The Guardian sings from the Crosby songbook

At the SEA Conference last month, Peter Wilby, distinguished former education correspondent and former editor of the New Statesman, discussed why it is that the quality of national political journalism is so low. One of the fundamental causes in his view was ignorance. That is ignorance of the detail of any substantive policy area and a determination to focus on Westminster village games – who’s in, who’s out, who’s up and who’s down.

There was a classic of its kind in yesterday’s Guardian by someone called Christina Patterson – who tweets, I kid you not, under the tag @queenchristina. So no false modesty there. Most of the article is simply a confection of village gossip – so we get the bacon sandwich, knowing the price of a pint of milk, the barrister wife earning maybe £200k (many QC’s wouldn’t get out of bed for that!) and cherry picked opinion poll findings.

No one would claim the polls are great but one thing they do show is that people think Cameron is hopelessly out of touch with their lives – so is any comparison made by Patterson between the two? Of course not. You would have to say that this goes beyond ignorance and is shading into malice straight out of the Crosby playbook. Or maybe journalists are really as totally innumerate as this would suggest?

At the heart of the article though is the now very tired accusation “we don’t know what he stands for”. If Patterson really doesn’t know what Labour’s position is on key issues, she really does need to get out more. Things we – that is she – doesn’t know include:

“will he carry on funding free schools” – absolutely clear, no successful school will be closed but they will be brought under local accountability arrangements. There will be no new free schools and decisions on new schools will be made by local Directors of School Standards.

“a price fix doesn’t amount to a vision for change” – quite right which is why Labour has been clear that this is the preliminary to a complete restructure of the energy market including separating generation from sales.

“if he hasn’t ruled out a referendum on Europe, when might he rule on in?” – there will be a referendum if a future treaty change involves transfers of powers to the EU – otherwise not. The fact that a few mouthy backbenchers panic and want something else doesn’t make the policy in any way unclear.

“many of us think that the government could be doing a lot better on education, youth employment and building industries for the future. But saying you’ll have a one nation approach isn’t the same as showing how you’ll make that nation better”. Where to begin … has she really missed the Adonis report on growth, the local government task force report, the Husbands report on 14 to 19 education and training, commitments on house building and so on and so on.

And that’s not to mention the first steps to controlling the private rented housing sector and the repeal of the Health and Social Care Act. Not everyone will like all these policies. But the accusation that there aren’t any is not one that can stand a moment’s scrutiny.

And then to cap it all, our (her?) obsession with primogeniture is wheeled out. “He wrecked his brother’s dreams … (this) certainly isn’t the usual definition of a “family man”. So older brothers have rights that younger ones don’t have. Are we still dominated in our thinking by the inheritance rules of the landed aristocracy? Is it not possible to imagine that people thought about how the party might move on from the Blairite cul de sac and who might be best placed to do this?

When you actually take an article like this apart, ignorance begins to sound like a generous assessment. My first question when reading any article like this is to ask, who wanted this in the paper.? In this case, was it the Blairite rump still seeking revenge for the defenestration of 2007? Or the Tory media operation? Because this could hardly be bettered as a presentation of their destructive argument … except that “Red Ed, the plaything of the unions” has unaccountably been missed out. I expect Patterson ran out of space!

Surely there must be an opening on the Mail for someone of her talents.

What we want from Labour’s Policy Forum

In a couple of weeks’ time, Labour’s Policy Forum will meet to consider the outcomes of the party’s policy review that has been running now for a couple of years. Quite what the relationship is between the material produced by the elected members of the forum and a wide range of specialist reviews is unclear. A lot of the latter have been published recently – in the education field the Blunkett and Husbands reports and in related areas reviews on various aspects of local and regional devolution. In many cases they make the policy forum papers seem rather dated and insubstantial.

Setting aside however the arcane mysteries of the process, SEA is pushing for the Forum to adopt some key changes to current proposals. Our fundamental premise is that:

“Education is not only about economic success. It impacts on the whole of our lives. …The next Labour government will need to provide the conditions for every child to flourish and have a full and rounded education…. Labour should build a one-nation education system where children of all backgrounds have access to the full range of educational opportunities. School should be a place where children learn to get on with one another. We cannot speak of a truly one-nation school system so long as children attend different institutions on the basis of their ability, their parents’ wealth or religious beliefs.”

