Curriculum matters

The June 2017 edition of Education Politics contains several articles on the school curriculum. These raise a number of issues which need discussion. My concern is that they all come from a similar viewpoint. That viewpoint certainly expresses ideas commonly held from the centre to the left of politics. An informed discussion will, however, require the expression of a rather wider range of views.

It is suggested that the idea that “Really useful knowledge is knowledge calculated to make you free”, whatever its precise meaning, is a useful counterweight to the “Govian” idea of “powerful knowledge”. But one might ask (1) if knowledge can really be defined by whether or not it was “calculated to make you free” (Newton’s laws of motion are certainly useful irrespective of whether he “calculated” them to make you free) and (2) the idea of “powerful knowledge” was developed by Michael Young (using the work of Lev Vygotsky) who is certainly no Govian – see Eddie Playfair’s blog for discussion of this point.

What seems to be missing from much left curriculum discussion is a perspective on the role of education in overal social reproduction. Were such a perspective to be taken into account then, in my view, much of what is commonly said in left-wing debate about such things as the role of subjects in the curriculum, the nature of knowledge, and so-called child-centred learning would come to be seen as highly questionable.

In modern society young people spend ever longer periods of their early life in education. Unlike the rest of the animal world humans create around themselves a vast cultural edifice which is augmented by each generation and then passed on to the next. Human maturation, unlike that of the other animals, requires the assimilation of large chunks of this pre-existing culture and it is through that process of socialisation that we develop the capacities that allow us to develop and express our individuality.

The point in all this for curriculum discussion is to recognise that the educational process acts as a vector of objectively existing culture from one generation to the next. Through education we assimilate that culture (arts, sciences, morality, sociality, know-how …). This “assimilation” is a highly complex process which cannot be reduced to mechanical repetition. Each individual has to come to terms with it in their own way. This is a creative process in which we work to internalise the creative potential of existing culture.
If this is right then there is something deeply suspect about the “radicalism” that suggests that there is something reactionary about believing that there is a body of knowledge/know how/values which it is, in large part, the role of education to transmit to the rising generation.

So when I read things like “Increasingly, my own disposition to the curriculum has been informed not by abstracted philosophical or psychological theory, but rather by the reported experiences of children and young people …”. Then I have a sense of the wood not being seen because of the trees.

And further when I read “…the organisation of knowledge into neat disciplinary categories is always more a matter of institutional convenience than a representation of some underlying truth” I feel sure that things have gone badly wrong. Can the person writing such things have ever wondered why physics textbooks use such different language to biology or geology textbooks? The idea that the “subjects” into which the curriculum is divided are entirely an arefact of institutional convenience will bear little examination.

Who said this (below)?

There used to be an almost instinctive understanding on the Left of the liberating power of traditional education. Cultural capital, like every other kind of capital, should not be the property of an elite. The rich should no more have exclusive access to the means of intellectual enlightenment than they should have an exclusive hold on the means of economic production, distribution and exchange. And the desire to give working people access to the best that has been thought and written – very far from being an idealistic enterprise doomed to failure – ran entirely with the grain of working people’s aspirations.

It was none other than Michael Gove. He became something of a hate figure for teachers and for the left and not without reason (although few of them, in my experience, actually read any of his speeches). All the same, not everything he said was wrong and some sections of the educational left in taking up a diametrically opposed position have left themselves without a stable basis for analysis and without a coherent view of what education is about and how we should approach the construction of the curriculum. Some have gone so far as to suggest that even a framework national curriculum is unacceptable and that “Curriculum, rather than arising from some central mandate, [should be] locally negotiated”.

I suggest that people who talk like this have lost contact with the reality of education and its necessary role as a vector for the achievements of previous generations and the process of assimilating those achievements and creatively carrying them forward. When, as in Education Politics for July 2017, I am told that education should “re-focus on … the aesthetics of self-formation” and that it should be “reframed as a site for self creation through an advanced ethics of practice” then I find it hard to resist the conclusion that those who talk like this have lost their way in the ethereal regions of post-modernism to such an extent that they hinder rather than help the process of curriculum design.

