely want to see the system improve and would like to see all schools become shining beacons of educational efficiency, but he’s destroying teacher morale by some of his less thought out utterances and making it less likely for things to improve. He should learn the maxim, ‘efficient with things, effective with people’. Annoying, though he is, Wilshaw is not a danger to the central principle of education that all children are entitled to meaningful educational experiences that will prepare them for their future lives.
Gove, on the other hand, is genuinely dangerous. He’s driven by an entirely different ideological motivation and appears to have a deep contempt for the idea that all children should be given equal opportunity to thrive and achieve. Through his actions since coming into office, Gove seems hell bent on smashing the educational consensus and dismantling 68 years of educational progress. In the emerging Govite system, students at school today and those in the future will have their education geared to the perceived needs of the economy. Their educational experiences, both at primary and secondary, will be narrowed to a small set of academic skills and knowledge that can be measured, logged and analysed using data-tracking software. There is not enough room for all to succeed, so some will have to fail. Its called rigour.
Rigour is the new unquestioned mantra of modern politicians in education. We can hear it from both sides. Another is ‘driving up standards’ (an odious metaphor) and ‘making teachers accountable’. All, it is assumed, with the purpose of improving outcomes for children and narrowing the gap between rich and poor. This is the consensus view. But Gove has a different agenda. He’s not interested in fixing or improving education for everyone. In his eyes the system doesn’t work, never worked and is not worth fixing. It seems, his drive is to create a narrow elitist educational system that benefits industry and privileges the economic and political elite. He has no intention, whatsoever, of increasing social mobility. His aims, in fact, are to widen the gap, reinforce the barriers, and turn education into a business. If you want to see what education will be like in this country once he’s finished take a look at the worst excesses of the American model.
My point is Gove is not like the other education ministers we have had in the past – inept, ill informed and interfering, but fundamentally well-meaning – he’s a wrecker, he does not want to improve our education system, he wants to destroy it.
You might be thinking at this point “hang on, that’s a bit harsh” but remember, I’m an optimist. In fact, when it comes to education, I’m a rose-tinted, wide-eyed, Pollyanna. I love teaching; it’s my favourite thing. But for the first time in my career I’m thinking of stopping, I’m planning an exit strategy, getting out before the machine eats me up, and I’m not the only one. According to some reports over half the profession are looking for other career paths. My hunch is this is the tip of the iceberg and we’re beginning to see the end of teaching as a profession and the entire privatisation of the education system.
It’s a depressing thought, particularly as I have two children at high school and one at primary. So this time, when my dad and I ended our regular catch-up and grumble, we did not finish feeling better for it. On the contrary we ended feeling much worse and more depressed about the future than we have ever been.
Which might be the end of this article – another in a long line of depressingly familiar blogs acknowledging things have grown so bad the only way is out – except recently I’ve been reading the comments sections at the end of these blogs and have noticed a theme developing. Among the usual trolls and troglodytes there have been a growing number of contributors – teachers, parents, academics, students and even Ofsted inspectors – who have been saying enough is enough, we’re not powerless in this process. We have to make a stand and create an opposition to the wrecking of our education system built on universal opportunity. Not through the unions, whose business is to protect worker rights; or through the Labour Party, who made a mess of it when they had the chance, but through a grass-roots movement of ordinary teachers, parents, students and others who want to protect our education system (with all its flaws) and demand an end to this process of ideologically driven destruction.
If you feel the same way then click here, sign the petition and join the opposition to political interference in education and the establishment of an independent professional teaching body to oversee the protection of universal educational opportunity and the long term development of a world class education system for the 21st century.
17 October 2012 2:03PM
Totally agree with the need for a grass roots movement to create change through positive action by teachers and not unions etc (that’s what Reclaim Education aims to do). Not sure about petitions as theyare in effect asking for change to be given to us. We must also be more self critical as individuals and as a profession.