Getting to this point will be neither easy nor quick. But a clear sense of direction is essential.

On specifics, we believe that the curriculum needs to properly reflect these broad aims. . We endorse the conclusions of the Husbands Review on the 14 to 19 curriculum but we think that Labour needs to say more about the rest of the school curriculum. We see no logic in a National Curriculum applying only to some schools. Nor do we believe that the whims of passing politicians should determine what is taught in our schools. The curriculum should be less prescriptive but it should recognise the place of skills, values and personal qualities as well as knowledge. And it should apply to all schools.

We believe that the current system of inspection needs radical reform. The top-down, punitive model has had its day and is a big reason why teachers’ workload is becoming intolerable. Fear of Ofsted is stifling innovation and focusing attention exclusively on the few things that Ofsted tries to measure. Moreover the process is too cumbersome and inconsistent to be effective. We need a new model of bottom-up accountability driven by peer review and local scrutiny by people who know their local patch.

Trying to run thousands of schools from the centre is a model that has clearly failed. It’s widely accepted that local decision making needs to be restored. SEA is clear that key decisions need to be made by democratically accountable bodies. If there are to be Directors of School Standards, as the Blunkett Review proposes, they must be properly accountable to their local communities. And we absolutely cannot have our schools handed over to be the play thing of Tory party donors.

It is time too to end the culture wars between academies and maintained schools. This has been massively wasteful both in money and in time and energy. It means there are two systems for doing everything with the result that nothing is being done very well.

“We believe that Labour should ensure that all schools have the same rights and responsibilities. In some areas this will mean increased freedom for all schools but it will also mean requiring all schools to adhere to key national expectations. This will include, for example, not employing unqualified teachers and adhering to national agreements on pay and working conditions. All schools will be funded through the same locally agreed funding formulae within a common national framework so that no school has a financial advantage purely as a result of their form of governance.”

We believe that Labour needs to be prepared for government. That is a lesson we should have learned from Michael Gove. Warm general statements won’t be enough. It’s not wrong to put a lot of stress on vocational work and on young people who won’t be going to university. But it’s not enough if we really do have the ambition to create a one nation education system.

500 at the Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign launch rally

Professor Richard Hatcher of Birmingham City University writes

The Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign was launched last night with a huge public rally of at least 500 people (according to ITN News). In the two and a half hour meeting the main speakers included NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney, Birmingham Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, Shabina Bano of the Oldknow parents campaign, Tim Brighouse, former Chief Education Officer for Birmingham (on video), and Salma Yaqoob, ex-Respect leader and former Birmingham councillor. It is Salma who has played the leading role in creating this broad and inclusive campaign. There followed a series of short speeches from the platform including from community activists, Labour councillors (and one LibDem), and Birmingham NUT.

Speakers were united in rejecting the Trojan Horse allegations of a Muslim extremist plot and Gove’s exploitation of them to attack the Muslim community in Birmingham with biased Ofsted inspections. There was a strong sense of Birmingham’s identity as a multicultural city built by successive waves of immigration and determined to resist racist divisions. The campaign recognises that there are some governance problems in some schools, but those should be dealt with by the community in Birmingham, not by a politically-motivated assault by government.

In my short contribution I made two points. The first was about the policy tools which Gove has used to put his Islamophobic attack into practice. There are three. First, his unprecedented dictatorial powers as secretary of state. Second, his use of Ofsted as an arm of government policy, not an independent and supportive evaluator of schools. Third, creating a situation in which governors are unaccountable to the local community through a combination of the academies policy and the disempowering of local authorities. These are policies which the Labour leadership should commit itself to reversing – but so far has given no sign of doing so.

My second point concerned the next steps for the campaign. The huge attendance at the meeting makes clear that there is the desire and the opportunity to seize the initiative from Gove and create our own shared vision of what a high quality socially just education would be, through an ongoing dialogue between parents, teachers and the local community. Not stigmatised schools in a stigmatised community but a model which other schools and communities across the city and beyond (where problems of unaccountable governance can also occur) can learn from.

