It is the end of term so I am going to suggest a question for gentle reflection over the summer holidays. Are the “forces of conservatism” in education finally on the wane? I know that sounds odd, as thousands of heads and teachers contemplate the next torrent of changes they must implement. But consider the two fundamental pillars of this particular reform movement. The first is a belief that “market forces” can ensure every school will be good and give parents choice.
The second is that drilling children in a narrow range of subjects with a view to passing an equally narrow range of assessment tests constitutes a good education.
These may be crude definitions, but another feature of the “forces of conservatism” is specialisation in overly simplistic narratives. So it is time for the “forces of progress”, if that is what we are, to respond in kind.
The market forces argument that has rampaged through the school system for over 30 years looks increasingly threadbare. Choice, diversity and competition were undoubtedly alluring in their day.
Some of the tools of the market – like inspections and performance measures – had a part to play in improving schools. But real choice has turned out to be an illusion. There isn’t elastic supply of school places and the amount of selection in the English system inevitably creates anxiety, winners and losers. The best any parent can realistically hope for is the expression of preference.
Diversity is another myth. In some ways schools were more diverse (and free) during my education in the 1970s than they are today. What we have now is a continuum: eccentric/incompetent providers at one end, identikit chains of schools at the other and in between the broad mass of institutions which, regardless of type, are forced into conformity by the overwhelming pressure of the league tables and Ofsted.
As the politicians cast around frantically for a new “middle tier” to sit between schools and these monoliths of national accountability, the limits of the monster they have created become clearer.
More telling maybe is what is happening on the ground all over the country. Schools have looked over the precipice, seen a full-blown competitive future where thousands of atomised units float freely without local support, and taken fright. Many are now voting with their feet and organising themselves into partnerships, federations, or even new-model local authority-wide structures. Last week the generally pro-market Centre Forum thinktank published a report applauding new collaborative approaches to school improvement, based on the successful London Challenge model.
Bare-knuckled competition has been trumped, it would seem, by a desire for social solidarity and a shared understanding that the best way to raise standards for all children is by working together, not alone.
Less noticeable (yet) may be the push back against the Goveian definition of a good education. We are stuck with his reforms to the curriculum and qualifications. But for every disciple (and from what I can see these are mostly very young teachers who have quickly given up the profession to write books about how useless their still practising colleagues are), there is another group interested in trying to subvert the future with alternative ideas.
So whether it is resiliency programmes, like the schools incorporating Carol Dweck’s “growth mindsets” into their teaching, the Headteachers’ Roundtable and their innovative qualifications framework, and even the Slow Education movement, partly founded by a housemaster at Eton – which gives you an idea of how widespread the concerns are – this group is broad based and motivated by a different vision.
It is a vision that goes beyond a drill and drone approach to learning, beyond cramming facts to pass exams and towards a belief that valuing creativity, personal, social and emotional development alongside academic work will ultimately lead to better outcomes for pupils.
Some of the most prominent recent questioners of the status quo are even of the right themselves. James O’Shaughnessy, ex-Cameroonian policy adviser, advocates “character education“, a set of strengths or virtues that can contribute to leading a happy and successful life.
And Dale Bassett, formerly of the right-of-centre Reform thinktank and now working for a leading exam board, worries that an exam-centric curriculum will fuel student disengagement and militate against a love of learning.
This is significant. We we are still at the point where this is a battle of ideas and these people can’t be dismissed as wishy-washy, liberal members of “the Blob“.
The “forces of conservatism” argument took root because it captured the imagination of politicians across the spectrum. The “forces of progress”, which stand for collaboration and for a broader vision of education, must do likewise. Discuss.