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Letting down the next generation

Headline-grabbing plans to name and shame the UK’s failing schools won’t address why education isn’t educating.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Politics UK

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So education secretary for England Michael Gove plans to ‘name and shame’ the 200 worst performing primary schools in England and then make them ‘eligible for intervention’ from either local authorities or super-heads. While this might make him look like a tough reformer, such a measure will do absolutely nothing to address why so many pupils are let down by their schools.

Speaking last year about the government’s schools white paper, The Importance of Teaching, published in November, Gove claimed that it ‘plucks the best ideas from around the globe… to see what works and what we could apply here’. In other words, Gove has been on a global shopping spree for quick fixes. What he has failed to do, however, is to ascertain why, despite historically high levels of state expenditure on education, the UK is continuing to fall behind the education achievement levels of other countries.

Cambridge Assessment’s Tim Oates, a contributor to an upcoming government review of the national curriculum, offers an interesting take on this issue in his report, Could do better: Using international comparisons to refine the curriculum in England. Drawing on the work of many current and past educationalists, Oates argues that the coherence of the British schools curriculum has been systematically undermined through decades of destructive political interference. This, he argues, is the central educational problem.

What Oates means is that material is frequently being imported into subjects that is inappropriate to both the logical sequencing of the subject, and the current level of the pupils’ understanding. Having recently spoken to our 14-year-old daughter’s Maths teacher, I agree. The poor man was frustrated by the fact that in order to ensure the more able in his class could get the top grades of A or A*, he had to teach material that in the past would be covered at A level, that is, when the pupils were aged between 16 and 18. Unsurprisingly, most of the class were left in a state of bewilderment. On the other side, the introduction of ‘Functional Maths’ means pupils will sit a paper where they get marks for showing workings, writing legibly and maybe, just occasionally, getting the answer right. They may even be able to pass the paper while getting most, or even every answer, wrong. Ask any teacher or parent and you will be offered many similar examples across all subjects.

But Gove’s globe-scouring, pick’n’mix search for quick fixes doesn’t look like offering up any solutions. Countries often cited as shining examples of educational excellence, such as Finland or Singapore, have education systems that have evolved in very different cultural contexts. For example, in Finland, teachers are educated to Masters level and have a high social status. Knowledge and intellectual development are regarded as worthy and esteemed aims. Such is the high regard in which education is held, if pupils are absent from school, even for a short time, they are referred to specialists to ensure they catch up with the work.

Yet to just look at the Finnish system, as Gove does, and pick out ‘school autonomy’ or ‘lack of streaming’ as the determining features is to make a serious mistake. It is to ignore other important educational and cultural features that make Finland’s education system so successful. For instance, the strong academic emphasis in Finnish education system goes hand in hand with a clear, post-15 vocational education route. This seems to be ignored by the department for education. Instead, by selecting just a few components of the Finnish system, Gove and Co seem to believe that a Finland-style educational success story can be replicated in the UK.

Singapore’s success does at least shed light on the problems facing education in the UK. For the Singapore education system owes a great deal to the high level of state control of both teachers’ education and teaching materials. The result has been the establishment and maintenance of curriculum coherence – the very thing that has been undermined in the UK.

The vital issue of curriculum coherence is not reducible to technique or ‘best practice/effective school research’. Cambridge education lecturer Paul Andrews’ research into maths teaching shows how a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts is achieved in Finland through methods that in Britain would currently be considered ‘highly unsatisfactory’. What is likely to educate a greater number of pupils, then, is to spend more time on conceptually complex content – combined with plenty of time and freedom to practise and explore ideas. It’s not rocket science and it’s what used to happen in most schools in Britain in the past.

The appalling curriculum confusion and incoherence in most British schools today is not simply an educational problem, however. It is a consequence of broader cultural shifts in how we see ourselves, how we understand the world and how we understand our role in the world. We used to conceive of the world as something that we can act upon, as something that has an objective truth and reality about it. This was why our objective knowledge of the world was considered valuable. And as such, it is was considered worthy of passing on to the next generation.

Unfortunately, in Britain today, the prevailing view is that our actions upon the world are likely to be destructive. Our orientation, we are told, needs to be towards curtailing our behaviour. In this context, traditional bodies of knowledge have little worth. Education becomes increasingly centred upon ourselves and how we can adapt as individuals. It is not concerned with learning about the world and how we can adapt it. It is this cultural pessimism that lies behind much so-called cutting edge educational research.

In Bodies of knowledge: How the learning sciences could transform practical and vocational education, (Claxton, Lucas & Webster, 2010), the academic authors turn habits of mind traditionally required for the study of subjects into a set of skills that are de-coupled from objects of study. So for example, the authors would argue that the concentration and persistence I need to make a good chicken curry the way my mum used to make it, is essentially the same as the concentration and persistence I need to read and understand Marx, Plato or Durkheim. Education should therefore be reorganised to value both equally.

In my life, I need to do both at different times for different reasons. If I want to give my family and friends a treat, I’ll go with the chicken curry (my family, at least, would really rather eat my curry than listen to me holding forth on education). But if I want to understand, for example, why certain educational theorists are wrong, and why they believe such ideas, then reading and thinking win the day. If all I have been taught is how to make curry, and this is deemed just as valuable as reading Marx, then it is unlikely in today’s society, that I will ever be able to, or even want to, read him.

Critics of Gove’s plans to make primary schools academies ignore the deeper problems facing education. They prefer to focus on questions of funding. Or they complain that Gove’s plans encourage an elitist education, and by implication, denigrate the majority who won’t receive it. I agree that society ought to be able to value the craftsman, the cleaner, as well as the intellectual. It doesn’t, and that is a social problem that needs addressing. But it shouldn’t be addressed through education. Years of trying to make education the cure for social inequality has done nothing except corrode what is truly valuable about education and knowledge. Education, whatever its institutional arrangements, really ought to be the one arena where it is legitimate to put a high value on intellectual development (which is not the same as ‘getting the qualification or level’).

If Gove really wants everyone to create a decent education system, he would do better to scrap all national testing before 16, get rid of league tables and such like, and have only one set of national examinations. These ought to combine academic and practical subjects and would be taken at the age of 16. Teachers, meanwhile, should be encouraged to refresh their own subject knowledge, but they shouldn’t be made to attend behaviour-control lessons to pad out their ‘professional portfolios’. It would be good to create a climate where education, as opposed to jumping through hoops, can flourish.

In India I recently told a young, upwardly mobile IT worker that I was a teacher. His response: ‘How wonderful, you give knowledge to the younger generation.’ When I hear that from someone in Britain, I’ll be a happier teacher.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics UK

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