Share Trim Tab Jim
17 October 2012 2:39PM
Response to ReclaimEducation, 17 October 2012 2:03PM
It’s a good point – petitions are just one way of making a point, and not a very effective one at that. However in this case we kind of are in a position where we have to ask change to be given to us, are we not? What are the alternatives? Demand it perhaps? I think we just have to patiently explain and re-explain the situation in such a way that they will one day, soon, politicians will come to realise that they are the problem. Maybe it’s my youthful (ah-herm) naivety but I kind of think they might not actually be, like, evil…? I know, it is a bit out there…
17 October 2012 4:02PM
I would have thought that existing professional bodies for teachers have had more than enough time to discuss about and then decide upon an all-out indefinite strike against things like meddling from Westminster, the obligation to teach lies ( about history) and myths ( called religion), the dumbing down of pupils´ intelligence, the obliteration of their imagination, the irrevelance within subjects and the omission of vital personal and social subject matter, the intolerable discrimination in favour of the academically-minded minority, force-feeding to pass exams…..and so on. That teachers have only struck about their conditions of work does not leave me optimistic that they would do a good job if they were independent of Westminster.
For those who are thinking of getting out, I may be able to help you get a good teaching job.
For several years now I have been teaching English as a Second Language to adults in Barcelona who have been “excluded” by the poor quality coursebooks churned out by Oxbridge, which chronically fail to address the crucial barriers of spelling and prounciation and the logical links between them (these links forming the basis of the successful method I use).
With the approach I have devised, millions more of all ages from around the world, (including the natives badly taught in Engand – where functional adult illiteracy is far higher than in many other advanced countries) could access English and attain a good level. I have repeatedly mentioned this on CiF, as I refuse to personally exploit this knowledge I have discovered, with hardly any favourable response ( and some censorship from CiF moderators to boot) – perhaps because I am possibly the only teacher who does not behold Oxbridge in awe?
My students know WHY the word TEAR can be pronounced in two ways, and with just a handful of letters they can demonstrate up to 4 different sounds for the letter A. My students learn to build words before they have to tackle building sentences. Oxbridge cannot be bothered with such basics, not even for those who have never studied English. They seem to be only interested in – apart from making money – those who have a natural flair for English.
These “failures” are very happy to have discovered the lively informal classes I run.
17 October 2012 6:54PM
And which professionals would be in charge? The National Association for the Teaching of English? The NUT? You’d just end up with another lot of politicians, for the good reason that the big issues underlying education are political.
Share Trim Tab Jim
17 October 2012 8:16PM
Response to Quaestor, 17 October 2012 6:54PM
Hello again! I’m really interested to get to the bottom of your objections. I agree it is difficult to envisage exactly how an alternative would look – building consensus around this is the initial aim of the Free Education movement, so this is precisely the conversation we need to be having. But it seems to me that to take a stance rejecting the possibility of change rests on an assumption that the status quo is the best possible model, and I think you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who thinks that. So I’d be interested to know how far this goes.
Taking a step back for a moment, it seems to me that a balance needs to be stuck between the political and the professional. We are suggesting that currently, the balance of power is too far in favour of the political, and this imbalance does a disservice to both the profession and to the children in our care. Would you accept that much, at least?
17 October 2012 10:37PM
Perhaps we need to get rid of both politicians and educators; what kids could do with is facilitators.
Share Trim Tab Jim
18 October 2012 12:03AM
Response to daylas, 17 October 2012 10:37PM
I don’t think education and facilitation are mutually exclusive. I totally agree that we should stop trying to teach or ‘transmit’ a certified body of knowledge though.
‘To pass on the best of what is thought and said’ – it sound good until you think about it, and say it. Then the facilitator part of your brain kicks in and says ‘do we agree?’, at which point some dim and dusty little corner of your frontal lobe sparks and crackles into action, and says ‘hang on a minute… smart phones exist. Google exists. Wikifuckingpedia exists. This is NONSENSE! I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE!
Something like that anyway =]
20 October 2012 9:19AM
As I understand it, in the UK it is illegal to strike about anything except pay and conditions, so this is why Unions don’t and can’t call strikes about the issues cited here. It is absolutely not because their leaders and members don’t care about education and children in general. Indeed the unions support and share innovative ideas in education. I don’t believe that setting up new alternative organisations is going to achieve more than working through the existing ones. Why waste time and energy reinventing the wheel?
20 October 2012 2:20PM
Trouble is, for most of us, the Govt is our paymaster, so we’re accountable to the taxpayer. It would be good to have an independent professional body, independent of the unions, whose views are respected and taken account of by Govt. A teaching equivalent of the Royal Society of Chemistry, which is a powerful lobby.
I also hate the phrase ‘driving up standards’. All it means is ‘driving up test scores’, something which has forced teachers – overwhelmngly against their will/ better instincts!!! – to ‘teach to the test.
