Education is powerful. Education is political. It has to be. It can enable us to tackle inequalities or it can perpetuate injustice. It can inspire children to learn or it can stultify their enjoyment of learning for life. Education can open doors and a lack of education can see doors slammed in your face – left behind. It can empower learning and it can curtail the freedom to choose the sort of learning that a person might want. Education can stimulate creativity or it can crush it to oblivion.
Education is political because schools and colleges are part of society, often at the heart of a community – particularly primary schools. Education is political because of its role in shaping future generations. Getting education “right” has a significant impact on the way our society and our young people evolve.
Education is political. However, the division in the educational debate is not party political.
That may seem to be a strange statement. According to Mr Gove and many of his supporters, those of us who believe that education should focus on the wellbeing and “rights” of the child as much as their academic success are “The Blob”; liberal lefties – woolly wafflers who are determined to bring socialism into schools. (Actually, we’re more concerned with social justice, but more on this later).
Yet, there are many on the “left” who would agree with the need to concentrate on the so-called “core” subjects as a means of creating social mobility. People like Baroness Estelle Morris (New Labour Education Secretary) and Frank Furedi (founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party) have spoken vociferously about the role that literacy and knowledge acquisition have in addressing social inequality, and giving young people a step up the proverbial ladder. (The metaphorical ladder is an appalling and damaging cliche in our opinion).
Look at the decades of New Labour governance. “Education, education, education” was the mantra. “Standards” became the new “wow word” for education. Whilst we acknowledge that its instigator, Tony Blair, was unquestionably at the bluer end of the Labour Party, many within today’s Labour Party still support the premise that if we concentrate on the so-called basics in education, we will somehow magically have an equal society.
On the other hand, we have what some might see as the bastion of British business, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), campaigning for a wholesale review of education that would ensure key skills such as the ability to be communicative, creative, innovative and imaginative are given equal parity with the acquisition of core knowledge in English, maths, science and information technology. Are they woolly wafflers too? We don’t think so.
Neither is the Daily Telegraph. Those on the left mock the paper by calling it the “Torygraph” and yet, recent articles written and commissioned by its education editor, Graeme Paton, are similar to those published by the Guardian highlighting concerns about education in this country. These articles may be deemed as being on the “left” but are actually on the side that supports the child – which has no left or right political bias.
We have to stop using party political divides when it comes to education because they are nonsensical. They are as much a false dichotomy as the ones placed between the values and the knowledge based aims for education.
Not all on the left see the need for child-centred education. Not all on the right disagree with child-focused education that sets out to produce rounded individuals with all their intelligences highly developed. Surely, paying what many see as exorbitant annual fees for a private education suggests that many on the “right” understand the need for an education where, irrespective of curriculum content, the focus is more on the individual child and its various developmental needs – personal , social, creative, spiritual, intellectual etc. Some even pay for Montessori or Steiner schools, and they’re not all Labour voters!
Those of us who believe that we should concentrate on the wellbeing of children understand that the need to be literate is at the very heart of wellbeing. It’s not an either/or. It never has been and never will be, which is why we feel so appalled by criticisms from those who disagree with our philosophy on education – because their accusations are inaccurate and unjust. We want children to be literate and numerate. We want them to know how to find their way around a computer. We want them to be competent scientists or historians. We just think that there’s a different way to do things that focuses on the individual and their interests as a means to encourage and develop learning – that considers their wellbeing; a duty that is placed by law on every school governing body in the country.
Which brings us to the key issue – that of social justice, or should we say, the rights of the child.
This is where the views of the so-called “values-based” educators become party politicised as that of the “left” –because by agreeing to a set of shared values and purposes broader than knowledge acquisition as the fundamental aims of education, we begin to introduce the notion of equality.
An education that concentrates wholly on intellectual ability can’t be equal because we can’t all gain A* and A’s at A-Level. By considering wellbeing, values, virtues, creativity, empathy and individuality and by looking at the social and personal intelligences as well as the intellect, we’re broadening the possibility of “success” for all of our children and not just those that are intellectually capable. We’re acknowledging the importance, to society and individuals, of artists, musicians, firefighters, hairdressers and mechanics in a way that really gives their career choices as much worth as the historical worthiness afforded to high-level examination achievers. (Of course, many musicians, mechanics etc are capable of passing both academic and vocational exams.)
If we are valuing the worth of the orator who finds difficulty writing or the person who’s good with their hands as much as the person who is able to memorise/interpret facts and can perform well in an exam, we are paving the way for social justice. In this way, each and every person can be treated equally and recognised for their individuality, personal skills and worthiness. This, of course, is tantamount to social justice!
Yet it’s a Tory ex-Prime Minister this week who’s been talking about meritocracy and the rights of every person to aspire to be whoever and whatever they want. It’s Sir John Major who has been criticising the elitism of the current educational system that means our so-called “top” jobs are taken by privately educated and Oxbridge students. It’s a man from the “right” and not someone from the “left” who is saying that we should really look at the obstacles that are blocking the way for greater social mobility.
Without looking at education holistically, young people in poverty will remain there, because if you concentrate on literacy and knowledge alone, they are always going to be disadvantaged by the very fact that their circumstances may prevent them from having the knowledge and experiences afforded to the more wealthy – visits out to town and country, opportunities to explore museums and art galleries, having homes full of books, time with their parents for discussions, conversations and sharing ideas. IF those experiences are missing, then we as educators need to bring them to children as they enter into the school system.
If we broaden our views on “schooling” to ensure that every child is entitled to an education that enables them to develop the “core” and “life” skills as suggested by the CBI and others, then we might enable children to journey into adulthood more equally, irrespective of their family circumstance, if indeed they have families.
We do this by enabling all children to take their place in society irrespective of their personal wealth or their cognitive ability. That is social justice.
We ensure that they are literate, of course. But we also consider their rights to the other ‘enablers’ in life – like focusing their minds on creativity, on innovation, on their individuality, on their physical and emotional skills and by opening their minds.
This isn’t about the right and the left. This is about the right and the wrong.
So our next call for action and unity is this. Can we please stop this nonsense about left-loonies and right-wing fascism? Can we at least consider the need for a values and wellbeing and knowledge-based education that we can all agree with for the sake of our children? Can we think about uniting to prevent education being seen as a political football?
Can we all agree that bullying of teachers and head teachers isn’t conducive to a child’s schooling or wellbeing? Can we use our common sense to see that if there are more than 30 children in a class it does negatively affect their learning? These are not party political issues, and neither are many other problems that face education today.
Can we unite to address the fundamental problems with education and stop labelling either the cause or the cure as being “right” or “left”?
Can we please put education back in its place – serving families and children beyond the direct control of politicians, and with the “Rights of the Child” at its core?