The Labour local authority should be part of this new partnership, but they have to change. The city council has set up its own inquiry into the Trojan Horse allegation, due to report in a month, but the Review members don’t include any representatives of parents, or of the local community, or of teachers and other school workers and their unions. The council needs to follow up the Review by creating an open, inclusive and democratic forum within which the dialogue the community wants can take place over the coming months, generating plans for action. Will the council be prepared to do this? (I asked the councillor responsible for ‘social cohesion’ last night but he had no answer.) If the council won’t take a lead the Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign will need to do it itself.

These are the sorts of practical and political issues that the campaign will need to discuss now that the initial launch has demonstrated that it has mass support.

There is one other step that needs to be taken: to turn Gove’s attack on Birmingham into an attack at the national level on Gove’s education policies which have enabled it: dictatorial central control, an inspection system that urgently needs reform, a system of school governance that, in Tim Brighouse’s words, is broken, the abuse of academy freedom, the disempowering and in some cases virtual incapacity of local authorities (taking up the call by the Local Government Association for their restoration), and the place of religion in schools. There is a proposal that the NUT could take the lead in organising a conference on that basis in the autumn.

Should schools promote “British values” – a debate?

One response to the accusations of extremism against some Birmingham schools has been to revive calls for schools to teach “British values”. Michael Gove has issued draft changes to the funding agreement for new schools that would require commitment to “the fundamental British values” of (1) democracy, (2) the rule of law, (3) individual liberty, (4) mutual respect and (5) tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs. Already, back in 2011, in its Prevent Strategy, the Home Office defined extremism as active opposition to these values.

On 25th June 2014 John Denham initiated a House of Commons debate on “British values and teaching”. In his opening speech he said that people tended to divide into two camps: (1) those supporting the government’s approach; (2) those who reject the idea of British values. Not fitting into either group, he said he felt a need for debate.

John Denham agrees with the government’s aim “of promoting British values” but is concerned that it has spent much of the last four years undoing the good work going on in schools (e.g. on citizenship) and that its emphasis on “constructing a legal basis for intervening in schools” is likely to be counter-productive. He criticised David Cameron’s rejection of “state multiculturalism” while putting nothing in its place. He argued that multiculturalism had been successful in “promoting respect for difference and in tolerance for new communities” but that it had “failed to emphasise or develop what we hold and value in common”. It had been clearer about what new communities could expect than what was expected of them. For this he blamed “value-free multiculturalism”.

The idea that schools should teach our “national story” was to the fore in John Denham’s speech (he used the expression ten times) and on this he is on the same page as Michael Gove, Conservative Home and the Daily Mail‘s Melanie Phillips who are also keen on the idea of schools promoting “our national story” as a basis for social cohesion, and presumably for the teaching of history.

John Denham advanced five recommendations for teaching “British values”. The Government should: (1) fill the gap left by their opposition to multiculturalism by endorsing the idea of nation building by means of a strong national story and shared values: (2) focus less on legal notions of British values and instead provide teachers and schools with the powers and resources they need to do the job well; (3) set out a simple test for all publicly funded schools—faith, community, academy or free—that they should be required to maintain an environment that is genuinely open and welcoming to all students of all backgrounds; (4) promote “strong national values” which should be restored to their proper place in the curriculum and inspected by Ofsted; (5) recognise the importance, not just of teaching national values, but of young people exploring and shaping them.

The difference between these ideas and those espoused by the government seem to me to be a matter of degree rather than kind. There is agreement on the idea that schools should work for social cohesion by promoting “British values” and telling a “strong national story”. The difference is about how this should be done. On that level I have no doubt about the validity of Denham’s criticisms of the government’s legalistic approach. Nevertheless, his general stance seems to me to prompt at least the following questions.

1. Doesn’t a “strong national story” imply a value-laden approach to history? It suggests a history taught with an eye to the moral to be drawn from it about who we are. If not, then what is the force of the “strong” in “strong national story”? And what exactly is a “national story” as opposed to a plain history of the nation?

