These are extracts from an article the Guardian has just published about the world of education:
Britain’s education system is being tested to destruction.
A dated management dogma drives Michael Gove’s education reforms, not evidence of what works.
by David Priestland
The coalition’s claims to be anything more than an unimaginative deficit-cutter are in tatters – except in education, where it has been extraordinarily radical. Last year saw, among other things, plans to impose performance-related pay on teachers, the development of the EBacc exam, and the introduction of £9,000 university tuition fees.
What lies behind this hyperactivity? Critics accuse the government of softening up the sector for privatisation. But the education secretary, Michael Gove, and the universities minister, David Willetts, insist that ensuring accountability for taxpayers’ money and driving up academic standards are their goals. Gove’s own fogeyish style completes the picture of the old-fashioned, no-nonsense grammar school headmaster. But the government is not simply stuck in 1950s “3Rism”, nor is it planning wholesale privatisation (yet). Rather, it is still stubbornly pursuing a discredited 1980s ideology of quasi-markets, even though 30 years of experience shows that far from improving quality, it is destroying it.
At the root of the reforms is a doctrine that, though unfamiliar to most outside thinktanks, still dominates policy circles: “new public management”. According to this view, the best way to ensure high standards and accountability in public services is to force them to mimic the market
Researchers have been criticising new public management for many years. For rather than improving standards, league tables distort what they are supposed to be measuring, and inevitably lead to the gaming of the system. Teachers and academics are, of course, blamed for this, but they are simply responding rationally to government-imposed incentives. The ministerial response is to give managers even more power (for instance through performance-related pay), and to impose new, more restrictive targets, which produce another round of distortions.
League tables have encouraged teachers to steer children away from subjects seen as “difficult”, and Gove’s response has been to use a new set of targets – the EBacc – to force teachers to focus on five “core” subjects. We can already predict the next row, when it becomes clear that schools are neglecting all the subjects outside the core five, and a new set of targets has to be decreed.
The disastrous consequences of this regime in schools are very clear. British school students are the most tested in the industrialised world, and league tables force teachers to “teach to the test”, demoralising the profession and demotivating students.
In recent years, criticisms of Britain’s test-obsessed education system have become difficult to ignore. In 2010 the OECD argued that “high-stakes tests” were producing “perverse incentives”, and pointed out that “despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last 10 years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited”. The CBI has gone even further, and described British schools as grim “exam factories”.
As international comparisons show, it is not pseudo-markets and targets that work, but their opposite: raising the status of professionals and then trusting them to improve standards. Finland has the highest levels of educational attainment in the world, but it makes very little use of external testing or school inspections.
So why do ministers, who claim to be so obsessed with international competition, ignore all this evidence? The answer lies in ideology: they are products of the late 1970s and 1980s, when neoliberalism appeared fresh and exciting; Gove is less Goodbye Mr Chips and more hello “Tory Boy”. However, much of our elite, left and right, is still enchanted by this dated dogma, and needs to appreciate how weirdly dysfunctional British education looks when compared with other systems. We need more than a change of government. We need an intellectual revolution.
The key to this story lies in the final paragraph. We do indeed need more than a change of government. The previous government, through a succession of appallingly inept ministers of education, was responsible for creating an oppressive regime of micromanagement of teaching, useless literacy strategies which schools were pressurised into adopting, league tables, random targets, and an increasingly oppressive Ofsted system of school inspections that uses test data as a club with which to beat schools and their management teams.
The unofficial mantra driving all of this was “attainment, attainment, attainment” – and it was no wonder that teaching became more didactic, less personalised, and the opposite of creative in so many hard-pressed schools whose younger teachers had been trained to believe that the literacy and maths hours in Primary schools were to be taught ‘by the book’ regardless of the real learning needs of students. As a result, UK children became the most oppressed and the most unhappy of all those assessed by UNICEF in a worldwide survey.
In other words, the previous government bears much of the responsibility for the adoption of the neoliberal marketisation of education, the targets culture, the fetishisation of test and exam scores, and all the other “new public management” instruments of control, all in the name of “driving up standards” and of increasing “accountability”.
As for the need for the “intellectual revolution” suggested by this article’s author, we should consider what, exactly, this means. The required leap towards understanding the learning needs of children, and the development of an appropriate pedagogy, was made around the beginning of the 20th Century by John Dewey in the USA and by various British and European “progressives”. These ideas were, in time, taken on by various thinkers including Paulo Freire and more recently Ken Robinson, both of whom have strongly advocated the need for relevance, motivation, student involvement and creativity in teaching and learning.
Weighty volumes have been written, including “All Our Futures”, the Cambridge Primary Review, and The New Learning Revolution – a visionary book by Gordon Dryden and Jeanette Vos that has sold millions of copies around the world.
Meanwhile a few countries have adopted this “progressive” pedagogy, and ensured that well-respected and well-paid education professionals continue to develop it in the light of far-reaching improvements in broadband and digital technology, and ensured that the wellbeing of students and the need for them to develop multiple intelligences and creativity are paramount.
As a consequence Finland and a group of East Asian countries that have adopted the Finnish model have risen to the top of the success league in the OECD’s reviews. Within China we find that Shanghai Province has successfully re-trained its teaching force as part of a pilot scheme to assess the applicability of these new approaches to Chinese schools, and the learning revolution will now be extended to the whole of China. As far as these East Asian countries, and indeed Finland, are concerned, education will never be opened up to the ‘market’ in a quest for a quick fix to force up test scores, and they truly understand that the key to success in the 21st Century is having highly professional, highly qualified, well-motivated teachers, and students for whom a love of learning and a hunger for learning is paramount.
An “intellectual revolution” has already taken place. What remains to be done is to put in place the necessary changes that have already been tried and tested elsewhere in the world, but not, sadly, in those places where the intellectual revolution first took place but failed to take root – Britain and America.
Postscript – please enjoy the RSA animation of Ken Robinson’s ideas on the reform of education which we feature permanently on our main website: