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 https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=153&action=edit
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.