2. After reading his speech several times I have little idea what he understands by “British values”. If he cannot be specific about this, then how can it be recommended to schools that it is something they should be teaching? It is difficult to distil anything more than Gove’s five points from what he says.

3. Isn’t describing “democracy” and “tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” as “British values” like describing paying taxes and obeying the law as “British values”. There is nothing specifically British about these things. Others worried about them before the formation of the British nation. Now we share those concerns with people around the world. Why would we want to call these things “British”?

4. Having schools that are equally welcoming to all children does not sit well with them having independent status nor with creating more faith schools, both supported by the Labour Party. John Denham proposes “a fresh look at how we ensure that students in mono-cultural or mono-faith schools” can meet and socialise with those from different backgrounds. Is this not a case of dealing with effects rather than looking to causes?

And then there is a fundamental pedagogical issue about what is meant by teaching values. Without greater clarity than that offered by John Denham this can easily slide into indoctrination. Despite his welcome recognition of the multiple and fluid nature of identity, his analysis and recommendations lack the depth and detail needed to avoid that. We need history well that is taught, not a “strong national story”. Schools should not “promote” values but should instead help young people to develop a critical awareness of them as a basis for thinking for themselves.

A response from John Bolt

I would argue that there is in fact a substantial difference between John Denham’s take on British values and how they should be addressed in schools. For example he states very clearly that values evolve and that one purpose of education is to enable young people to “shape the values they will share in the years to come.” For Denham, this is not about the story of the white, male British state. It’s about “how we came to be sharing this land”.

No one is suggesting that any particular values are unique to Britain. But it seems to me entirely valid to talk about the values that we hope will underpin our society. Whether other countries share them or who first thought of them is immaterial – the point is that they are the ones we are striving to identify and live by in this country. That is the sense in which they are British.

The left ought not to give up on these issues for fear of being tarred with the neo-con agenda personified by Gove and Phillips or because the British state has much in its history of which to be ashamed. We must aim to be better that we have been and if we are to achieve that we need to embrace the values that we need to underpin that ambition and reject those that led us into bad places in the past.

In my view, schools are most certainly in the values business. At the simplest level, they expect pupils to demonstrate through their behaviour that they understand that bullying and stealing are wrong. We oppose forced marriage and female genital mutilation in the end because of values. When I taught in the ILEA in the 1980’s, our work was underpinned by a very clear set of values about anti-racism and anti-sexism. Yes, we want children to be able to explore issues for themselves but we don’t come to it from a value free perspective. Children are not in the end free to become misogynistic bullies.

It’s clearly true to say that faith schools bring an unhealthy element of segregation into our society. But even without them, we would have a problem with mono-cultural schools. There are still plenty of pretty white bastions out there. The Cantle Report into riots in northern cities a few years ago demonstrated clearly the level of de facto segregation driven by housing patterns that exists in too many places. Short of bussing, the answers are not simple.

History too is very far from being value free. When David Starkey writes about the monarchy, he does so from a value-driven perspective. When Christopher Hill wrote about the revolutionaries of the 1640’s or E P Thompson about the formation of the working class, they too were informed by their values. Simply choosing what to write or talk about in history is a judgement based on values which is why the history curriculum is such a very political issue.

The left has tended to shy away from any debate about what happens when values collide within one society. Asking, for example, whether or not cultural relativism trumps gender equality has often led to a rather embarrassed silence. The Labour government’s Equalities Act gave us some answers as to where our priorities should lie – so B&B owners can’t discriminate against gay couples because society’s values trump their personal ones. But the debate is very clearly not over and it’s not surprising that one speech doesn’t give us all the answers.

Should a Labour government ‘drive up standards’ in education?

The author of this piece, Terry Loane, has taught in every phase of education from pre-school through to postgraduate level higher education. For the last 11 years he has worked independently as a trainer, writer, designer of online learning programmes and adviser on the use of technology in learning.

