Seven Things All Politicians Should Know About EducationMay 5, 2013
I find much of the contribution from politicians to the education debate in this country utterly pointless. So many political types simply do not realise how the system works or what is going on. Here are the key points I want politicians to take on board.
1) Education is an ideological battleground. There are fundamental differences of value in education over the basic aims. There is simply no point in claiming to want to move beyond “tired, old debates” or to replace values with “evidence”. Debate will always come down to ends in a way it doesn’t in, say, medicine. In the words of Chesterton (1910):
Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease.
The debate cannot be avoided. You have to take a position on whether education is about the intellect or whether it is about feelings, opinions or happiness. You have to decide whether a developed intellect is one which can carry out specific intellectual tasks (like reading, writing, adding up or understanding a particular topic) or one characterised by general dispositions or qualities. This debate cannot be skipped on grounds of boredom or pragmatism, it underlies everything. An even worse delusion than thinking you can skip this debate, is to think you need to start a debate about the purpose of education. The debate has already been happening for decades. People already have their deep-seated, unchangeable positions. Just state yours clearly, don’t pretend there is something to be decided on the basis of discussion. Everyone concerned has already decided their position and you simply need to choose who you are planning to back.
2) There are no neutral experts. This is a corollary of the first point. Because there is an ideological battle going on, most expertise is expertise on arguing for a particular ideological position. This is made worse by the shaky boundaries of education as an academic discipline. Talk of taking the politics out of education is like talk of taking religion out of the church. It just replaces honest conviction with better concealed dogmas. Professors of education are about as neutral about policy as priests are neutral about religion (and probably more inclined to rely on faith). By all means refer to those whose arguments you find convincing but never pretend that handing power to “experts” is taking it out of politics or that declaring a position to coincide with the conclusions of an academic amounts to an argument. The same goes for subject associations, local authorities, Ofsted, teaching unions or headteachers. An education expert is not like a doctor, they are more like missionaries. Handing education over to the experts is not a policy; it is a way to conceal which ideology you are planning to promote. Almost every sensible policy is condemned by experts, often by experts who originally claimed they were going to help implement the policy.
3) There are no short-term institutional solutions to ideological problems. No particular structure will solve the issues. It doesn’t matter where you put them – Local Authorities, quangos, universities, academy chains – the same class of educational bureaucrats will be running the system. You might be able to fragment the system so that a minority of schools are under the control of the right people, but this is just cutting the cake in a different direction. There is no structural change that will solve anything. If you want to change the ethos in the system, you are actually going to have to change the composition of the educational workforce and this, at the very least, will take far more time than any one politician has. It’s worth thinking about as a long term aim, but it is unrealistic to imagine there will be change within the lifetime of a political career. Whether it’s market-based fixes or enforced egalitarianism, you will change nothing for the greater mass of the school population by changes in school structures.
4) The disaster of vocational education is not down to a lack of political will. Politicians seem to have a belief that simply by committing themselves to the importance of vocational education in principle then they will be able to create high quality vocational options. However, every politician responsible for a vocational white elephant seemed to share the exact same belief in the importance of vocational education. The problems are more deep-seated than a lack of political will. If a country fails to get large numbers of young people up to a decent level of academic achievement, vocational education will never be more than a dumping ground for the uneducated. All the countries with successful vocational education systems, also have successful academic education systems. That’s the basic issue, not snobbery or a lack of political will. If you can’t solve it then all your investment in vocational education will either create “high quality” vocational qualifications that few will want to do because those capable of doing them will opt for an academic education, or low quality qualifications that, even if employers help design them, no employer will actual value in their own workforce. A declaration of support for vocational education, no matter how sincere, is not, in itself, a policy.
5) Whatever you decide on the curriculum will be sabotaged or subverted by the educational establishment. The usual pattern of an educational reformer is to declare what should happen; appoint people to implement it and then find out that they want to do something completely different. With weak politicians this means the original policy is never implemented. With strong politicians this results in the experts’ condemnation. Few things point to capable political leadership more than the headline “Education minister attacked by former advisor”.
The educational establishment will subvert. They will promise you one kind of curriculum and then deliver another. They will reinterpret words to carry out a policy other than the one they were asked to. If this doesn’t work they will simply wait for a weaker person to be minister and then undo things without being asked. This is why Gove is making primary teachers use phonics 7 years after Ruth Kelly demanded the teaching of phonics, which was 9 years after the 1997 Labour manifesto supported phonics. This is why Ofsted, an organisation set up to enforce traditional teaching methods is now, even under Gove and Wilshaw, are promoting the educational orthodoxy of the late 1960s. Little really changes because the people don’t change.
A key element with regard to this is to avoid “policies” which are actually vague principles to be asserted. Blunkett’s biggest mistake was to use the word “inclusion” to describe policies based around the rights of the disabled, as it quickly became interpreted as being about tolerating bad behaviour. Another unfortunate phrase was Blair’s “personalised learning” which marked the end of effective education policy-making under New Labour. But other terms, even ones like “rigour” are as easily subverted. I recently heard a senior Ofsted inspector explain that talk of “fluency” in the new National Curriculum needed to be interpreted as “conceptual understanding” not any kind of recall of facts. Don’t say anything that can be easily re-interpreted to mean something trendy.
6) What actually happens in the classroom is decided by OFSTED. This is the single biggest problem at the moment. The current government, for the first time since Blunkett, has made all the right noises on the curriculum, pedagogy and discipline. Yet in schools, only the most daring move away from dumbing-down because Ofsted will come in and condemn teacher talk and any attempt by the teacher to “dominate” the classroom rather than encouraging “independence”. And that’s only the stuff they put in writing. The things you hear anecdotally are even more shocking. Schools being condemned because the children are too “compliant”; teachers being criticised because the students were sat in rows; terrible discipline being excused as normal; written work being condemned as boring. They are the enforcement arm of progressive education and as long as they are in place then all teachers will feel the pressure to get kids to be chatting in groups about how they are going to sort the contents of an envelope and avoid direct instruction in knowledge.
7) Discipline will only change if you make it easier to exclude. While the confidence with which people assert that principle that disruptive kids have a right to stay in the classroom does seem to ebb and flow with the political tide, the attitude in schools doesn’t. Exclusion is still seen as a failure of behaviour modification, not a victory for good order. As long as schools are held responsible for the insanity of their intake then there will always be those in management who refuse to acknowledge behaviour problems. Order in classrooms means removing those who try to create disorder; all other methods will only lower standards. There are issues about how schools can exclude, but there should be no doubt that the bottom line of behaviour management is the question of what can be done with kids who will fight against an orderly classroom, and an expectation to work hard, even when most of their peers are complying.
Chesterton, G.K., What’s Wrong With the World?, 1910
Update 9/5/2013: This post can now be found on the Labour Teachers website here.