Fabian Society Seminar:
Education After Gove: Responding to a New Landscape
This was the title of a panel discussion at the Fabian Society’s annual conference held last Saturday at the Institute of Education.
In Britain we need to settle the issue of political influence on education policy once and for all. The real stumbling block for change after Michael Gove is the fact that schools and the people working within them are sick and tired of the constant changes that arise every time a new group of politicians is elected to power, or even worse, every time there is a new secretary of state who wants to make a mark on history.
This is an issue that Stephen Twigg would do well to consider. If he’s going to be the new secretary of state for education, and if he’s committed to working with teachers and respecting their professionalism, then there is one step above all that he ought to consider – to stop using education as a political football. We need to develop a system whereby a change of government or indeed a change of personnel within the education department doesn’t equate to a completely new educational system with top-down changes imposed regardless of the minimum involvement or consultation with the teaching profession. As a colleague in a recent meeting said to him, “Are you going to be the first secretary of state in recent years to hand education back to the educationalists?”
There’s no getting away from the fact that Michael Gove couldn’t have acted so swiftly and in the manner that he has done had it not been for a strong foundation being laid by New Labour – and we are using the word “strong” as a force of strength, not as a positive judgment.
FACT: The National Curriculum was introduced by a Conservative government. This paved the way for politicians and not educationalists to decide what was taught in schools. Its purpose, perspective and unworkability was never challenged by the Labour party.
FACT: Due to its vast prescriptive content, many schools and teachers felt that they couldn’t cover the National Curriculum without returning to a more formal and didactic pedagogy, dismissing in a flash decades of development of child-focused and personalised methods of teaching and learning.
FACT: The introduction of SATs and league tables further impacted on the style of learning in our schools. Teachers started to teach to the test. Foundation subjects such as art, humanities and music were relegated and regarded by many as insignificant if they hadn’t any role in identifying how a child was progressing overall. Non-statutory subjects, such as PSHE education, were side-lined altogether in some institutions. Again, New Labour went along with this instead of doing some proper rethinking in 1997 when they came to power. Indeed it was under New Labour and its determination to “drive up standards” that the official publication of league tables first took place. It was also under New Labout that the powers of Ofsted were increased and judgements on the effectiveness of schools became increasingly based on statistical analyses of test and exam results.
FACT: The introduction of the National Literacy and National Numeracy strategies further indicated this particular government’s commitment to raising ‘standards’ and ‘attainment’ as the “be-all and end-all” of education. This became a stick for others, including the Conservatives and their newspapers, to beat the teaching profession further when claims such as “a fifth of children are illiterate” were bandied about (whereas about a fifth of children didn’t quite reach the target of level 4C by the age of eleven, which is a completely different matter).
FACT: Lord Andrew Adonis’s academies, free from local authority control, enabled Mr Gove to introduce even more radical measures of school governance. A system had been established through law and Mr Gove took full advantage of the situation. It was patently obvious that the diversification of the system would lead, in some places, to the total dismantling of a coherent system for secondary education, and all the ills that come from disparity of funding, governance and accountability.
FACT: The UK has consistently taken a place in the second tier of international comparisons on attainment, and scored even worse on wellbeing, despite the implementation of New Labour’s ‘Every Child Matters’ and legislation to place a duty of care for the promotion of pupil wellbeing on every school in the country.
There are more facts and figures that could be included here, but the simple message is that there have been huge changes in education that couldn’t have happened if one government hadn’t fed off another. When in opposition, New Labour were ambiguous and concerned about the introduction of the National Curriculum. When in power, they dictated content and pedagogy even more than the Tories had done.
When in opposition, New Labour raised concerns about Ofsted and the narrowing of the curriculum. The Conservatives did the same when they were in opposition too, and yet these two parties worked collaboratively for decades – together, adding this small change and that small change, taking further powers away from the classroom and the school, and landing those powers at the feet of the Education Secretary to the point that he could introduce additional legislation without anyone having any right to contradict or prevent him from making these reactive and reactionary changes.
The foundations were strong, and they remain so. It is these facts that have enabled consecutive governments to direct education, thrusting change upon change onto an increasingly bewildered and disenfranchised profession. It’s been a typical application of the Shock Doctrine based on a false conception that education is in crisis and the professionals within it cannot be trusted to sort it out.
So what do we need to do now? Should we get the bulldozers in and take the house down and start all over again, or should we work with these foundations and start rebuilding, with less money in the bank and this persistent problem of more change for a profession already weary of political interference?
In Part Two, we’ll report on what was said in the meeting last Saturday, and in Part Three on what was left unsaid at the Fabian Society meeting. We will comment on what we see as the main stumbling blocks to educational progress in this country and we WILL see a way forward for a life in “Education After Gove”.
- Compass Education: Radical Approaches to Education Conference – Part Two (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Teacher Morale and the Architecture of Schools (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- The Politics and Management of Education: A Wake Up Call for 2013 (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Articles on Education: Resources on the Internet (3diassociates.wordpress.com)