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Education after the Election – SEA Annual Conference 2017

SEA’s Annual Conference will be an important opportunity to consider the implications of the General Election for education and the issues that are likely to be facing us in the next Parliament.

I can now confirm the speakers and the themes we’ll be addressing. They will be:

  • The political and parliamentary outlook after the election – John Cryer MP Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party
  • Child development in the early years and its implications for policy – Pam Jarvis from Leeds Metropolitan University
  • School funding cuts and the campaign to resist them – Matt Dykes,
  • Resisting the return of grammar schools and secondary moderns – Councillor Michael Pavey, Political and Parliamentary Officer, Comprehensive Future.
  • Post election prospects for post 16 education – Eddie Playfair, Principal NewVic Sixth Form College and former Vice Chair of SEA.

The conference will be held in Room B04, Birkbeck College, Malet Street London, WC1E 7HY on Saturday 24th June 2017. The AGM will begin at 10.00 and the Conference will start at  11.00 am.

The cost to attend the conference is £25 waged and £15 unwaged. This includes lunch.

Please book your place by e mail to secretary@socialisteducationalassociation.org . Payment can be made on the day.


Labour messages for the local elections – education still matters

As we move into the county council election campaign, putting together a strong message on education is not easy. As more and more powers are stripped away from local authorities, the temptation to not pay much attention to the issue is strong. As Labour is in opposition in most county councils, that temptation can be all the greater.

There are however some strong messages that should be put forward and areas where even opposition councillors can make a difference.

Most obvious is a root and branch opposition to any expansion of selection. We don’t yet know exactly what the government is planning but we do know there will be some councils and some individual schools who want to pursue this. Labour groups should be opposing this at every opportunity and should be encouraging and supporting any local campaigns. The key message should be to remember that most children won’t go to selective schools and their opportunities will be seriously damaged.

Local elections are obviously an opportunity to highlight national issues. One will be the newly announced Labour policy on primary school meals paid for through VAT on private school fees. Other obvious ones are the growing teacher shortage and the savage cuts to school budgets. In many county areas, local Tories will be up in arms at the failure of the government’s funding formula to deliver increases for their schools. It’s important for Labour to be clear that the problem is cuts in the overall funding for schools rather than the formula. On this issue, the article by Martin Johnson in the current issue of Education Politics is a must read (https://socedassoc.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/education-politics-march-2017.pdf).

It is really important to remember local authorities still have the responsibility to support and promote high standards in schools that are still LA maintained – which in many cases will be most primaries.

Perhaps more important, though, is to assert the duty of the local authority to be the advocate for parents and children. Even where local authorities no longer have any formal power, they do have a moral right and duty to use their influence and their democratic mandate to stand up for local communities against central government, over-mighty academy chains and that minority of schools that put their own self-interest above that of all their pupils. This could mean for example:

–          Identifying any need for school places and brokering deals with appropriate organisations to try and ensure that new places and schools are in the right place and are consistent with the values of the authority and local people. Don’t wait for the EFA to dump something on you if possible.

–          Seeking to persuade schools to collaborate in areas such as professional development and school improvement

–          Making sure the needs of vulnerable pupils are met and that all schools contribute to meeting their needs. This means a joint approach to SEN, placing excluded pupils and so on.

–          Being prepared to challenge schools that are not performing well enough or that are not acting fairly over issues such as admissions, SEN and exclusions. Local authorities should be prepared to take issues to Ofsted, the Regional Commissioner or the Schools Adjudicator and demand that they take action.

–          Keeping an eye out for financial mismanagement and other failings in academy chains. This would include free schools where there is no need and where buildings are inappropriate.