There are no fewer than 17 references in David Blunkett’s recent Labour Policy Review document to ‘driving up standards’. (And if one also includes references to driving ‘improvement’, ‘performance’ and ‘outcomes’, then the total comes to 25.) Clearly Blunkett envisages that a lot of ‘driving’ is going to take place under a Labour government!

‘Driving up standards’ has become a ubiquitous educational mantra. After all, nobody would seriously suggest that we should drive down standards, would they? So ‘driving up standards’ is something that nobody has a bad word to say about – rather like motherhood and apple pie.

But it is problematic when a political or educational catch-phrase becomes almost universally accepted without proper analysis of its real meaning or the assumptions upon which it is based. (Two other examples of such catch-phrases are, I suggest, ‘hard-working families’ and, of course, ‘British values’.) So here is my analysis of what lies behind Blunkett’s much-repeated phrase; here are three reasons why I think the ‘relentless drive to raise standards’ (as he puts it near the start of the executive summary) is downright dangerous.

Firstly, ‘driving up standards’ is just a rather grand-sounding way of saying ‘getting more and more kids to get higher and higher marks in more and more tests’, since exam and test results are the only means in practice of measuring the so-called ‘standards’. John Bolt pointed out in a post on this blog last month that “we have a testing regime that tries to drive out everything that isn’t going to be tested.” Blunkett’s ‘driving up standards’ will simply encourage this tendency for schools to become test and exam factories to the detriment of both the wellbeing and indeed the real education of young people.

My second concern about ‘driving up standards’ is that it takes the attention of educators away from a much more important and problematic issue: what should children actually be learning in school? Now it is certainly not straightforward to answer this question in our rapidly changing times, but the focus on tests, exams and ‘standards’ just makes educators ignore the question altogether – they are too busy trying to improve the test results. And it is surely significant that an obsessive focus on ‘standards’ has coincided with a reactionary narrowing of the curriculum – what the subjects of the so-called English Baccalaureate have in common is that they are the same subjects I studied at school half a century ago. The more we ‘drive up standards’ the less we think about real curricular development.

My third issue with ‘driving up standards’ is the use of the word ‘drive’. This verb describes something we do to machinery and cattle, and it should surely have no place at all in educational discourse. What lies behind the reference to ‘driving’ is a misguided implicit belief that educational problems can be solved by top-down command and control. The Secretary of State will ‘drive’ Ofsted, Ofsted and Blunkett’s Regional School Commissioners will ‘drive’ senior school managers, who will ‘drive’ teachers, and they in turn will ‘drive’ the students – into the ground, no doubt.

Let me make it clear that I am a fan of quality and rigour in learning. But high quality real learning can only happen in a collegiate environment in which politicians, managers, teachers and students respect each other and work collaboratively. And I believe the notion that those towards the top of the hierarchy can ‘drive up standards’ is incompatible with such an approach.

How diverse should we let our school system become?

Up to now this site has avoided commenting on the so-called “Trojan Horse” affair. The evidence as to what has really happened in the schools concerned remains a matter of dispute and as a result much of the coverage of the issues has been of pretty dubious accuracy and has lacked objectivity. Watching the car crash as Gove tries to square his insistence on letting anyone run a school with his neo-Con assumption that conservative Islam is an inevitable precursor to political extremism and terrorism has been interesting but a rather more serious analysis is now needed.

It is becoming clear however that these events have tested to the point of destruction many of the trends and assumptions that have governed schools’ policy since the late 1980’s. Ofsted clearly has egg all over its face – either it failed totally to find serious issues in previous inspections or it is now exaggerating its findings under political pressure. It also shows that governance and accountability systems are broken and need wholesale review.

What I want to focus on here though is the direction of travel towards diversity in the school system. This goes back at least to the Major government which published a White Paper called “Choice and Diversity”. The “choice” part goes further back to the shift to parental preference as the driver of admissions in the early 1980’s.

The fundamental premise is that education is a market and that standards are driven by competition. But competition only works if the products available are differentiated. In the private sector of course, price is the big driver of competition. That’s not (so far at least!) been a factor in state schooling so other forms of differentiation have been needed.

