A New Summing UpSeptember 16, 2012
Every so often I like to try and sum up my overall thoughts on the education system, so as to help sum up the message, and future direction, of this blog.
The central contention of this blog is that our state school system is simply not good enough. It does not provide a decent quality of education for the vast majority, and most would avoid it if they could afford to. Too many people with power over education are content to provide a service that they would not think good enough for their own children.
There are three key issues. The first is the dumbing-down of the curriculum and teaching methods. The second is the Behaviour Crisis. The third is bureaucratic and incompetent management. I will deal with each in turn.
The most widely publicised form of dumbing-down is grade inflation. Exams have become significantly easier over time. It has resulted from so many different types of change (content, grade thresholds, predictability of questions, modularisation, early entry, choices in what content can be followed) over so many years that the only way to really see it is to actually sit down and look at old papers and mark schemes. This has meant that while virtually every experienced teacher knows exams have got significantly easier, and multiple studies for individual subjects have catalogued it, those who wish to deny it need only declare that when they look at the exam papers they, personally, don’t see it. However, it is now acknowledged by the exams regulator Ofqual and by both government and opposition front benches. The second most widely publicised form of dumbing-down was the shift in the last ten years towards “equivalent” qualifications. Worthless “vocational” (i.e. non-academic) qualifications, mainly assessed by coursework (i.e. done by cutting and pasting from the internet or with help from teachers) were given inflated values, sometimes equivalent to 4 GCSEs. This encouraged schools to opt out of proper subjects and then claim credit for improving results. Progress has been made on these two issues, with the introduction of the Ebacc; the revaluation of vocational qualifications, and an apparent effort on the part of Ofqual to confront the problem.
However, to a large degree these problems are only the symptom not the cause. The bigger problem is an anti-academic ethos in schools that allowed these things to happen. Since the turn of the twentieth century there has been a “progressive” movement in education which has sought to minimise the direct teaching of knowledge. The grounds for doing so vary dramatically. Sometimes progressives seeks to suggest that the aim of education is something other than intellectual improvement, and puts forward socialisation, therapy, enjoyment/happiness, or social and political change as alternative aims. At other times they seek to deny that intellectual improvement is mainly about knowledge, and suggests the teaching of skills, attitudes or vague attributes such as “creativity”. Or they may make claims about pedagogy, such as claiming that children learn best from being manipulated or entertained, or by being left to work things out for themselves, which seek to minimise the need for teaching. Regardless of the precise argument used (and there are many, many arguments) the end result is a classroom where instruction is replaced by activities (usually in groups) and effort on the part of students is minimised. This has been dominant in UK states schools since the sixties and, despite various attempts by public and politicians to undo the damage, (often, unfortunately, based on centralisation or the idea that examination system can be used as a tool for change) it still remains the orthodoxy in schools to the point where it is considered controversial, contrarian or provocative to actually challenge the basic doctrines of progressive education. Every mechanism that government has attempted to use to challenge the hold of progressive education – for instance: the National Curriculum, National Curriculum tests, OFSTED, the National Strategies – has invariably been captured either immediately or over time by the progressives and used to strengthen their hold on the system. Every attempt to reduce the power of particular groups identified as being behind progressive education (e.g. unions, Local Authorities, teacher training institutions) has had no effect at all as they continue to exercise influence from elsewhere (quangos, private consultancies, SMT).
2) The Behaviour Crisis.
If children are going to learn then it is absolutely vital that they do what they are told in lessons. If schools are going to be safe and orderly then it is essential that they also do what they are told outside of lessons. If teachers are going to be effective then they cannot be constantly faced with the stress of confrontation, defiance and chaos. The minimum standard required for effective teaching is that all teachers (not just SMT or teachers who have been around for years) can expect students to comply with all of their instructions first time. The minimum standard for teaching to be a desirable profession is that teachers have freedom from fear when it comes to giving instructions and enforcing rules. Too many schools simply do not have those standards, and as a result teaching is very often stressful and unpleasant.
At the heart of the problem is, again, the progressive education ideology. If education is not about instruction in knowledge then teachers are not there to be listened to or to be authorities. If the education experience is to be characterised by entertainment, inspiration and pleasure, with no need for hard work, then students will never want to thwart it. If students learn best when left to their own devices, then they will not need to be told what to do and the more freedom from external constraint they have the more they will learn. The progressive rejection of a tradition of knowledge to be passed on can be turned into an implicit moral judgement: traditional teaching is inherently immoral and children, if uncorrupted by it, are inherently good.