–          Working with local unions to promote local solutions to teacher recruitment and retention, workload etc. Unions will be a valuable source of local intelligence about what is happening on the ground

In many cases local authorities can’t say simply “we will pledge to deliver this” in relation to schools. But still councils can wield influence even within current constraints. Even a minority group can spot and raise issues, pressure Tory majority groups and get local publicity for issues and concerns. And by doing so they help to make the case for the restoration of a coherent public education service properly accountable to local communities


Towards a Labour education agenda for 2020.

This article is included in the current issue of the SEA journal, Education Politics

The SEA is currently going about the task of developing a new education policy agenda for England. Our aim is to provide Labour with a comprehensive road map for the future and to challenge the damaging and backward looking policies of the current government.

This process is now well under way. At our meetings this year in Birmingham and Liverpool we’ve looked in detail at three of the ten areas that we identified as themes that we need to address. We’ve addressed the issues around the school workforce, the inspection and accountability of schools and the needs of young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

At our next meeting in Cardiff on May 13th we’ll be looking at the whole issue of inequality – looking at how poverty, privilege, gender, ethnicity and geography all contribute to severely unequal outcomes from our education system. Then at our annual conference on June 24th in London, we’ll be focussing on the curriculum from early years through primary and secondary to post 16. We’ll look at what we teach, how we teach it and how we should assess children’s progress. An important factor will be to re-define the boundary between the roles of politicians and professional educatorw which has become so disastrously blurred in recent years.

In the debates we’ve had so far a number of themes are beginning to emerge that have implications for many aspects of our education service. Key themes are:

– Education is already underfunded and this is going to get worse. This has implications for pay and hence for recruitment and retention. We found it also has implications for SEND pupils, especially where the support services on which they so much rely have been decimated.

– The punitive focus on testing and accountability is damaging in so many ways. It’s contributing to the crisis in teacher morale and retention.  It’s distorting what is taught and how it’s taught.  The pressure of Ofsted and league tables mean that too often the narrow interests of the school are put above the interests of the pupils.

– Marketisation and privatisation are destroying the frameworks that supported collaboration and helped to ensure a degree of fairness for all. In particular, pupils with special needs are at risk when local partnerships break down.

We’re very keen that as many SEA members as possible are involved in this process as possible and we know that members in other parts of the country won’t be able to get to meetings. So here are some of the perhaps trickier questions and issues that we’ll need to resolve and about which it would be really helpful to get the views of members and supporters.

What do you think about these issues?

Q1.         We know education needs higher levels of funding. So do many other public services. Being credible about the public finances is really important. So what should we be saying about how the money should be found?

Q2          Provision for children with special needs has to strike a balance between the principle of inclusion, parental choice and the highly specialist provision that some children need. This often leads to conflict between families, schools and local authorities, especially at a time when money is short. What is the right balance between inclusion in mainstream and specialist provision? And who should decide what is right for an individual child?

Q3          By 2020, academisation will probably be even further advanced. Pressure to put schools into multi-academy trusts will continue and lots of elaborate organisational structures and personal vested interests will have been established. SEA has always opposed the academy model – but how practically should we go about restoring education as a public service with proper democratic accountability?

Q4          Selection isn’t just about grammar schools. English education is bedevilled by academic, religious and socio-economic segregation in virtually every area. How can we make our school system more genuinely comprehensive?

Q5          All research says that too many children under achieve in English schools. Why does that happen and what can we do about it? How far is this about what schools do – and how can that change? But also how far is it about how unequal our society is as a whole? What other kinds of things need to change if children are to have a more equal chance of success in school and beyond?

Q6          SEA believes there is too much of a blame culture around schools arising from our current approach to testing, league tables and inspection. We do need systems to tell us how well children and schools are doing and to identify what needs to improve. So, how can we monitor and support schools and children without the damaging effects caused by our present systems?

Q7          We’ve had a National Curriculum since 1988. Since that time, it’s become more and more dominated by political opinions but, of course, it doesn’t apply to academies. So, do we still need a National Curriculum? If we do, what’s wrong with the one we’ve got, how prescriptive should it be, who should be responsible for deciding what’s in it and how it should be kept up to date?