English schooling has never been a monolith. Faith schools and secular ones have always co-existed as have selective and non-selective. But from the 1980’s more and more ways were found of enabling schools to market themselves as having particular characteristics.

League tables and inspection made possible some kind of differentiation by quality. Of course what was (and still is) being measured was to a large extent quality of intake rather than quality of teaching or curriculum. But they did their job in identifying the schools “sharp-elbowed” parents ought to be getting their kids into. Banners with quotes from Ofsted started to appear outside schools on a scale that is only matched by some of the more aggressive retailers.

Then we began to get differentiation by specialism. Initially successful schools (according to Ofsted and the league tables) could adopt a curriculum specialism and get more money for it. For a time they were permitted to select a proportion of their intake according to pupils’ aptitude for the particular specialism. Some elements of this remain in place today. Then under New Labour almost every secondary school became a specialist but of course some specialised in music or languages and some in sport.

Spasmodically there have been attempts to set up schools with a much stronger curriculum slant. Only a handful of city technology colleges got off the ground but more recently University Technical Colleges and studio schools have appeared in rather greater numbers.

From the 1980’s too there came differentiation by form of governance. First there were Grant Maintained Schools which segued into Foundation Schools. Then came City Academies with their private sponsors and finally of course the Govian flood of academies and free schools.

Initially, the existence of a detailed National Curriculum limited just how different schools could be. Just as there isn’t much difference between baked beans in different supermarkets, so most schools had to stick to a prescribed curriculum and had to be judged against the same tests and exams. But academy curriculum freedoms have now begun to make the National Curriculum an irrelevancy for many.

Many schools have been very clever in tailoring their offer and their marketing to their desired pupils. Increasing numbers present themselves as focussing exclusively on academic subjects and standards – grammar schools in all but name with a strong message to the less able that this is not the school for them. Others have found a niche market through faith, ethnicity or some other unique feature.

The notion of education as a common experience which meets the needs of all future citizens – unforgivably put down as what bog-standard comprehensives do – has almost gone. Just at the time when our population is becoming more diverse that ever, we seem to be abandoning one of the key bits of glue which have the potential to bring people together rather than divide them.

And of course we know that one of the things that happens in highly competitive markets is that corners are cut and rules are not always kept to. The banks have been at it. Retailers exploiting third world suppliers and misleading customers with dodgy labels are at it. And sadly some schools are at it too.

Cases of real fraud are thankfully rare – though there is real concern about the integrity of exams as the pressure on schools is ratcheted up. But schools that are distorting the curriculum or restricting opportunity for ideological reasons are out there – and remember, the curriculum is not subject to the Equality Act’s requirements. We’ve had Jewish schools doctoring exam papers because they reject evolution. We’ve got state-funded Steiner schools and schools following transcendental meditation. We’ve Christian faith schools pushing a particular view of the world. Birmingham’s Islamic schools, to the extent that are genuine causes for concern, need to be seen as part of that pattern.

Analysing the problem is relatively the easy part. To know where we go from here is harder. Mending governance and accountability ought to be relatively easy. But all the current ideas write out of the picture real local communities and of course their elected representatives. Tim Brighouse in today’s Guardian eloquently describes how “as senior officers, with the help of local councillors and the cabinet member concerned, we would spend many evenings in schools, community venues and Balti houses seeking better understanding of the way forward with both governors and community members on the one hand and headteachers on the other.” Focussing on appointing Tsar’s, Directors and Commissioners misses the point.

An even harder challenge is to try to define what a common experience ought to be like. The derision that has been heaped on politicians who’ve tried to define “British values” shows how hard that can be. Can we say, for example that sex and relationships education should be the same in all schools? Where is the line between imposing white middle class values on other communities and allowing discrimination of a kind that really is contrary to British values to continue. The extremes are easy – yes, you can wear a headscarf but no, you can’t force a child to marry against her will. But there is much that is tricky and complicated in between.

