The fight over education

19th or 20th Century dogmas are both wrong.

Michael Gove has a challenge and is enlisting 19th Century ideals to battle the 20th Century ideals that face him in our school system.


The Education “Challenge”


The challenge seems to be that forces that became dominant in the 20th Century – collectivism amongst school teachers, health and safety concerns, equality issues, access for all, centralised curriculum, centralised examinations, huge access to tertiary education (universities), building programmes, comprehensive education “norms” and belief systems – have, from Gove’s standpoint, gone too far.


While he believes that education should be always excellent, always accessible for those that strive, always providing a route to further and higher education, he feels stymied by what is seen as a Labour agenda from the 1960’s: public sector control over public assets and, worse, a public sector mindset.


That mindset means that equality risks being the bye-word for dumbing down – as expressed in views that exams are made easier so that everyone passes, that no-one is a failure, that competitive sport is old-fashioned and everyone should be a winner.


This simplistic notion of the maintained (government) school system is now rivaled by simplistic notions of what works better.


The Government Education Response


The Coalition response to the Challenge (or really the Conservative Gove response) is to throw 19th Century attitudes at it. The key to Gove’s rebuttal of mid-20th Century dogma is mid-19th Century dogma.


First, it is a market approach to the problem. The assumption is that the market knows best so bring in competition and all will be well. Some years ago, I wrote to Michael Gove when he was in opposition. As a Chair of Governors of a successful secondary school, I proposed, through my MP, that Government treats each of the 3,600 Secondary Schools as independent organisations in a way that business would not. Business would try to work out how such a range of “subsidiaries” would benefit from joint buying, better systems, better management and learning opportunities for critical IT staff and so on. Gove responded that he rejected this as each school should be seen to compete with each other and that it provided parents with “choice”. Only someone with no business sense whatsoever would say such a thing.


So, choice (like shelves of cornflakes that no-one can choose between) is the solution and we have old-style Academies, new-style Academies, grammar schools, independent schools, church and other faith schools, new free schools, chains of academies. The range is growing and is beginning to grow out of control.


When presented with a business-like way forward (such as above and also through the James Review on school buildings presented last year and which appears to have been dismissed), Government shuts up shop and develops ostrich tendencies.


Gove’s other 19th Century demand is to go back to reading our history and learning by rote; through progress via examination (no more modular teaching); through a private school regimen that comes from his background and his history. To this is added the rigour of school uniforms and standing when teacher enters the room. Sir Michael Wilshaw, now Head of Ofsted, is his main supporter in this area. Sir Michael’s approach (vindicated in several tough schools) is forthright and to the point – poor teachers should be expelled, poor schools turned around fast or taken over.


Gove is also pulled between business demands that pupils should be armed with the ability to be business fodder and the wider aims of education (which he understands well) and which provide our young people with the abilities to play a full part in the world they live in. Here, maybe there is a link between the 19th Century and the 21st, which Mr. Gove should consider deeply.


The Private vs. Public argument – the wrong argument


This is all typical of our outmoded politics and the strained linkage between the private sector and the public sector.  The private sector allows those who can pay to be separate from the rest. My previous notes on this: The Brave New World of Education (I and II)  – see


discussed how education was splitting into 3 – the private sector (alphas), good parts of the maintained sector (betas) and the rest (epsilons).


The response has been to play off the private sector and private sector attitudes against the public sector responses of the mid-1960’s.


Of course, the reality is that there is really hardly any competition between the private and public sector. Private education is for sale, goes to those who can afford it and it is only at the margin that a competition with the maintained sector exists. The vast majority of private sector parents never consider the option of not paying except between different independent schools – i.e. the competition is between private schools. Those that do are part of the “squeezed middle” – often moving to areas with good secondary schools to obtain at least the “beta” education on offer.


In the maintained sector, it is similar. A new building for a comprehensive school will immediately increase the demand for that school – but the demand is mainly drawn from other maintained schools in the catchment area.


Overall, competition is irrelevant to the question that is central:


What do we want from education for all our people?


Education for What?


In the 19th Century, we had two systems: one for the wealthy and aristocracy which educated our leaders; one (minimal) for the rest.


We retain the systems today and it has been hard to break the duopoly. However, we now have three systems within the two stated: private (alpha, still educating our leaders) and public (split by postcode into beta and epsilon).


What is needed is to generate a school system based on what society needs – not what entrenched groups may want. We do need to break the status quo.


If we (or at least most of us) agree that education should provide (from nursery to primary and through secondary) an education that provides accessibility to all, opportunity to all, does not shy away from the fact that we are all different, understands that education and opportunity should not be down to where you are born or the wealth of your parents, and persistent excellence in teaching, motivation and discovery, then the varied types of schools we now have should be joined in working to achieve this.


Students should not be born to lead or born to stack shelves. We should be opening up the doors to those who may have talent and desire to succeed and that means that those doors must be kept open continuously (not just at 11 and 16).


What is the answer?


There should be just one type of school – let’s call it an Academy as the Greeks (despite current problems) were intelligent enough to have the first and for many years the most prestigious.


All private sector and public sector schools should be converted to Academy status.