If you’ve got views on any of these issues do please let us know. They could be used too as the framework for local debates in CLPs, union branches or any other local forums.

Please e mail your responses and ideas to socialisteducation@virginmedia.com.

On our website at https://socialisteducationalassociation.org/sea-manifesto-2017/ you can find the first group of materials prepared for this manifesto. We’d like to have lots more contributions – we know SEA members have expertise in just about every aspect of education. Do share your ideas so we can make sure our manifesto draws on all that knowledge and experience.


Who Cares About Education by Eric MacFarlane

This post is the foreword to this new book and is written by Melissa Benn. Eric MacFarlane was the founding principal of Queen Mary’s College, one of Hampshire’s pioneering 16+ comprehensive colleges, and has been an LEA adviser, examiner and assessor. He worked at the University of Surrey and Birkbeck College promoting the Enterprise in Higher Education initiative, before becoming academic staff adviser in University College, London. The book is published by New Generation Publishing

This thoughtful book is published just as a fresh set of  politicians try once more to overhaul our education system. Young people,  says our government  (which has, incidentally, no popular mandate for any such reform),  should once more be divided into the supposedly academically able and the rest. The only problem with this proposal?  It has already proved a failure as was shown, fifty years ago,  when educators, parents, politicians and students, from all points on the political spectrum, rejected the binary division of the primary school population into winners and losers.  And so our comprehensive system was born.

Yet here come the same old tired and élitist ideas, only this time they are dressed up as diversity not division, a means to promote so-called social mobility rather than suppress the achievements and spirits of the majority and with grammar schools now reframed as  ‘centres of excellence’.    Having been a grammar school pupil, teacher and head teacher himself,  Eric Macfarlane is particularly well placed to puncture the discouraging doublespeak of these proposals and he does so with forensic precision.

But this book, which goes to the heart of our current dilemmas, is about so much more.  Eric Macfarlane has had an astonishingly varied and interesting life as a teacher, school leader, consultant and examiner, always learning from his many roles (this last is so important).  He subtly and gently deploys this long experience to point out how far we have travelled from understanding and developing a profound sense of what education should be about.  Instead, succeeding waves of anxious and arrogant politicians have substituted the quick fix for deep thought, the top-down overhaul for organically evolving change, the conventional and the arid for the bold and playful.

Our education system is slowly being strangled by an obeisance to old-fashioned ideas that only the academic route is worth anything, an obsession that not only fails so many of our children but does not even serve the traditionally successful.  Every young person, whatever their talents, needs access to a general and more arts-based education and a more exploratory and enjoyable approach to the art of learning itself.

As the head of one of the country’s pioneering open access 16-19 comprehensive colleges Eric Macfarlane shows us what such a broad and less specialised educational experience can achieve – indeed, what it did achieve –  and how much it benefits young people at a point when they are at the height of their creativity and expressiveness. With controlled force, and always resorting to the reasoned, human example, he argues that if we would only stop trying to ape the past and in particular some partial, mythical view of the old public school model we could develop a more original and exciting vision of learning.

At the same time, we need to loosen the grip of centralised political control on our schools. Genuine school and classroom autonomy has been eroded over decades by politicians and policymakers convinced that they, and they alone, know what a good education looks like,  sweeping away generations of fruitful experiment and hard-won experience in the process. Now even our primary schools are being robbed of their breadth and vitality in order to become early staging posts on the way to an over-specialised university experience.

Despite his warnings, this is not a pessimistic book.  Eric Macfarlane manages to convey the many joys of truly unfettered learning, and acknowledges that there are, and will always remain, many wonderful teachers and heads and pupils in our schools, working against the grain of official policy.

For all that,  there beats in this well informed crie de coeur a single powerful message: we are heading in completely the wrong direction.

