3Di’s key concern is with individuals and the full development of all of their intelligences, in order that everyone’s potential is fully developed.
In order for this to happen, however, we also have to concern ourselves with the system in which learning and teaching takes place. What’s more, we need to look around ourselves – not just within national boundaries but also internationally to see what lessons can be learnt about functional and disfunctional educational systems. Regular readers of 3D Eye will be aware of our efforts to investigate and publicise what we see as good practice and successful systems from Finland to Hong Kong; from Singapore to Denmark.
There’s no need to go over old territory with the arguments in favour of pupil-centred and progressive approaches to human development and education. Our intention today is to highlight the political dimension and some systemic issues, and we’d like to do that with reference to an article published in the Guardian this week, written by the paper’s resident unreconstructed New Labourite, Martin Kettle. Read it and despair.
In fact read it and then have a look at the comments beneath the article on the paper’s full website. We need to be thankful that some enlightened and experienced educationalists take the trouble to track such articles and then write some perceptive critiques.
Kettle thinks that Andrew Adonis is “one of the brainiest men in British politics”. Adonis is, in fact, a former journalist who joined the Blair cabal as an ‘adviser’ during his years in Downing Street. He’s never been an elected parliamentarian. The purpose of Kettle’s article is to draw attention to “Adonis’s new book on the state of the English education system”. Bear in mind that neither Kettle nor Adonis has any recent or relevant experience of teaching in schools, or any expertise in learning and pedagogy.
So who should we pay attention to? Those with a thorough knowledge of education drawn from years of experience of teaching and the management of schools, or a couple of highly opinionated career journalists with an interest in politics? Experienced educationalists and academics with a track record of thorough research into learning, language and literacy, or people who care only about abstract concepts like “choice” and data from test and exam results?
Here’s what Kettle has to say:
Adonis has a plan for schools, and you may find you like it
In the Labour peer’s vision for the state sector the academies and free schools rollout goes on.
Adonis’s book, predictably titled Education, Education, Education, is a blazing polemic . . . It is an exhilaratingly unapologetic . . . account of why the late-20th century English schools system had to be reinvented, has largely been reinvented, but still needs to be reinvented further. Read it.
It is a mere decade since the first academy schools – independent state schools managed by private sponsors and accountable to national rather than local government – were established. Yet last week, at the start of the new school year, the Department for Education was able to announce that there are now 2,309 of them, representing more than half of the secondary schools in England. More than 2,000 of the total have been opened since 2010.
The revolution made by Adonis and Gove seems irreversible for the foreseeable future. Get used to it.
It is clear from Adonis’s book that he wants the job finished. In two years’ time, if Labour returns to power, either he or Stephen Twigg may get that chance. Adonis says he knows from experience that an incoming government must have a fully prepared plan, and not just in education . . . Adonis has written the education plan in his book.
The unthinking left and the vested interests will hate it, as usual. But then just look at what Adonis has achieved so far.
Here are a selection of responses:
“The overall track record of academies is so clearly successful…”
You provide no supporting evidence for this statement whatsoever Martin. At least get your facts right. Just because a Tory/Adonis tells you these schools are better it doesn’t mean they are. These people are not exactly unbiased you know.
In fact the most comprehensive meta-study of research comparing academies with community schools suggests that the difference between them is minimal and well within any margin of error. Given that academies exclude more pupils (which community schools then have to take) one would have expected much greater gains.
Martin; before suggesting that Adonis knows all the answers I suggest you read “Finnish Lessons” by Pasi Sahlberg. There I’ve even put a link to Amazon for you. This book is about the most successful educational system in the world and represents educational success beyond the wildest dreams of Adonis/Gove/assorted right-wing fanatics.
The problem is that it is successful because it does everything the Adonis/Gove brave new world doesn’t. It is the opposite of their fragmented, overtested, centralised and privatised system, and it works, works extermely well, and has done so consistently for a very long time.
I think the first thing we need to do to improve education in this country, is to keep journalists well away from it.
Kettle uses the phrase “when groups like the New Schools Network can say……” he would like us to believe NSN are some highly revered messiah-like entity at whose feet we must kneel whilst they dispense benevolent academic wisdom from above. Kettle doesn’t tell you that NSN is a “charity” set up by ex-Gove and Boris Johnson employee Rachel Wolf and funded to the tune of £500,000 by Gove courtesy of the taxpayer specifically to set up free schools wholly in line with Gove’s diktat. They are a tool of political office masquerading as a charity.
Sadly, it does the Guardian’s reputation as a “decent” newspaper to run these article, probably drafted by some SPAD or intern. Very lazy journalism. Mr Kettle needs to visit a school or two before writing this unsubstantiated nonsense.
This is less left-right than reform versus the status quo.