For the time being, funding will be retained as now – private to independent and public to maintained sector.


A team of from the private sector, maintained sector, civil society and government (not a government committee) would work to establish what education is supposed to be for: maybe a two-year review which will, undoubtedly be full of disputes and arguments, but will lay the foundations for the UK’s (if Scotland and Northern Ireland are willing to be involved) future learning – a model for the 21st Century.


The move to a common Academy system with two main groups within it (private-funded and public-funded) should be a forum for mutual learning via the needs of civil society, private and the public sector.


From this, we need to learn were the private sector (business) can work best – for example, provisioning of facilities and services (where the public sector is normally worse and too bureaucratized).


We should be able to build more cross-fertilisation that is happening on occasion now within private sector groups that adopt maintained schools – the smaller accumulation of knowledge across the divide that Haberdashers (for example) is providing.


We should also be able to explore how systems work in different environments – how to change the postcode lottery where it isn’t necessarily the teachers or the students, but the low aspiration levels of the communities.


Private / Public sectors and Education


Coming together in this way – and meaning it – rather than all-out competition in an area which cannot be completely market dominated nor purely public sector would be fit for the 21st Century. More than that, it would begin to frame the dialogue about what education is really about without (a) depriving the private sector of its rights to be different and (b) depriving the maintained sector (the public sector) of its right to improve. Moving the sectors to work together nationally (rather than merely at the local level) and ensuring that it is not just Government that can dictate what education is there to provide is essential in the 21st Century. Politicians are no longer the ones who know what to do. They do not represent public opinion and rarely shape it. Civil society needs to be better represented in the areas that count for the most and education is one area that cries out for change of this type.


Additionally, what is likely to emerge from this but a framework for a national education system with the potential to have the best of private and public education – but, for the benefit of those in the middle (the people who are being educated and their families).  A framework where private sector and public plus representatives of those whose education we are discussing (the educatees and parents and guardians) can continuously evaluate the benefits of particular models and judge progress.


A new model for the 21st Century is one where all sectors of the population work together rather than compete. The nation’s education is important enough for something really radical to take shape. Education is broken – it needs fixing but not piecemeal and not school by school.



2 thoughts on “The fight over education

  1. Edited – Sorry for not editing it first before posting – was rushing off to a meeting!
    Education… moving the ball upward!
    In building excellent schools we should be guided by a set of core beliefs in its pursuit of the development of a student that excels as a lifelong learner by being a rigorous Charter Schools (enriching, cognitive, relational). That is moving the ball upward to success! IT IS NOT BY $$$, while it is important all we have to look at Colleges and Universities and see the corruption of what was a great system that the pursuit of money before mission has done (but that is a different post). The reason schools are in business is to give that hand up in creating a strong outcome of life long learners who are free to give their best into culture through: their careers, family life, pursuits of volunteering, giving to their churches, using their gifts to lift up others and use their minds (thinking cognitive processes) to better our communities, states, nation and other countries.

    I believe that the urban/suburban, in-between, and even rural communities have one particular thing in common it is that parents in those communities are desperately in need of strong educational options for their children. What is the mix for success? School safety is critical, but it is not enough. Parental approval is so very important, but it isn’t the sole indicator of an exemplary education, there are other factors in whole mix. It is that the school value should be determined by a wholistic (well-rounded) educational platform and students’ academic performance that preps them for life, college/trade and most of to excel in life as a citizen of our great country.

    The most important questions to ask in striving for academic excellence is: “How are student’s outcomes being achieved? What is the performance level based on those outcomes and are they serving the students in the application of the knowledge gained?” If it is just facts to be learned, then test scores will drive the school, if athletics then only 10% are doing well, if the arts 20% to 30% again are doing well…the list goes on. But outcomes expected on the overall educational environment should be strong enough that achievements are marked from academic rigors, performance, class room environment, culture of the school, discipline, community involvement, educational outcomes clearly stated and owned (by faculty, staff and students plus the board), testing, the Arts, Athletics and staff are all involved to become part of the whole exemplary pursuit of an excellent rigorous Charter Schools (is a mix between public and private)– magnet type public schools, private schools can be a driving force of collaboration of cross pollinating environments.

    In more than a decade of experience with the Charter School movement (plus home schools, private and magnate schools), families have the right to choose an excellent character building educational environment where all students have the clear choice to be life-long learners.

    I believe that as stated in the above definition that:

    A wholistic Academic performance does …

    Drives Leadership: Leaders of excellent schools demand, manage, and support strong academic performance outcomes and community involvement
    Drives Design: Everything about a school’s design – from its schedule to curriculum to instructional strategies – helps students achieve high academic standards
    Drives Culture: To succeed academically, students need and deserve a culture that is highly disciplined, tightly structured, and motivating of their intrinsic desire to excel.
    Drives Decisions: Decisions at every level of a school’s operation are based on careful measurement and analysis of student achievement
    Drives Governance: A Charter School cannot succeed without the determination of its board to hold the school fast to its ambitious standards and provide the resources necessary to meet those standards
    Drives Academic Performance: Stated standards and testing systems combined with strong internal standards and assessments provide essential incentives and guidance for student academic performance
    These core beliefs must be people who are committed to building schools regionally in communities around measurable student outcomes; who embrace strong standards and are willing to set high expectations for all students; and who are prepared to do whatever it takes to help students reach and succeed in elementary school, middle school, high school, in college and beyond as life-long learners. In general, for most students as a school in partnership with the parent (s) if we do not capture their passion of lifelong learning by third grade, they will struggle to gain a solid foot hold in life. A solid charter school etc. that is passionate about its relational, academic position in that child’s life will give them that solid foot hold for life!

