It’s now quite difficult to remember (or even to imagine) a time when educational policies and practices were essentially or mainly a matter for educational professionals in the UK.
There was never a “golden age” for education, since there have always been schools that struggled to rid themselves of archaic attitudes and practices that can be summed up as didacticism or Gradgrindism – filling so-called empty vessels with so-called ‘facts’.
There was, however, a time when education was progressing towards becoming the creative, joyful, stimulating, fulfilling business it should be, and that process was shaped, facilitated and directed by an alliance of people and organisations of immense talent and ability, such as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, some highly gifted local authority directors of education, certain local authority advisers and inspectors, and many gifted teachers and headteachers. These people and organisations were supported by various academics and researchers who published many important papers and books on many different aspects of learning and teaching. Progress was consensual and incremental, and very little was imposed from the top down. Of course there were many poor schools and poor teachers, and a lot more should have been done to improve accountability and to ensure the profession encouraged and facilitated more collaboration and collegiality. That, however, should have been done through political pressure rather than political dictat.
Throughout the 1950s, when the first purpose-built comprehensive schools opened, through to the late 1980s when the National Curriculum was introduced, politicians pretty much respected the views of HMI, educational professionals, and the teaching profession – and stood back from the internal debates that took place about methods, pedagogy, achievement and attainment.
This is still the way things work in Finland – the profession is respected and expected to evolve its own ways of running schools, the curriculum and teaching, and as a consequence Finnish education is highly respected and much admired throughout the world for its outstanding success in raising achievement and attainment, and for producing confident, creative young people who can contribute to creating a better and more prosperous society.
In England we nowadays do things very differently. There’s hardly a day that passes without politicians making headlines with their latest pronouncements about education, and without the secretary of state announcing some new policy initiative. Education isn’t just a political football – it’s a battleground.
The following extracts from a recent letter written by Martin Francis to the Guardian set out some key issues:
The decision to send Ofsted into “underperforming” local authorities is another step in the transformation of Ofsted into the political agent of Michael Gove (Mass Ofsted school inspections to tackle standards, 18 January). The main contradiction of Tory education policy is that it preaches autonomy for schools but at the same time seizes centralised control of them by converting them into academies, answerable only to Gove.
The Department for Education’s official directions say Gove’s powers to force schools to become academies should only be used after a school has been underperforming for some time and if the problems are not being tackled. The DfE is currently acting beyond that direction.
Roke primary school in Croydon and Gladstone Park primary in Brent, the former previously graded “outstanding” and the latter “good”, have recently been downgraded by Ofsted and immediately forced to become academies. Roke’s “outstanding” was given only seven months before the “inadequate” grade. Gladstone Park got a “good” assessment in January 2011. Gladstone Park, an inner-city school, has SAT results above the national average and twice the national average at level 6.
The DfE sends in someone who can only be described as a kind of commissar, unyielding and not interested in dialogue, just intent on imposing a private sponsor on the school. Deadlines are tight and governors, staff and parents find themselves faced with a fait accompli. In both schools parents are organising in defence of their children’s education and against becoming a forced academy.
Ofsted inspectors now know that if they grade just one area of a school “inadequate” the DfE will move in and turn it into an academy. With the jury out on whether academies actually improve the quality of education, we are faced with a hugely risky strategy that threatens to massively destabilise our schools. The outcome is in direct contradiction to the government’s supposed support for localisation and will move more power to the centre.
3Di has recently commented on Ofsted’s evolving tactics and strategies – https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/ofsted-of-the-war-path/ – and we have little more to add at this point. We agree with all that Mr Francis says in his letter.
We personally know of cases where plots have been hatched to remove “troublesome” governing bodies and headteachers – people who believed in real education and refused to go along with teaching to the tests, etc – and we’re looking forward to a time when hard evidence will be produced to expose those responsible – possibly through using freedom of information legislation.
In the meantime, if anyone knows of or has had experience of similar situations, we’d be pleased to hear from you. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also from the Guardian letters page that’s quoted above:
• Stephen Twigg says “today, hardly anyone thinks that local authorities should directly run schools” (‘I plead guilty to nuance’, Education, 15 January). Why ever not? A Labour secretary of state for education, Estelle Morris, began sniping at LEAs a decade ago and now they are more or less extinct. Yet from their creation by the 1902 Education Act, many gifted and inspired LEA educationists built up state education in the UK. Just as a dysfunctional Ofsted is perverting the collaborative and consultative nature of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, so the mish-mash of Gove-topia is shredding the UK’s state educational inheritance. Stephen Twigg should attend to history and then learn for the future.
A word of caution here. Since the early 1990s and the Local Management of Schools legislation, schools have been directly run by their governing bodies, who have oversight of the school, responsibility for appointments, and act in a ‘critical friend’ relationship with the headteacher and the school’s management team. The correct way to see the role of local authorities is to consider them having a continuing role in monitoring, advising, supporting and developing schools and their governing bodies, as well as planning for and funding education provision as a whole in their area; plus offering high quality, value for money, support services. It would be a very foolish headteacher who thought it was necessary or desirable to take orders, as it were, from local bureaucrats and politicians. Or even from the Secretary of State.