This sentence neatly encapsulates the pernicious, phony post-ideological newspeak which has been so prevalent in British politics since the rise of New Labour. It’s a trick that was used with ruthless efficiency time and time again by Blair: with a magic wave, dismiss all objections to your policy as clueless adherence to stasis, pitting the enlightened agents of reform against the troglodyte forces of reaction. Words like ‘change’, ‘innovation’ and, above all, ‘reform’ are seized upon proprietorially, as if the only changes, innovations and reforms conceivable are those being advanced by the political actors for whom Kettle serves as cheerleader. Opponents speaking from a position of long experience and professional expertise, who see too well the deleterious effects the reforms will have, are derided as ‘vested interests’. There is only one political direction: forwards. And forwards we are impelled to go, at furious speed, without pausing to reflect, discuss, evaluate; heedless of dissenting voices, even (especially) those who can point to evidence; decreasingly capable of arresting the progression to a neo-liberal dystopia.
Here’s some statistics about academy schools and the OFSTED ratings.
The first column is the proportion of schools in the Jan-March 2012 period that were inspected and their grade.
The second column is the rating of all schools converted to an academy by Gove’s department.
Now that is rather curious isn’t it?
The policy under Labour was to take failing schools and turn them round under the Academy status, new head teacher probably and lots of cash.
The policy under Gove is to take already successful schools and bribe them with lots of cash to take academy status while leaving failing schools exactly where they are.
And that, Martin Kettle, says it all.
Maybe if Adonis sees this he might reflect on what his policy has become.
I do wish you would read your own paper before you come up with drivel that is so supportive of academies.
This report by the OECD suggests that they are contributing to greater social divisions in the UK. Effectively Acdemies and “free” schools are resulting in greater inequalities in educational outcomes.
Children from immigrant families face significant challenges in UK schools
Worth a read Martin, maybe you might want to consider that the academy system isn’t actually improving educational outcomes at all it is merely reorganising children and is doing nothing for the bottom 30%, which is where real educational improvement needs to be made.
On the other hand Martin, Finland is consistently top of the PISA rankings because it has a unified school system and promotes much greater educational equality. Odd for a journalist to be interested in the unfounded and unsupported arguments of another journalist over actual success in actual schools over a long period of time (but achieved by a teacher rather than a journalist).
I think it is time journalists on the Guardian started to look beyond the rhetoric and unfornded arguments of people who are part of the GERM (you will have to read Pasi Sahlberg’s book to find out what that means Martin) which in every case turn out to be based on hopeful projections, predictions and guesswork, usually being written in the future tense or the conditional.
There are examples of where education is far more successful and a good place to start is Finland, everything you read about that system is written in either the past or the present tenses. That is because they have already done what the GERM claims to be able to do (but has so far, after 20 years of privatisation – in the case of the US) failed to achieve.
You know, what’s fascinating and rather peculiar about this debate is that really what we’re talking about is an organisational principle. We’re not talking about what’s taught in schools, or how it’s taught, but how schools are organised. This is what Kettle says:
“The reasons why the system had to change – the overwhelming educational inadequacy of so many comprehensives based on the old secondary moderns, the lack of expectations and discipline within so many failing schools, the rigidity of the idea that every school had to be the same (even when they weren’t), the resistance to reform of the bureaucratic and professional vested interests.”
Now if you’re talking about “educational inadequacy” or “lack of expectations and discipline” or “the rigidity of the idea that every school had to be the same” – and I accept that some of this is true – we have to talk about why those things have happened. And are Kettle and Adonis seriously saying that the reason these things have happened are the results of the way they’re organised? That schools are accountable to local authorities? Were local authorities (largely Tory-controlled incidentally) engaged in a systematic campaign to maintain poor discipline and low standards? Because it seems to me that actually those problems of low standards etc. come from a variety of things – poor quality headteachers, which is a problem that will only worsen when you turn those schools into academies; very rigid and prescriptive rules from Ofsted about how teachers should teach; a league table/examination system almost designed to drive down quality and pander to the lowest common denominator. Taking schools out of local authority control solves none of those problems – in fact, it is almost designed to make them worse.
If we were devising an education system from first principles, the first thing we’d have to recognise is that we are dealing with a hugely diverse set of pupils: academically bright children, average children, not very academic children, early developers, late developers, children with an aptitude for practical skills but not academic ones, motivated children, un-motivated children, children who come from supportive homes, children who come from chaotic homes, children with special needs such as dyslexia, children for whom English is a second or third language, children with extreme behavioural problems, and so on.
The trouble with people like Gove and Adonis is that they want a system that works for one sub-group: academically bright, motivated children from supportive backgrounds. And actually it’s pretty easy to devise a system that works for that group of kids.
Devising a system that works equally well for the kid whose parents don’t speak a word of English, or the child who has never seen a book before starting school, or the child whose parents have never imposed any behavioural boundaries on him, or the child who is motivated but is going to be taken out of school at 16 to marry her cousin Pakistan, or the child who every night sees his alcoholic dad beat up his mum, or the kid who doesn’t have a room to do her homework – well, I could go on, but you get the idea. Teachers are dealing with those challenges all the time, and it’s hard.
And to have people like Gove and Adonis waltzing in and saying “you just need to raise standards” is massively frustrating. In these debates, I always want to quote Ben Goldacre – “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Because it bloody well is.