21 October 2012 9:10AM
We had the General Teaching Council, for which we all paid from our own pockets, or wages! I wasn’t sorry to see it go. Who would pay for a new organisation?
21 October 2012 11:29AM
We should adjust our network of connections and make it truly global. Each person must recognize the nature of the world we live in, and understand that in the 21st century, one’s personal life depends on one’s attitude toward others. Therefore, we should educate people to become sensitive toward others, caring, and responsible in their approach to the world, no matter how naive it may sound but we have to try.
Numerous studies and books have already determined that the paramount element in the molding of a young person’s personality is the surrounding environment. Therefore, to truly “educate” a person means to place him or her in the right environment, one that affects positive results and the right values. To bring up a generation that will annihilate the crises the world is currently experiencing, we must create a different social environment for our children.
We should show children— using various teaching aids—that relationships based on mutual consideration, tolerance, and understanding facilitate harmony and the persistence of life
23 October 2012 9:46PM
As a ‘first-timer’ on teachernetwork, I enter the discussion with a certain reticence, fearful that my views, so different from those expressed by previous contributors may be too contentious.
At the outset, let me express my general agreement with much that has been written about the political environment as it relates to education. There is excessive and inappropriate political influence in education. This is the legacy history has bestowed upon our society. Personally, I am thankful for that historical legacy, conferring, as it has, access for all children and young people to free and universal education. There is much we should look back on with a deep sense of national pride in being the first nation to set out to systematically demolish the insidious barriers of power and privilege to introduce the notion of equality of opportunity for all. The problem, not yet clearly identified in these columns, is that it is time to stop looking back.
The challenges we face in future are staggering. The strategies and policies we applied to get to this stage in our development will no longer work. What were they, and what might replace them in our quest to embrace the future with optimism and hope, for it is the future that is at stake?
Without the initiative and drive of bygone politicians it is difficult to see where the commitment to educate the masses might have come from. But that was then. There is now a consensus that education can drive social change and add value to the lives of citizens. Yet, the political ‘game’ as played out in education has changed only little. The pendulum of public opinion (or indifference) swings to confer upon political parties the chance to govern. Whether this is a satisfactory mechanism in which democracy may develop is another area for debate. What is not in any doubt in my mind is that the education of our nation no longer flourishes in such a ‘swinging-door’ environment. Widely shared longer-term values to determine policy and direct funding are prerequisites if we are to build on our historical legacy. It is not a question of whether we build a new engine to drive this change, but when.
There is a second strand to my argument. It, too has its roots in history. It seems to me that most contributors have focused their remarks mainly on the consequences of the problems and issues discussed on the secondary sector of education. It is here that the headline-grabbing potential lies, feeding the debate between our political masters. I would seek to place the foundation and primary stages of education at the centre of our drive to really educate our society.
Clearly, I am advocating change on a scale never before attempted. The good news is that most of it would grow out of current ‘good practice’ in teaching and leadership, drawing on the latest tested strategies and programmes for delivering the first twenty first century education system.
24 October 2012 10:34AM
“As a ‘first-timer’ on teachernetwork, I enter the discussion with a certain reticence, fearful that my views, so different from those expressed by previous contributors may be too contentious.”
Welcome! I think its good to be argumentative.
‘Personally, I am thankful for that historical legacy, conferring, as it has, access for all children and young people to free and universal education.”
“The problem, not yet clearly identified in these columns, is that it is time to stop looking back.”
Again, absolutely right.
“…education of our nation no longer flourishes in such a ‘swinging-door’ environment. Widely shared longer-term values to determine policy and direct funding are prerequisites if we are to build on our historical legacy. It is not a question of whether we build a new engine to drive this change, but when.”
I Couldn’t agree more.
“I would seek to place the foundation and primary stages of education at the centre of our drive to really educate our society.”
“Clearly, I am advocating change on a scale never before attempted. The good news is that most of it would grow out of current ‘good practice’ in teaching and leadership, drawing on the latest tested strategies and programmes for delivering the first twenty first century education system.”
In a nutshell:
1. Well-meaning politicians of the past created universal education
2. The educational approaches of the past (curriculum and pedagogy) are not suitable for the challenges of the future.
3. The educational system is victim to political ambition and machinations
4. To create a truly effective educational system to prepare todays students for tomorrow we need to build on existing good practice and begin a national debate free of political ideology.
I hope this fairly represents your views. If so, it coincides perfectly with my own.