A few weeks ago we mentioned in this blog the forthcoming publication of “Politics and the Primary Teacher” by Dr Peter Cunningham. This book is now on sale, and is strongly recommended as essential reading for everyone in the field of education, and indeed politics. If anyone would care to contribute to a fund to send copies to every Member of Parliament and every Director of Children’s Services then please send 3Di Associates your cheques and spare change.
As Professor Dominic Wyse says in his Series Editor’s preface, “Peter Cunningham’s powerful exploration explains why politics and history are important to teachers and their pupils, and why direct engagement with political processes is more important than ever.”
He goes on to say,
“Peter’s book quite rightly begins with the observation that the work of teachers is often underestimated and misunderstood by outside observers. I have lost count of the times that I have heard people confidently offer their opinions about education when they would be more tentative about the work of doctors, lawyers, and a range of other professionals. In my view this is mainly because so many people are simply unaware of the knowledge that is required to be a good teacher. But when these opinions are held by people in government who take decisions that are uninformed by appropriate evidence it is unforgivable.”
So it is, and so they are.
The great pity is that ever since our colleges and departments of education became ‘politicised’ we have many teachers who themselves are unaware of the pedagogy, knowledge and skills that are required to be a good teacher. Knowing how to teach to the tests and how to teach according to State-approved manuals and national strategies is not the same thing at all.
Professor Wyse’s preface concludes with the following:
“The book was written as a result of Peter’s outstanding lifelong attention to primary education, its history and its politics. I know it will engage readers, but I hope that it might also enrage you a little! Anger is sometimes a powerful motivation to directly confront the dubious aspects of educational policy that successive new politicians implement with scant regard for history. I share Peter’s vision of the best kind of teacher:
“Our aspiration should be for primary teachers as confident professionals able to make their own decisions about curriculum and teaching method, ready to analyse policy in place of unthinking acceptance, involved in union and other collaborative activities to resist mere imposition, initiating or engaging with opportunities for consultation and democratic debate.”
This could easily be a description of the best kind of teachers in Finland – the country that consistently shows itself to be the best in the field of education. It’s a national disgrace that it’s a description that applies far less well to primary teachers in England/Wales, whose best professional practice was once seen as the best in the world, but is no longer.
For those who would like a taster of the book itself, here are a few sample quotations:
On teaching quality:
“As a result of the Newcastle Report, a system of payment by results was introduced in 1862 under the notorious Revised Code. Results . . . determined the level of grant, and therefore the teacher’s salary. An inevitable consequence of this system was ‘teaching to the test’, routinised, mechanical and dull methods of teaching. Payment by results was relaxed in 1895, and with the dawn of a new century the introduction of an official Handbook of Suggestions (1905) . . . a new breed of enlightened and progressive HMI encouraged elementary teachers to take more initiative in responding to the needs of their particular children.
“The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education desire . . . is that each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself such methods of teaching . . . best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school. (Board of Education, 1905)
[How very dfifferent to New Labour’s and Ofsted’s best efforts to ‘drive up standards’ by publishing ‘league tables’ and micro-managing teaching methods in ‘literacy hours’ and ‘numeracy hours’. Such pedagogy was never officially made compulsory, but the many tens of millions of pounds spent on in-service training in ‘3-part lessons’, ‘Grammar For Writing’ and other such nonsense made it very clear what was expected in the way of teaching methods, regardless of children’s aptitudes, interests, learning difficulties and responses to such rigid approaches.]
“This official trend towards more teacher autonomy in pedagogical matters was reinforced in the 1920s when a revised edition of the Handbook of Suggestions in 1927 continued to relax the primary curriculum and laid even more emphasis on teachers working ‘with the grain’ rather than against it, nurturing self-discipline in pupils more than imposing it.”
What is political about curriculum?
Explicit values and purposes are set out on the National Curriculum website:
“Education influences and reflects the values of society, and the kind of society we want to be. It is important, therefore, to recognise a broad set of common values and purposes that underpin the school curriculum and the work of schools.
Foremost is a belief in education, at home and at school, as a route to the spiritual, moral, social, cultural, physical, and mental development, and thus the well-being, of the individual. Education is also a route to equality of opportunity for all, a healthy and just democracy, a productive economy, and sustainable development. Education should reflect the enduring values that contribute to these ends. These include valuing ourselves, our families and other relationships, the wider groups to which we belong, the diversity in our society and the environment in which we live. Education should also reaffirm our commitment to the virtues of truth, justice, honesty, trust and a sense of duty.”
[3Di is keen to hear from anyone with sensible suggestions as to how we might construct league tables for schools in these crucial areas of achievement. Other means of showing accountability will also be welcome. ]
This comprehensive and positive statement is an ideal to be welcomed. Its concern with the society in which we live is inevitably political. Consensus about ‘the kind of society we want to be’ or a ‘broad set of common values’ cannot be assumed, and politics works, as Crick has explained, to negotiate between conflicting ideologies.
The prescribed [National] curriculum has been far more dominant and narrowing in its effect on the life of primary schools than merely an ‘important element’ as officially stated.
Purpose: personal development or vocational preparation?
As early as 1791 Tom Paine identified education as a human right, and this right was echoed 200 years later in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UNCRC as a universal charter should be seen as fundamental to the politics of curriculum . . . A fundamental right elaborated in the convention is one of personal fulfillment. Article 28 enshrines the right to education. The character of that education is developed in Article 29: ‘Education should develop each child’s personality and talents to the full’. This then is the goal of self-fulfillment, a supranational statement of right, regardless of any national government’s drive to provide schooling for employability. The case for personal fulfillment as a pre-eminent curriculum aim can be elaborated in political, psychological and other ways, but is made here in the context of the government’s obligations under this international convention on children’s rights.
The UN Committee last examined the UK Government in 2008 and leveled criticisms in several respects to be noted later (UNCRC 2008).
The intense focus by New Labour on literacy and numeracy strategies, and the pressure on primary schools to drive up standards to meet national targets, led to a serious and widely recognised loss of breadth and balance at Key Stages 1 and 2 (Brehony 2005). Schools were permitted to cut back on subjects such as art, PE and music. Research revealed how these creative subjects were being squeezed, with up to half the school week being spent on English and maths, and even modes of creativity such as ICT enquiry, problem-solving and practical work were suffering. Employers, who had been vocal about the need for improvement in the ‘basic skills’ of school leavers, were now also emphatic about the need to cultivate creativity in preparation for an entrepreneurial world of employment.
On the right, a ‘traditionalist’ or ‘conservative’ view is that a body of knowledge defined in time-honoured subjects should articulate the curriculum. Towards the left or ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum the view is that traditional subjects are arbitrary concepts, that careful integration of subject matter through topics related to children’s lives and to the world around them will encourage them to see meaning and relevance in curriculum knowledge, and to motivate their learning through interest.
Now here’s a fine thought – children learning how to become independent learners, and learning to love learning for its own sake. Or is this being overly idealistic? Or maybe these are luxuries that can be available for some children, and not others?
Please see also previous 3Di Associates blog – “PSHE Education Review” and its comments on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the previous blog to this one commenting on the new Children’s Society report and its mention of the UNCRC.