The Education White PaperDecember 6, 2010
The recent Education White Paper has prompted a new, more realistic education debate. For the first time in quite a few years government is now acknowledging the actual problems of the education system: dumbing-down, the behaviour crisis and prescriptive bureaucracy. The question is: how far does the White Paper confront these problems?
On the first point – dumbing-down – the news is generally good. It is recognised that: “Schools have become skilled at meeting government targets but too often have had their ability to do what they think is right for their pupils constrained by government directives or improvement initiatives.” The curriculum is to be reformed to have a greater focus on subject content. Vocational education is being reviewed by Alison Wolf who is a prominent critic of worthless vocational qualifications. Testing is not to be eliminated, but will be reformed to improve on the current system which seems to test exam preparation more than ability. An “English Baccalaureate” will be introduced to identify actual broad academic achievement in a way our current targets don’t. Schools will still be expected to meet minimum standards.
One of the more controversial measures is a restriction on who will be funded to train as a teacher; it will be expected that teaching trainees should have at least a 2.2. This is always going to be condemned, people love to tell anecdotes about terrible teachers with PhDs and excellent teachers with minimal qualifications and suggest that this is the rule rather than the exception. However, the reality is that highly effective school systems invariably recruit from the most able graduates. If less, rather than more, academically gifted teachers are thriving in our system then it is an indicator of what is wrong with our system not evidence that we can ignore the advantages of excellent subject knowledge.
However, not everything is perfect on the “dumbing-down” front. Teachers teaching outside of their subject are not mentioned, even though this is likely to be far more of a problem than teachers with third class degrees. While it is for the best that the National Curriculum will be redesigned to take up less time, it is not clear what will prevent schools introducing more dumbed-down non-subjects in the extra time. PSHE is to be kept, despite being one of the best examples of wasted curriculum time. A greater emphasis on classroom-based, rather than university-based, training has some advantages but will not raise the academic expectations for teachers. While there is every reason to be sceptical about the usefulness of PGCEs, a sincere opponent of dumbing-down would have increased the academic demands of university training rather than trying to undermine the need for professional knowledge as well as professional skills.
On behaviour, it is gratifying that the problem is being acknowledged. After the denialism of the last 5 years (exemplified by the Steer Report) it is delightful to see official acknowledgement that “teachers consistently tell us that their authority to deal decisively with bad behaviour has been undermined”. Unfortunately, the policy suggestions don’t begin to meet the challenge: minor administrative changes on detentions, searching pupils and exclusions. Worse, there is a suggestion that schools be given responsibility for the education of students they permanently exclude. This policy may result in a return to schools being financially penalised for exclusions and encourage schools to keep disruptive students in the classroom. The whole point of permanent exclusions is for schools to be able to admit “we cannot educate this student”. Any policy that deters schools from acknowledging this when it is the case will only harm discipline.
The White Paper acknowledges another problem: that “too much [money is] consumed by bureaucracy”. “Government [is] ceaselessly directing [teachers] to follow centralised Government initiatives.” The policies intended to achieve this are more of a mixed bag. The problem of poor teaching methods being forced on teachers is recognised:
“The National Curriculum should set out only the essential knowledge and understanding that all children should acquire and leave teachers to decide how to teach this most effectively.”
One example of this is excellent news: it is promised that “We will not be prescriptive about the use of the ‘Assessing Pupil Progress’ materials”. OFSTED is correctly identified as a major cause of bureaucracy in schools:
“The current Ofsted framework inspects schools against 27 headings – many reflecting previous government initiatives. In place of this framework, Ofsted will consult on a new framework with a clear focus on just four things – pupil achievement, the quality of teaching, leadership and management, and the behaviour and safety of pupils.”
Unfortunately, the positives on this issue are offset by the delusion that school management is an unwilling participant in the imposition of teaching methods. Despite the talk of teacher autonomy, this is only autonomy from government not from SMT. Schools managers are, if anything, meant to interfere even more with teaching, with more observations and scrutiny of teachers. There appears to be a belief that transferring responsibilities from central and local government to headteachers is inherently a reduction in bureaucracy rather than a redistribution of bureaucracy. There is no recognition that school management itself has become dominated by bureaucrats and micro-managers and that increasing their power is going to worsen the burdens on teachers, particularly when combined with greater power over pay and conditions in many schools. This approach is the major ideological flaw in the white paper; it is believed that giving bosses autonomy and power is always for the best even in a public service where the bosses are a major problem. This is something which can only be believed by people committed to the view that the business model is the best one for schools.
So overall, I would give the white paper ten out of ten for recognising the problems in our schools, but only five out of ten for identifying effective policies for dealing with them.