This wise book will speak to a wide range of audiences. It will surely strike a chord with those lucky enough to have experienced first-hand some of the innovative and intellectually exciting experiments of an earlier era of comprehensive education before obsessive accountability measures and endless testing took over.  It will also prove an important resource for a generation of teachers, parents and young people who sense something has gone very wrong in today’s system.

This rich mix of memoir, reflection and persuasion will, I hope, act as both tremendous encouragement to their burgeoning rebellions and a guide to shaping an alternative approach.


US school privatisation – a glimpse of our future?

The current issue of the New York Review of Books has a long review by Diane Ravitch of two recent books  on school privatisation. The review provides a stark warning about the consequences of turning locally run schools into state-funded independent institutions. The first paragraph of the article sets a chilling scene.

The New York Times recently published a series of articles about the dangers of privatizing public services, the first of which was called “When You Dial 911 and Wall Street Answers.” Over the years, the Times has published other exposés of privatized services, like hospitals, health care, prisons, ambulances, and preschools for children with disabilities. In some cities and states, even libraries and water have been privatized. No public service is immune from takeover by corporations that say they can provide comparable or better quality at a lower cost. The New York Times said that since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms “have increasingly taken over a wide array of civic and financial services that are central to American life.”

Donald Trump backs privatising the nation’s public schools. He said that he would turn $20 billion of existing federal education expenditures into grants which states can use for vouchers for religious schools, charter schools, private schools, or public schools. Unsurprisingly, he sees choice and competition as drivers of school improvement.

About half the US states have enacted voucher legislation or tax credits for non-public schools, even though in some of those states, like Indiana and Nevada, the state constitution explicitly forbids spending state funds on religious schools or anything other than public schools.

The ideological pressure for privatisation comes from conservative ideologues and institutions. But that said, the scope of their thinking goes well beyond their immediate circles (sounds familiar?). The Obama administration has been enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools. In 2009, its Race to the Top programme offered a $4.35 billion  prize that states could compete for. To be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low test scores.

In response to pressure from the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools. Thousands of neighbourhood schools have closed to be replaced by charter schools. There are about seven thousand publicly funded, privately managed charter schools, enrolling nearly three million students. Some are run for profit. Some are online schools, where students sit at home and get their lessons on a computer. Some operate in shopping malls. Some are run by fly-by-night characters hoping to make money. From 2010 to 2015, more than 1,200 charters closed due to academic or financial difficulties.

Powerful private interests are at work in promoting the privatisation program but there are signs of resistance to the trend. Bill Gates spent money to promote charter legislation in his home state of Washington. When three state referenda failed support charter schools a fourth was held which favoured them with a margin of 1.5%. However, the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools are not public schools because their boards are not elected. So in the recent election, Gates and his allies supported opponents who ran against the justices who were responsible for that decision. The voters were not convinced and so re-elected them.

One of the books reviewed by Ravitch (Education and the Commercial Mindset by Samuel E. Abrams) considers the experience of Sweden and Chile, which embraced school privatization under conservative leadership. In both countries school performance declined, and segregation by race, class, religion, and income grew. The result of school choice was not increased school quality but increased social inequity. Abrams says that Finland, which has rejected the choice/competition approach, has, on the other hand, produced excellent schools and highly respected educational outcomes for its pupils.

The other book reviewed (School Choice: The End of Public Education? by Mercedes K. Schneider) Considers the history of the idea of school choice starting with economist Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay advocating school vouchers. Schneider shows how the idea was taken up by southern conservatives as a way of evading desegregation legislation. He details the encouragement given to the charter school industry by Presidents Bush and Obama as well as the millions poured in by private foundations such as those of Gates and Wallmart. The scope for for-profit educational business has expanded enormously and with so little in the way of checks and controls that high levels of fraud and graft are the inevitable result.

Investors in charter school construction can receive a 39 percent federal tax credit over seven years. Foreign investors in charter schools can get privileged access permanent resident status for themselves and their families by investing in charter schools. Charter operators have developed a neat trick in which they buy a building, lease it to themselves at high rentals, and get rich from their real estate. Former tennis star Andre Agassi joined with an equity investor to build and open charter schools across the country, even though the Las Vegas charter school that bears his name is one of the lowest-performing schools in Nevada.