We have to conclude that a free for all is not acceptable. Total curriculum freedom can no longer be a defensible position. Nor is making schools effectively unaccountable or encouraging them to do anything to meet what they see as the needs of their market. The question is whether our society is capable of a mature debate about what we want our schools to be like, how far they should be the same and what kinds of differences are acceptable

Teacher Quality and Education Structures

The currently popular mantra (among politicians) that “an education system”, or even a “school”, “cannot be better than the teachers it employs” is vacuous. On the other hand it is not meaningless. Even rank nonsense, and this merits consideration for that title, can derive meaning from the way in which it is used.

If we don’t think about it, the mantra appeals to a common sense notion that the parts of a structure/system can impose a limit to its overall functioning. Famously, the US space shuttle The Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after lift off. The whole complex system failed because of its O-ring seals which failed. QED? Not really.

In the early days of computing, when computers were so large that one could walk around inside them, Westinghouse would hand wire cutters to visitors on a tour with an invitation to snip some wires at random. The point of the demonstration was that the computer had such large in-built redundancy that when one circuit failed another would take over thus demonstrating that system redundancy can the compensate for parts failure.

The amplifying component is the main part of an electronic amplification system. However even when that component has far from the desired characteristics a system can be built which has them by using the appropriate feedback circuitry. So long as the gain of the component amplifier is much greater than the gain required of the system it is easy to show that the system gain is independent of the gain of the component amplifier. In other words the system connections determine the ultimate performance rather than that of its component parts.

None of this new. Writing of machines in general in his An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956), Ross Ashby wrote: “That a whole machine should be built on parts of a given behaviour is not sufficient to determine its behaviour as a whole: only when the details of couplings are added does the whole’s behaviour become determinate”. (Emphasis added)

Finally, system performance can be crucially dependent on its in-built error regulation mechanisms and this again can override weaknesses in component parts of the system.

If all this is true of relatively simply mechanical and electronic systems it is far more significant when we deal with more complex systems such as those of biology and society. The view therefore that the quality of a system cannot be greater than that of its component parts is, to put it bluntly, crass.

An education system is extremely complex and is embedded in an even more complex social system. It is therefore shocking that politicians talking about education should want to ignore the richness of the system connection and reduce pretend that overall quality is down to that of one component. All the same there is a clear meaning to such claims. They are all of a piece with Mrs Thatcher’s famous “There is no such thing as society”.

These reductionist views, which exclude the decisive impact that the richness of a system’s connections can have on its overall performance, are a key part of the neo-liberal approach to society. Neo-liberals favour ‘market democracy’ in which a summation of individual choices made in the market place leads (they claim) to an optimisation of the ultimate outcomes. Contrary to this is a view of democracy as being a matter of decisions made through due deliberation leading to a collective choice. The results produced by these two approaches can be very different and even diametrically opposed. The differences are as clear as they could be in education.

Neo-liberals tell us that only if parents have free choice in an educational market with diverse provision can standards be effectively “forced up” (as they like to say). Those who favour democratic collective decision making argue that setting schools and parents against each other in this way will ensure that there will always be failing schools. They argue that the market is the wrong mechanism and that only a collective and democratic approach can ensure that all schools are good (thereby dissipating the need for individual choice). Most parents want to send their children to the local school safe in the knowledge that it is a good one. Markets might make for better biscuits. We can throw away the ones we don’t like and buy different ones next time. Not so with children.

Schools and school systems are (or should be) connection rich systems. This means that they will include: (1)  a certain amount of redundancy so that when one part fails another can take over. This requires, of course, that teachers are not pushed to the limit and have some spare capacity; (2) appropriate error regulation in the form of picking up on early warning signs of things not working as planned through teachers working together and sharing problems as they arise; (3) a connection-rich system rather than the command and control system that is becoming such a feature of our schools, building instead a collegiate approach to allow for maximal feedback from teachers to management and vice versa; (4) an external local democratic system in which the school is embedded which will enhance the operation of the preceding mechanisms through openness and dialogue with the wider public.

None of this is to argue that we need anything other than well-qualified, high-quality teachers. The point is that this does not, by itself, guarantee system success. Making teachers into the be-all and end-all of the success of the system may seem at first to be due recognition of their importance. But by rejecting discussion of system structures both the reality and impact of the system is denied and teachers are lined up for the blame when things go wrong.


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