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 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.

 

 

Brave New World of Education II – Aspiration, aspiration, aspiration

A couple of days ago, Dr Mary Bousted, The Association of Teachers and Lecturers head, voiced the view that schools were segregated along class lines. Back in January, I wrote in:

https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/the-complexity-of-education-politics-and-economics-brave-new-world/

how education, like politics and economics, is mired in the 19th Century. The picture is of a three-tier system of private education (independent schools), middle tiers (mainly converter academies in the secondary sector) and the rest. From my blog of 22 January, 2012:

Three sectors – remnants of 19th Century decision-making and 19th Century thinking.

Yet, we operate in the 21st Century. Education has to achieve many things yet does something different in each of the three areas.

In the first (the alpha sector), it provides a broad education and the ability to move into society at the highest-level possible. This is through networks (with universities, companies, politics) and through the provision of relevant education – through learning that equips pupils to reach for higher standards to learning that enables pupils to attain the next step (e.g. university).

In the second (the beta sector), network management is usually missing entirely and virtually dispensed with because it is deemed wrong. But, we live with 19th Century norms and this required networking. Education is primarily Government dictated through the curriculum, which is all about exams. The three aspects of learning above are ill considered by most schools even in this sector. However, some break through and many achieve better exam results – although most result in the attainment of tertiary education into the beta sector of universities.

In the Third (Epsilon), many schools (not all, this can be changed) keep kids off the streets (to greater or lesser effect) and provide an entry path into the wider world or working. Networks and networking are non-existent except in the local area. Chances of reaching out and attaining higher levels are poor even though funding is substantial (and higher per head than in the Beta sector).

I am fortunate enough to be Chair of Governors of a converter academy with aspirations to be alpha and pretty close to that aspiration. It is now quite likely that pupils educated at the school will be able to step into the right universities (Russell Group or other top level) and move through society’s obstacles. It is a school where parents have high aspirations for their kids and where the school reflects that and leads that aspiration. Motivation is high and there is now a virtuous circle of expectation. This is the Big Society in practice – we all (staff, students, governors, families, local community) share in the benefits and successes of the school.

But, the stratification of society is cemented into position by the school structure. This is not quite what it used to be – there is now an aspirational middle tier that is forcing the pace of education and aspiration. It is a constant problem, though, that schools get placed in locations that they have to serve. Schools can’t (in the main) relocate to improve their intake. They are literally stuck and location means that a school has to accept its intake (whether at primary or secondary level) and do its best.

Aspirations, aspirations, aspirations

What Government is doing is to shake the education bottle – so-called competition for schools, a variety of types of school, new Ofsted leadership and criteria, an end to modular exams at GCSE, more focus on English and maths and the baccalaureate subjects.

Some of this is good, some neutral, and some harmful – but it is all focused on the schools. It is the education, education, education mantra allied with the change, change, change reality that schools are hit with by every government of every complexion.

What is it apart from this that will change the whole nature of education and also deal with the issues that Dr Bousted raises (as I raised three months ago)?

It is all about aspiration.

The aspirations of the kids are directly the result of the aspirations for them of their parents / guardians. In areas where low aspiration parents can send their kids to a high aspiration  school, then the kids can (possibly) raise their targets to compete.

But, where the whole school is in an area of low aspiration (mainly those in inner cities and low income areas), then low aspirations of the parents will transfer to low aspirations of their kids. Staff may fight this but they are limited by the level of life expectation of their “raw material”.

Attempts to change this through investment in the earlier type of Academies have been well meant, expensive and occasionally successful. Education groups (companies and organisations taking over failing schools) can bring some sort of attainment to their students and raise the bar. These are too few to be meaningful and the high funding levels have been curtailed as we enter a prolonged period of austerity. If this is not to be a pervasive system (and it won’t be), are free schools or equivalent an answer?

The contract between state, education and families

No education system will produce 100% scientists, doctors, mathematicians or similar and nor should they. We are all different and society needs a mixture. What we don’t need is the mixture that Huxley’s Brave New World’s dystopian future predicted. We need to evolve our education to meet the needs of society and individuals now – no three tier society from birth but an aspirational society where success is based on capability and merit.

Continued development of the education of our children is crucial to this but it is not sufficient. Dr Bousted’s fears are justified unless we can provide an aspiration amongst our kids and their parents / wider families.

It is no longer sufficient to take pupils into a system and try to modify their minds when, for most of their time they are facing outside pressures from families and peer groups that ridicule the aspirational notions that a good school may try to employ.

It is no longer enough for schools to be expected on their own to persuade parents that they have to inspire as much as the schools try; that kids should, from whatever their background, raise their aspirations to maximize their opportunities – just as wave after wave of immigrant families have done in the UK for generation after generation.

There is a contract signed between parents / guardians and their schools. The contract fails in a key respect (apart of its complete lack of enforceability, of course) – it fails because the focus is only on the pupil. The contract needs to be one where the family provides the environment in which a child can use the opportunities that a good school can provide. The contract needs to be able to ensure that the wider community (which is mainly the family but may be the local community especially in areas of intense peer pressure and gang cultures) ensures that the child is provided with a culture of aspiration.

Changing family aspirations – alpha-oriented

Vast numbers of changes to our education system (to our schools especially) happen every year. At the same time, society seems to be going backwards. Movement between class structures has been stymied and income differences in the UK are growing as the economy shudders to a halt (factory production is still 9% below the all-time high from 5 years ago).

Schools have to continuously improve but it is not enough. The need for every school to be a very good one, offering the best for our children is crucial but an unreal expectation as the reality of society impedes it. Dr Bousted is right in that class infects schools through their location. However, bussing kids around will not work – what may work is a focus of the local community aided by government on the families.

Changing aspirations within family groups is the key to improving education within the toughest and most deprived areas. Kids can change on their own, but only in isolated pockets – where some incredible teacher exists, for example. Anecdotes that show that it can happen are not enough. We should not see the exceptions as the rule. The rule should be extended to where families and local communities demand and work hard for aspirations to be extended; where maybe a middle class tenacity to succeed and take advantage of the opportunities presented exist everywhere.

To do this, pilot schemes should be started alongside the school programmes in areas of greatest challenge. Here funds should be provided and contracts entered into to maximise parental involvement (and local community groups, too, where this is needed) and where research should be carried out where it works so success can be shared. Where needed, this should encourage education opportunities for parents and families so that education is seen as the norm – not something to be shunned as soon as possible. Local government and local companies should be more than one week a lifetime work studies – there should be a continuous involvement.

Where it works already, this must be copied and studied again and again.

Local communities often see the school as the community hub. But, this has been in the absence of anything else and the community uses the school as a place to hold events. Now, we should see the school as a real community hub – the focus of families and our children to address themselves to the real contract – raising the aspirational levels of all our kids so that families are educated together. Education should be seen as the huge opportunity is really is.

We talk about “joined-up thinking” but society needs to be joined up, too, in the way it works. The 21st Century has provided the opportunity for us to join on-line and it is a benefit. The real benefit would be a localism that is based on the school (nursery, primary and secondary) and links those schools with the families for joint education. Schooling should genuinely be life-long so that birth should not dictate your future and a real availability of opportunity should be our aspiration.