“The purpose of our education system is to make our country internationally competitive.”
– Michael Gove speaking on Radio 4 last weekend.
“The education system isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it was intended to do – create compliant cogs in machines.”
– From the foreword of “One Size Does Not Fit All”, by Nikhil Goyal, “A Student’s Assessment of School“.
“We have turned schools into factories that churn out employees . . . Education reform with a focus on teachers instead of students is nothing new.”
– from an article by David Toscana in the New York Times
Why are the lives of our children and our teachers continuously blighted by the crude machinations of politicians? Why is it that politicians feel entitled to break into what used to be known as the ‘secret garden’ of education – many of them acting as if they own the place, or even behaving like complete vandals, trampling on the flower beds and smashing up the greenhouses? (The secret garden metaphor, by the way, was always a nonsense. No sane educationalist would ever claim that what happens in schools should be a ‘secret’.)
The reason that right-wing radical politicians began to behave in this way was because they perceived teachers as left-wing radicals – bent on indoctrinating children with crazy ideas about such things as personal empowerment, critical thinking and multiculturalism. 3Di, having worked within a wide range of schools over many years, simply urges these hysterical politicians to calm down – since the teachers we’ve known and worked with have been, almost without exception, anything but radical firebrands wanting to mould children to their wayward opinions. It’s clear to us that those who are most concerned to put a straitjacket on the thinking of young people are on the right of the political spectrum – hence the recent row about the teaching of history in England, and hence the continuing battle over the content of the newest national curriculum.
To a traditionalist politician in the major UK parties, education is all about “high standards” – meaning maximising exam scores in the traditional subjects of maths, science, English, history, and so on.
Here lies the battleground. We return again and again to the question of what education is for. Until we’ve settled this question we really can’t move on to collectively redesigning and reinventing a system of education that’s fit for purpose. Providing we can reach some broad agreement about the rights of all children to an appropriate education based on the real developmental needs of every stage of childhood, then the rest of the process should be pretty straightforward, since we have so many highly capable educationalists in our midst – most of them working on a daily basis in our schools and colleges the length and breadth of the country.
The Case of Finland
This is the process that enabled Finland to rise from being an educational also-ran to the status of being an educational paragon – (1) you first recognise that the old ways of doing education are no longer appropriate or beneficial, (2) you then come to an agreement about who education is for and how it should be developed throughout the system – including a guarantee that it will be free from political meddling and interference – and then (3) you allow the professionals to rethink the whole business, from designing curricula, to the assessment of progress and achievement, to monitoring the overall wellbeing of children within the system. (There was also an agreement in Finland that every child should be entitled to a similar and appropriate high-quality education, taught by highly qualified professionals, in proper environments, and free of the effects of poverty at home – but that’s another very long story. You can read more about it in our various 3D Eye posts, and in Pasi Sahlberg’s excellent book, Finnish Lessons.)
A New National Consensus?
We should be clear about this: unless and until we reach a new national consensus on education, then schools and education generally will continue to be a battleground, to the eternal detriment of all our children and our teachers. Nobody really wants this situation, but positions have become so entrenched that it seems set to continue.
We cannot allow politicians and other non-educationalists to be the final arbiters, and we cannot simply leave it to the market to decide, as the current government seems bent on doing – since the workings of the market and its infallibility have been a central tenet of conservatives and reactionaries in Britain since the postwar social-democratic consensus broke down, or was smashed apart, however one chooses to see it – and all of that ended well, didn’t it? So let’s be clear – if anyone still thinks that the unfettered market is the best regulator and decision-maker, then they need to seek help urgently.
If we’re going to have an informed debate about education then some of us are going to have to do some background reading as a starting point. There’s no point in running this debate if people don’t really know what they, and their opponents, are talking about. We’ll be giving out our book list later this week – and by all means send us your suggestions as to what should be on it.
We’d actually like there to be a Massive Open Online Debate (#MOOD), since everyone should be prepared to make a contribution and engage in a real discussion, rather than passively listening to others or simply joining in with booing, jeering and clapping. Yet again, we can’t take our standards from the House of Commons. In the meantime we humbly offer our various 3D Eye blog posts as our contribution to this debate.
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