Diane Ravitch concludes her review with a positive note about what she sees as growing resistance to the privatising programme.

As the recent state election returns in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Washington State suggest, the tide may be turning against privatization as the public recognizes what is at stake. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People helped to promote resistance with its call in October for a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, until they stop expelling the students that public schools are required to educate, until they stop segregating the highest-performing students from others, and until “public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.”


Does anyone want the Isle of Portland Academy?

The story of the Isle of Portland Aldridge Academy is one that illustrates many of the dubious features of academy sponsorship. This academy is an all through school formed in 2012 as an amalgamation of four primary schools and one secondary school. It was sponsored by the Aldridge Foundation and Dorset County Council.

The Aldridge Academies Trust was founded by Rod Aldridge of Capita. In addition to the Isle of Portland, it currently has four schools in Darwen, Lancashire, two in Brighton and one in North Kensington. It is planning to open two UTC’s in Salford and Newhaven and is responsible for the National College for Digital Skills in Tottenham.

In 2014, the Isle of Portland was rated good by Ofsted. Since then however things have gone downhill rapidly. Results have dropped sharply and the financial situation of the academy has become critical. It’s under a Financial Notice to Improve, owes £520k to the government and has made 21 redundancies. Part of the background to this was the delay in uniting the school on a single site.

The plan was for the school to become a full member of the Aldridge multi-academy trust – up to now it’s been a single academy trust with Aldridge as one of the trust sponsors. This is a subtle but significant distinction – it means the MAT doesn’t control staffing and can’t use its other resources to support the school financially. Joining the MAT though was not popular – 1000- parents signed a petition opposing it and the chair and vice chair resigned. But of course these days, local people’s views count for very little.

However this plan has fallen through – Aldridge has withdrawn from any involvement and the Regional Commissioner is stuck with trying to find a new sponsor for a school in very significant difficulties.

So what can we learn from this story –

First we need to ask what possible coherence there can be for a smallish trust with schools spread the length and breadth of the country. The government’s vision for MATs is that they foster collaboration and the sharing of best practice. They are meant to nurture talented staff and spread them across their schools. You would expect the trust’s central staff to be engaging regularly with the schools – especially those in difficulties. It’s hard to see how any of this can happen in such a disparate organisation. The trust actually recognised that the isolation of Portland from the rest of the trust was a problem but it’s equally hard to see how Kensington, Darwen and Brighton add much value to each other.

Secondly, the MAT has taken the decision to withdraw based entirely on its own interests. Portland comes with a big debt which would fall to the trust to sort out. It knows sorting out the educational issues of this isolated school would be very hard – and it’s not wrong about that. The point is here that this is a decision taken by a private business – no one started by asking what does this school need. It’s a school that comes with issues so no one wants it. A local authority doesn’t have that choice – it can’t walk away from any of its schools. It’s the fundamental difference between the public interest and the private interests of a trust.

It’s important to recognise that Aldridge is not one of the cowboy trusts that so disfigure the educational landscape. It’s had its successes and there’s no sign of the bad financial behaviour seen in too many MAT’s. But in a sense, that makes this issue all the more important. This is what even the best trusts are expected to do – to make decisions according to their corporate interests.

We have had cases elsewhere in which the government has effectively bribed trusts to take on tricky situations. But as we go forward there will be many cases where schools are not attractive to sponsors – small schools that are potentially unviable, those with PFI debts or falling rolls or just endemic low performance. Getting a market place made up of private businesses to take on schools where it’s not in their interests to do so will be a huge issue.

Fundamentally this story reminds us that there is a basic contradiction between the equitable delivery of public services and the interests of private business. Until this is sorted, more and more schools will be at the mercy of unpredictable market forces with serious consequences for staff and students alike.