George Osborne was on the radio this morning, talking about his budget – obviously. However, he also claimed that the government’s education reforms are the most important thing the government is doing. This was a fairly startling thing for Mr Osborne to say, especially on the day after his budget, and what he says may well be true. Therefore those of us who care about education need to make it our business to be fully aware of and fully understand what the government is now doing to our education system.
This important report, the Cambridge Primary Review, which we wrote about yesterday, has received many favourable reviews.
“What an inspirational book! I have been a head teacher for twenty years and this is the best book on primary education that I have ever read.” – Bob Garton, Head Teacher, London
” This is the most thorough, research-based analysis of primary schools I have seen in over two decades of reporting on education. It should carry the testimonial ‘This book should change English primary schools forever’.” – Mike Baker, formerly Senior BBC Education Correspondent
“The Cambridge Primary Review is essentially about awe and wonder: it is a formidable achievement.” – Andrew Pollard, British Educational Research Journal
Since the 1970s primary schools have been under intermittent but escalating attack for their supposedly poor standards and suspect ideology.
Governments announced themselves determined to set matters straight on both counts. Primary education was a problem to be fixed, and the fixers were not to be fixers or local authorities, for they had had their chance and blown it, but central government.
Putting right what has gone wrong demands not just a viable cure; it also requires an accurate diagnosis. There is little doubt that the exclusivity of focus on standards of literacy and numeracy frustrated alternative analyses of what was right in English primary education, what was wrong, and what was needed by way of improvement. We hope that this report will redress the balance.
Was it education which has produced a generation of children who were said to be less happy than their peers in other countries? Was it education (or education’s failure) which has produced a society described by one leading politician as ‘broken’, and a world which in economic, geopolitical and ecological terms appeared to be spiralling out of control?
What, if anything, could education do to improve children’s well-being, repair the social fabric and secure a world which was more just and sustainable? What is truly basic to the education of young children growing up in such a world? Are ‘standards’ as measured by the government’s national tests synonymous with educational quality? Have those who repeatedly used such terms ever stopped to think about them?
If such questions were not going to be asked by government, then conscience and civic duty demanded that they be tackled by others willing and able to do so, for ours is a public system of education which belongs to the people and is not the personal fiefdom of ministers and their unelected advisors. Hence, in part, the Cambridge Primary Review.
The Review was prompted not just by this sense of inadequate political perspective, but also by a perception that the political perspective had come to matter more than it should, that England’s state system of primary education, and the surrounding discourse, had become too centralised, too overtly politicised. Alternative ways of thinking and talking about primary education were needed.
[Our Review] makes fair claim to being the most comprehensive review of primary education for 40 years, that is, since the Plowden Committee published their initially celebrated and later much-critisised report of 1967. Like Plowden, the Cambridge Primary Review seeks to combine retrospective evidence with prospective vision. Like Plowden, it seeks to be wide-ranging. Like Plowden, it hopes to make a difference.
Whatever our hopes and intentions, we would not be so foolhardy as to predict anything about its impact, for the fate of all such documents seems to depend less on what they say than on the moment and manner of their immediate release and reception.
We hope that the report will engage not only politicians and officials, but also parents, teachers community leaders, teacher trainers, researchers, members of the public and all who have an interest in the needs and capabilities of children and the quality of their education. Primary education belongs to all of them.
For this is our bottom line. The education of young children matters immeasurably. It matters to all children, but especially to those who lack the massively compensating advantages of financial wealth, emotional harmony and a home life which is linguistically, intellectually, culturally and spiritually rich.
Such richness is of course not synonymous with financial wealth, and living in an era obsessed with celebrity and driven by material greed, we know that neither form of wealth guarantees the other.
Internationally, basic education is regarded as a human right. In Britain that right can surely produce primary schooling of a consistently high quality. Provided, that is, we know wherein educational quality resides and understand how it can be assessed and achieved. That is what we want this report to help people to reconsider and redefine. To couch the debate about quality in terms of test scores alone is to exclude much that education should be about.
Let us unite in the pursuit of fundamental principles such as those which are discussed in this report: equity and empathy, entitlement, engagement and empowerment, expertise and excellence – an alliterative advance on that tired mantra ‘education, education, education’.