Saturday, 22 June 2013

What's wrong with education policy debate

I am not prone to ranting. People who know me will tell you I'm neither confrontational nor particularly hard-line. I like to compromise, and find common ground. So this blog may seem out of the blue, and will eventually turn extremely controversial. You read on at your own risk.

I have several problems with current educational policy, but before you start accusing me of party politics, I would say that the political interference in education by Left or Right is equally bad, and that we ought to aspire to educational aims which are based on future-proof principles, and not constantly vacillating back and forth at the whim of the latest cabinet minister who wants to "make his mark" and stake his claim as the next Prime Minister. Seriously, is that a good basis upon which to decide the future of hundreds and thousands of children?

Current education policy does, however, seem to me to take the biscuit. It often seems formulated on the basis of very little evidence, which is in turn often flawed (remember the farcical uncovering of the "poor historical knowledge of modern youth" which was based on surveys for Premier Inn and the Sea Cadets?). Nevertheless, if a conclusion can be turned into a mantra and repeated frequently enough, and exaggerated further by the press who are looking to arrest their declining relevance in society (i.e. sales), it becomes the truth, does it not? This, in my opinion, is no way to conduct a debate about the nation's education.

To illustrate my point, let's turn the tables a little... What if we as teachers behaved in the same way as the education debate is being conducted?

What if we... told our students just to make one point in an essay, repeat the same point ad nauseam, and put it in capitals to make it more convincing and OBVIOUSLY true?
Copyright: Jim mentalindigestion.net
No, we tell them to evidence everything: Point, evidence, evaluate. We tell them to look for potential counter-arguments so they can see both sides, and then to evaluate for themselves what they think the answer might be. Memorisation of facts is not nearly as powerful as the ability to analyse those facts, take them apart, and find out the truth. Unfortunately, in the current climate, the truth, and the evidence which might prove it, and the nuances of the debates, are all simply collateral damage in the quest to gain political capital. What grab the headlines are not the measured nuanced debates of professionals, but the daily kickings from the Secretary of State and Michael Wilshaw which appeal to the confirmation bias of the 40 plus generation who read these things and nod sagely about how much better it was in their day (Was it really, by the way?).

What if we... started telling the whole class off when the naughty child at the back starts making too much noise? And then went out into the playground and started telling every who will listen that everyone was just as bad as that naughty child? Which of us has not been told that this is the first thing you never do in teaching? And yet the journalistic tendencies of making sweeping generalisations from those at the top is remarkable. I'd contend it's not appropriate for education, though. And one of the ways in which citizens would know that is if they had been trained in media criticism, such as is the case in Media Studies, and taught not to accept things at face value. Oh, but it's one of the subjects Michael Gove wants rid of. I wonder why? The journalist is someone who knows a lot of things superficially, and then claims the mantle of the expert. But the very nature of journalism is that it flies from one subject to the next so quickly that 1) it does not develop true expertise, and 2) it looks at things from the skewed perspective of what will sell/scare/interest/amaze the reader rather than reveal what is necessarily true. And these are just the good journalists. As we all know, there are plenty more in the industry who are hacks who will be far less thorough in researching a story, and simply find a couple of provocatively different views from which to formulate a story, and then let rhetoric do the rest. Did you notice I did that myself at the start of the last sentence? Clever and subtle, isn't it? This is how Gove and Wilshaw are winning the battle of the media day by day, and unless teachers fight fire with fire, and can convince the news media that there is a genuinely interesting story to be had in the misuse of statistics and in the manipulation of data for political and commercial ends within education, then we may well be doomed to lose the debate.

Clearly education must be failing: It says so in the papers. Despite the fact that OFSTED's latest data  on inspections puts around 70% of schools as Good or Outstanding (not all under the new framework, to be fair). We have a major problem in education: Again it says so in the papers. Every day. Last week we were (collectively, all of us, remember?) responsible for failing pupil premium students, the higher achieving students. Oh, and we were responsible for the rise of the EDL. The problem has been identified, and repeated again and again, so it must be the problem to focus upon. Privatisation of education has been identified as a key solution, as well as making everything harder. That will automatically tell us how to do our jobs better.

Let's look at this situation in a little more detail. A perceived problem has been identified, repeated forcefully and often: People who disagree have been demonised (anyone else an "enemy of promise"?), and we have been told that these enemies threaten our very future. This sounds almost exactly like the way newspapers create a moral panic, and for exactly the same reason, to inspire the feeling of trust in a protector who is looking out for us. You can see where any sense of nuanced debate is being lost here. As for the solutions, clearly privatised schools would not fail: Private companies never fail. And harder exams will obviously inevitably lead to better outcomes, despite the fact that teachers are not being told how to get their students to achieve these higher levels of attainment.
Indeed, if you think about it, how can we possibly get future students to be cleverer when half the profession are a product of the declining educational standards of the last twenty years?

What if we... scared the hell out of our students about their future, and then told them to do everything we say and that will get them home safe and sound? Like sheep.

So here's the controversial bit. Having worked incredibly hard for years to raise my own game as well as that of my students, the last year has coincidentally seen me think seriously about quitting this great profession several times. The egotist in me asks why on earth I should let politicians force me out of a profession I love and am, as an outstanding teacher apparently, quite good at. But then I started thinking of the other people who've probably had similar thoughts.

What if we, as a profession, quit en masse?

Not going on strike. That makes us easy targets to demonise. Governments are great at getting the public to turn against anyone who inconveniences them. But actually quit. Said "We are not prepared to participate in an education system which we believe damages the future of your children, and decreases the life chances of a significant number of them. Find someone else to teach what you want taught."

So far, I've had a variety of gut negative reactions to that suggestion, including my wife's. Gove isn't forcing me to quit a profession I love, goes the line. Except you love the ideal of the profession, not, very often, its actual current substance. We teach despite the fact that we don't like the direction. But then I would argue we are more or less complicit, or at the very least placing ourselves at the mercy of the whims of each Secretary of State. We have long talked about the depoliticisation of education, and even Mr Gove himself has alluded to this as a noble aim of his. But do any of us seriously believe he has that intention?

So I go back to my point. Quit. What would happen?

First, if Heads and teachers quit together, we could not be blamed for holding the nation to ransom. The Secretary of State can simply replace us. In a year, when new teachers have been trained. Oh, and since most PGCE courses have been replaced by in-school training, who is going to do that training? And who's going to do the appointing? I seem to remember the Khmer Rouge getting rid of all Cambodian teachers because they were bourgeois professionals who undermined the Marxist revolution. The effect was catastrophic. Parents are not going to like the fact that their children have nowhere to go. But we aren't withholding our labour: We quit. Perhaps parents after the initial anger directed towards those who have inconvenienced them, would want to know why teachers would actually be prepared to leave their jobs because of the Secretary of State's policies? Maybe then we'd have slightly more informed debate on the subject, and the public would demand our reinstatement?

Maybe I'm an idealist.

But I'd rather be an idealist than a collaborator who fears there is no other option. There always is. And the vast majority of answers I've had about this, while intelligently rationalised, have always been reactions of personal fear.