I haven’t been blogging lately. This has been partly down to workload, and partly down to political despair as the Tories return to the status quo of the nineties, and Labour to the eighties, it seems likely all progress in education policy has stopped. As a result I missed the 10th anniversary of my blog a few weeks ago. So, I thought I’d write my belated anniversary post now, reflecting on how things have changed in ten years.
When I started blogging the biggest ideological faultline in education was over inclusion. This policy consisted of two, equally appalling aspects. Firstly, there was a deliberate policy decision to run down special schools and force vulnerable students into mainstream schools, regardless of their best interests and what their parents wanted. Secondly, badly behaved students were to be “included” in the classroom at all costs, with schools doing everything to avoid permanent exclusions and teachers being blamed for what their students did.
Even as I started blogging the tide was turning. Inclusion was abandoned and from 2007 onwards the number of places in special schools increased and while the rules over exclusions tend to change frequently, I have never seen anything like the ludicrous pressure to avoid excluding the badly behaved that existed in the early years of my teaching career. That said, there are still headteachers out there exhibiting “inclusion machismo” where they boast of not having excluded students as if that, in itself, was something to be proud of and not likely to be a result of a willingness to tolerate disruption and bullying in their school.
The other big issue that was just emerging then, was the shift towards progressive education that was taking place. When I started teaching it was a given that progressive education would dominate teacher training, but Chris Woodhead’s OFSTED was far more traditional, as were most secondary schools, and at least some parts of the curriculum. The national strategies had, in the early years of New Labour, pushed whole class teaching, particularly in maths. However, after David Blunkett finished as education minister in 2001 the progressive fightback had taken hold. Group work and other fads replaced whole class teaching in the national strategies. A new national curriculum with mainly non-academic aims was introduced, influenced by the curriculum in Scotland. OFSTED was reformed so that its main purpose seemed to be to ensure that schools were enforcing progressive methods. Management structures were overturned so that over 40% of teachers became line managers, with enforcement of teaching methods an explicit part of their job. The GTCE struck off teachers who revealed that schools had descended into anarchy. The word “education” was dropped from the name of the government department in charge of schools. There was a serious attempt to merge education institutions into social services, with the “Every Child Matters” framework being applied to both and councils being pushed to merge their education and children’s services arms into one single bureaucracy. Schools were sent masses of paperwork from government promoting fads, like learning styles. The schools themselves became desperate to predict the next fad, with nonsense like Building Learning Power being implemented with the promise that it would be the next thing OFSTED wanted. Also, serious efforts were being made to replace GCSEs with vocational qualifications that consisted mainly of cut and pasted coursework and KS2 SATs with “Assessing Pupil Progress” a system of teacher assessment with thousands of tick boxes.
Teachers often resisted and attempted to maintain academic standards in their classrooms but they were largely excluded from the debate. Only in anonymous forums, like those on the TES website, could they declare their true opinions, where they would be routinely dismissed as “unrepresentative” of the profession. In my early years of blogging it really seemed hopeless. Just expressing my views seemed like an act of rebellion, and I would be routinely told I was unfit to teach because I actually wanted to teach kids knowledge.
Things changed after 2010. Partly, this was political, Michael Gove set about abolishing or weakening the various arms of the progressive establishment. However, social media also changed things. Although initially dominated by progressives, education Twitter moved from being the playground of consultants and ambitious senior managers, to somewhere that you could find ordinary teachers expressing their opinions. Suddenly the old debates were back, and they were being listened to in government. In the last six years on social media, we have seen a situation where progressive ideology has gone from being something that is simply assumed to be true and supported by research, to something so constantly under challenge that even its strongest supporters will deny actually supporting. Progressives now are more likely to say they are simply “asking questions” or fighting against the power of traditionalists (often caricatured as authoritarians or neo-liberals) or arguing for teacher autonomy. They are ashamed to admit to being a partisan in the 100 year old debate between progressivism and traditionalism in teaching.
I’m optimistic about continuing change. Progressive teachers exposed to the arguments of traditionalists on social media are still converting to traditionalism. Some change their minds almost immediately once they realise there is a debate to be had. Some take years, but eventually they realise where the best arguments point. Also, there are now schools proudly proclaiming a traditionalist ethos and calling out to traditional teachers to join them, something that could never have happened 10 years ago. This has not yet filtered down into every school, perhaps not even most schools. It has certainly not reached every part of the education system (there are large numbers of progressives still in positions of great power, actively trying to turn the clock back). This has been made worse by government losing the plot, wasting time with character education, the College Of Teaching and, now, grammar schools. But, for all their power, the terms of the debate have now changed and are continuing to change.