I think the main thrust of free schools is to weaken local authorities, break the teaching unions and enable the privatisation of education, allowing money-making opportunities for chums like Rupert Murdoch.
Martin Kettle has as much right to his gut reactions and preferences as the rest of us. What he does not have the right to do, if journalistic integrity is to mean anything, is to go into print on an important and complex national issue, on which serious people have divided opinions, merely on the basis of those gut reactions and prejudices. That, however, is what he has done in this article.
Adonis does not “occasionally airbrush inconvenient counter-examples out of the picture”. He ignores them wholesale and only someone whose desire to agree with Adonis exceeds his/her willingness to listen to the contending views could have failed to notice that. The chapter on “Why Half the Comprehensives Failed” makes no attempt at all to consider the detailed arguments of Academy critics such as Melissa Benn (from whom he draws one small quote simply to rubbish it without considering her main case). Reports on programmes such as the London Challenge (published in 2010) and the City Challenge (published in 2012) show that the local authority comprehensive sector does as well or better than Academies when a comparable effort is made to assist it. These reports also show London’s local authority schools achieving a greater percentage of outstanding evaluations than the Academies. Besides, Adonis is not even consistent. Having spent must of the book rubbishing local authority schools in every way he can think of (and usually through unreferenced assertions) he says towards the end of the book (on page 214) while discussing the rising percentage of pupils getting five good GCSEs over the last 25 years
England’s schools have done well to get from 30 to 60 [percent], and to narrow the gap between top and bottom.
“Done well”?! This completely contradicts the picture of our schools painted throughout the book.
Similarly he makes a couple of passing references to Finland’s high achieving schools but does not dwell on the fact that Finland has achieved its high scores by means of comprehensive schools run by local authorities thereby contradicting the central claim of the book. That claim is that it is not so much a problem of good or bad local authorities but of removing the dead hand of local government entirely from an organising oversight of schools.
From Kenneth Baker onwards the central aim of education reforms has been to get elected local authorities out of the picture and to replace them by unelected bodies such as charities and commercial sponsors. Instead of trying to make reforms on the basis of widespread discussion leading to a broad national consensus the reforms have sought to create an educational market in which standards will allegedly be driven up by the exercise of parental choice. The US has gone down that route with its charter schools with very poor results. The other model was Sweden’s free schools after the introduction of which Sweden has started to slip down the international tables.
Only someone who wants to believe what Adonis is saying because it fits with their ideological presuppositions could fail to notice that Adonis makes no attempt to deal with these inconvenient truths. Martin Kettle, it seems, is such a person.
The idea of running education through parental choice operating in an educational market is essentially a Tory idea but one adopted by New Labour. It is interesting that Adonis has much more praise for Kenneth Baker and Michael Gove than he has for any Labour Education Secretaries. Labour is bereft of ideas in education and, for the moment at least, is trapped within a mindset that is blind to what can be achieved through democratically determined public initiatives and is mesmerised instead by a belief that markets are the best way to solve education’s main problems. Even if that view were right it could only be jusfified by showing what is wrong with the arguments and data which make the opposite case. That Anthony Adonis completely fails to do. This seems to be of no concern to Martin K.
Education is much too important to have its future tied up by the likes of Lord Adonis of New Labour with his books and blueprints puffed in the liberal press by the likes of Martin Kettle, who has no issues at all with the neo-liberal agenda to continue with the marketisation and centralisation of education, removing more and more schools from the influence of local people and local accountability, ignoring the real needs of children and young people.
As far as these politicians and marketisers are concerned, they have no real understanding of children’s needs, they have no real understanding of the learning revolution that’s already taking place around the world. Since they lack such understanding their solution to improving schools is simply to make sure that they themselves don’t carry the can for any future failure, and the way to do this is simply to “set schools free” and let the market decide how children are taught and what they’re taught. The role of politicians now and in the future is simply to set arbitrary test and exam targets and leave it to Ofsted to hit on the schools that don’t achieve the targets. And meanwhile we’re supposed to be grateful that politicians seemingly don’t want to micromanage how learning is organised within these state-funded semi-autonomous schools.
The reality is that the minister of state for education micromanages right down to insisting on the primacy of a phonics-only approach to the teaching of reading – a subject he knows absolutely nothing about.
In essence it wouldn’t really matter what schools are called and who sits on their governing bodies as long as enlightened approaches to learning and teaching are the order of the day throughout the school. I myself have worked in schools where the local politicians that theoretically controlled the local education system were entirely clueless and hopeless, and I frankly couldn’t have cared less who the governing body was answerable to as long as whoever it was truly understood the issues that governed the school’s ability to improve and develop. Sadly, both national and local politicians, as well as national and local bureaucrats, have a tendency to simply play the game of pursuing careers, covering their backs and chasing the targets.
The only blueprint that politicians currently need is to pay some attention to how things are managed in places like Finland, to read Pasi Sahlberg’s book on how the education profession itself determines practice in Finland, and prepare to instigate the radical changes that will turn the current mess into a coherent whole that benefits all children, all families, all teachers and all schools.