    In many areas of the USA, Charter Schools (plus home schools, private and magnate schools) provide that best opportunity to close the achievement gap for students in our centers of living. It’s an absolute fact: an academic gap exists between students in the outcomes achieved in previous decades. Public schools in general as well as colleges are failing in achieving the best for students and families that they serve. In cities large and small, on both coasts and in Middle America, students have been under-served by our educational system.

    I believe that a better focused Charter School (plus home schools, private and magnate schools) can be a catalyst for changing the status of what has been standard for too many schools. If the Charter School has the drive, capacity, and skills to successfully build deep. We have to believe that our children need a challenging, stimulating, and motivating environment to fulfill their true potential if that is true… then we can’t fail.

    A steadfast commitment to academic achievement as the primary driver of every aspect of a school’s functioning; I would have the determination to locate, train, and support those individuals who are driven to serve in such a school that has provided the means in seeking to close the gap.

    I believe that as school leaders have to be of this mindset if a Charter School is to a triumph:

    A belief that a wholistic academic achievement drives everything (language core, music to business eco)
    Have an understanding of what it means to be a college/trade track school
    Strong communicator, strategic scope and sequence thinker and highly flexible
    Relentless achievers – a lifelong learner himself/herself
    Unpretentiousness while not afraid to own and make decisions in a team collaborative spirit (both Admin/Academic/Classroom leaders). This is usually the place where life can be enriched by with longer term solutions.
    To be demanding of themselves and others
    Fund raising, community networking (from both individuals/business and in the case of public sector local government partnerships)
    Entrepreneurial, high-capacity, and non-passive about outcomes with students and with partnered leaders – everybody holds the water not just one group in outcomes. Shared responsibility.
    Here is just one step in using a different way of thinking: Such as… we have learned from some of our most innovative companies, the creation of new spaces or re-creation of educational space is truly an exploration of culture. What are the school environments in our community telling us? Telling our young people?

    It is time to re-imagine and invest in schools and spaces ripe for creativity and cross-pollination. Through collaboration we could start to imagine what could happen: What if the advanced physics student and the photography student had a meaningful “collisions” (a bit of physics humor) this can be done in all three type schools? What if we did so by design — if their classwork would weave together diverse content and skills intentionally and elegantly? What would young people see as possible? They might come to understand that the lines between music, math, physics, and art are much blurrier than textbooks make them appear.

    The Charter School, magnate, private could be the breeding ground for a new millennium of “Renaissance” young men and women where creating something and incorporating it into practical application is an everyday experience and expectation. Studies prove that the more methods we work with information given the better retention there is and the more universally applied it is. That is a strong academic performance outcome!

    Here is another step: This model is deeply rooted in project-based learning (PBL), whereby students learn academic knowledge while picking up real-life skills such as collaboration and critical thinking in meaningful and integrated projects. Funding is there if creative companies, people are brought into the process in partnership with local government and individuals. With these new structures a pedagogical/androgyny academic environment are mixed together to become a solid foundation that brings with it supportive spaces; in which students can produce, focus more on the process and content being taught. Strategies using case studies, role playing, simulations, and self-evaluation can be employed in newly creatively designed living classrooms. Using new technologies (you aren’t competing with MTV methods) aren’t ends but a means to enhance and expand new ways to connect with information and other students around the USA and the world. Still with the textbooks in hand, could even be a tablet, the instructor guides and leads this dynamic mix to build a strong academic environment – a living classroom. Instructors/Teachers /Mentor/ Tutors, adopt roles of facilitator or resource leaders and or guides rather than just the “Teacher” lecturer or grader. Performance increases in this environmental freedom and rigorous standards.

    Educational shifts are a challenge but can be overcome through “creactive” (creative/active a non-passive -all talk and no show) mindset of collaborative partnerships in three areas away from tradition broken models into: Charter Schools, Magnate Schools (science, business, music… cores) plus your private school. The industry that would be hurt is sports but that should be taken out of the public sphere (a huge cost in money, time and off target ed outcomes) and let it go private with teams outside of school. But that is side issue – The Charter School, magnate, private could be the breeding ground for a new millennium of “Renaissance” young men and women where creating something and incorporating it into practical application is an everyday experience and expectation. Studies prove that the more methods we work with information given the better retention there is and the more universally applied it is. That is a strong academic performance outcome!

    Discontinuous change is happening in our culture and our first thought is that this change has to be microwaved and all at once. Take the time in developing a culture of change agents who are stable, visionary and unified – THAT – brings a culture that adjusts to the seasons of the economy, life and new ideas one step at a time… as long as they are upward!!

  2. Pingback: Education and Equal Concern | Common Threads

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