This implicit belief in the saintliness of children lies at the heart of many contemporary developments in education. Any apparent wrongdoing by children must have a cause other than the moral failings of the child. Their teachers must have provoked it and should be blamed for it and never supported. They must have a condition of some kind that made them do it (this assumption underlies much of the SEN system). They must be reacting to a harsh and unkind life, and, therefore, need to be treated with affection and compassion which will change them, rather than punishment that will make life worse. Even the worst behaved children should not be excluded. All punishment is inherently suspect. Additionally, as children are basically good, their wants must actually reflect underlying needs, not selfish desires. They should get what they want. They should be consulted on matters related to the running of the school. Adult authority is not to be supported.
As with dumbing-down there are grounds for optimism. There has been a significant shift within the education system. It is now much more common to hear people recommend zero-tolerance discipline policies (i.e. actually punishing kids when they do something wrong) and there are celebrated success stories where such an approach has been taken, of which Mossbourne Academy is the most famous. A few years ago it was a given that schools were meant to comply with a principle of “inclusion” which meant keeping the worst kids in mainstream schools and mainstream classrooms within their schools no matter what they did. There are also signs that teachers are more willing to take industrial action where discipline isn’t enforced properly. However, progress is slow and many schools are as bad as ever. While “inclusion” is no longer the buzz-word it was, the new buzz-word is “engagement” and the argument is frequently made that behaviour is best managed by “engaging” students, an argument which ignores the need to have high expectations at all times, and replaces it with pressure on teachers to entertain or appease.
3) Management Failure.
Schools are bureaucracies. By that I mean they are systems which engage in pointless and unnecessary activity rather than concentrating on their core purpose. Again, the ideology of progressive education plays a role. Once schools lose sight of the fact that they are there to educate then other types of activity will multiply and additional infrastructure will be created to manage them. Some of the progressive education ideas, like replacing exams with coursework or teacher assessment do create more paperwork, as does widening the scope of assessment to include more than academic achievement.
However, this time there are at least another two significant causes. As concern about standards has (understandably) increased, politicians have been all too keen assume that what is missing is accountability. A culture has been created where paperwork is created entirely to please those who will scrutinise you. For teachers, this means their managers now have power to demand all sorts of extra written work (lesson plans, marking, assessment records) beyond what is necessary to look for actual neglect or incompetence. For schools, it means managers are preoccupied with producing policies, assessments, and “evidence” for OFSTED. What was meant to ensure that people were doing their job has actually ensured that they aren’t because they are too busy creating a paper trail. Further pressures from outside have turned exam entries from a routine piece of paperwork to a prolonged exercise in strategy, deciding exactly which type of exam from which exam board will do most to boost results.
The other cause is the structure of management. Management teams have grown to ridiculous sizes. SMT have been encouraged to be “leaders” rather than managers, which seems to mean identifying trendy initiatives (often based on forcing teachers to adopt progressive education methods) while actual management of both staff and students has been increasingly delegated downwards. Groups of teachers who would once have been teams, are now divided into managers and managed. If you are a classroom teacher, a head of department is no longer a more experienced colleague who will give you support when you ask; they are a boss checking up on you, telling you how to teach and chasing you for paperwork. The more minor positions in the school, which once were about getting paperwork (like exam entries or schemes of work) out of the way are now about creating more paperwork and pressure for staff to do. Workload, always an issue, has now become an insurmountable obstacle leaving many teachers concerned only with faking compliance with the pressures from above so as to cope at work, rather than putting their time and effort into their classes.
Keeping up appearances and finding someone to blame when you can’t, is now a far higher priority than effective teaching or successful learning. With so many rungs on the management ladder, and so much pointless activity, there is no accountability for managers who will change responsibilities long before their performance can be judged. We now have an enormous “management class” who are overwhelmingly unable to manage and often barely able to teach. Often it is truly shocking how bad at teaching managers are, not to mention how intellectually limited and prone to bullying some of them are. Even though managers are not promoted for being good teachers, they are still, nevertheless, given responsibility for telling other people how to teach. Ideas about management have also got more and more confused, with an increasing focus on leadership (i.e. vision and setting direction), something which, while desirable in a leader, is useless when nobody is actually managing the effective day-to-day running of the school.
Unlike dumbing-down and the behaviour crisis, there is no reason for optimism about management failure. The government seems convinced that it is classroom teachers, not managers, who are to blame for falling standards and low aspirations and seems determined to increase the power of managers while worsening conditions for those on the frontline.