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.


13 Comments on “Should a Labour government ‘drive up standards’ in education?”

  1. Gary Brooke says:

    I wish that someone would explain to me what is meant by ‘rigour’. I believe it existed in the ‘good old days’, or any time before 1988.

    • Terry Loane says:

      For me, Gary, rigour has nothing at all to do with the ‘good old days’. For me, rigour in learning is about thoroughness and commitment. The great jazz musician Charlie Parker claimed to practise for between 11 and 15 hours each day, and he made himself practise pieces in each one of the 12 possible keys in order to improve his technique. I have seen similar levels of thoroughness and commitment in many keen young musicians and young dancers (well, perhaps not always to the extent of 15 hours per day!) And of course one can find example after example of young people (and indeed oldies like me) engaging in such rigorous practice with a determination to ‘get it right’ in activities as diverse as computer coding, creative writing, skate-boarding and tennis. Unfortunately the increasingly obsessive focus on test results in schools tends to militate against true thoroughness and commitment. That’s because there is often no dedication to the actual stuff of learning, just to its instrumental value in getting the highest test marks. Passing a literature exam by cramming the study guides rather than reading and critically appraising the novels is the very opposite of what I mean by rigour.

  2. David Pavett says:

    “Driving up standards” like “hard-working families”, “gold-standard qualifications”, “one-nation” + whatever you like, is part of the empty rhetoric that makes some politicians feel that they are connecting with popular consciousness. Used once or twice and they would pass without notice but used relentlessly they reveal only the political shallowness of the message laden with this verbiage. What is wrong with addressing adults in an adult manner? I share Terry’s concerns about the broader implications of language used in this way.

    Another aspect of the debasement of language through political rhetoric is Tristram Hunt’s many times repeated idea that the “skills” of “character” and “resilience” should be taught. When did character become a “skill”? He has even spoken of the “skill” of honesty! Rigour in all this there is none.

  3. bassey355 says:

    Well said Terry (and David). “Driving up standards” is a dangerous phrase. Your analysis is well thought out and clearly expressed. I hope you are sending a copy to Tristram Hunt. He needs to escape the narrow views of David Blunkett and listen to some of the professionals.

  4. Joanna says:

    Like yr piece re driving up standards – particularly the last point about the I appropriateness of the word ‘drive’. I would add the word ‘delivery’ invented by Thatcher to the same category! Milk is divered in bottles ( or used to be!) education is not – it is a service that is provided.

    JOANNA TAIT Sent from my iPhone

  5. Chris Watkins says:

    Well said Terry and David – it’s an awful example in the current centralised rhetoric.
    Not only does “performance pressure” not increase performance (see link to research review below), but it also leads to increased divisiveness in the outcome of our education system.

  6. the key problem here is not simply the idea of “driving” which is linked to “raising the bar” to achieve improved standards, but the idea the actions of central government can do this job, mainly by targets. As the Soviet Union proved, using targets, force, and punishment (ie OFSTED) works in a limited way in that the targets become the objective to be met.

    Blunkett would be amazed to hear that his and the NEw Labour project has anything to do with STALINISM, but the message has to be got through. Performativity (mainly in HE), Deliverology in schools, and Raising the Bar are deadly as they kill initiative and the innovation they claim to want to achieve. No one experiments in a league table culture.

    In the longer term the philosophy reduces education to central control mechanism, deprofessionalises the staff and alienates the students. Any rigorous thinking, ie logical and evidence based, would have kicked this into the long grass in seconds flat.

    Michael is however missing the fundamental point about Hunt, which is that he has no idea what is going on – the Guardian comment about him now developing a talent for missing open goals in tackling Gove over the Cummings Times comments, and every other chance he has to tackle Gove, shows that he is totally in awe of Gove and simply incompetent in doing the basic job of opposition which is to oppose.

    At A deeper level, and one where the need to develop a critique is fundamental, no one in politics questions the target culture and raising the bar. It is the politics of the Soviet Five year plan, but without the plan.

    I could go on about the GERM, which Pasi Sahlberg talked about at BERA earlier this month, but to point out that this is interntional and Obamas man was at the Policy Exchange conference on the 7th, as was Tristram, but without Isolde. Or much else. As Sting said about politicians, it is the rhetoric of failure.

    And until kicked into touch by genuine rigorous logical analysis, Sting’s point that “We are spirits in the material world” will fail to be taken on board. No distinction between rigour and balanced human development. Just that the GERM apparatchiks think there is.

    trevor fisher

  7. David Pavett says:

    Trevor, I think that Hunt and those who think like him would reply “But the whole point is that we don’t think this can be done by central government. That is why we are creating new local Directors of School Standards, giving local authorities new inspection responsibilities and encouraging school cooperation”.

    I am not saying this is a convincing response, it isn’t, but it is the obvious reply and needs to be pre-emptied in our criticisms. So all the talk of Stalinism and five-year plans without a plan doesn’t really help because it is too easily countered.

    Is marketisation the same thing as centralisation? I don’t think that it is. The issue is not centralisation of not but what sort of centralisation. We need central direction to provide the framework that will make it possible for all schools to work together within a common framework. What we have, and what Labour proposes to stick with is, instead, central direction which forces schools to compete with each other in order to survive. The marketeers argument is that they want local choice and diverse provision (i.e. competition) which they say will raise the quality of education. So what de-professionalises teachers is not so much that the minister is telling them what to do but that they are constrained by competition to do what is required to improve their school’s league table position – with all the doleful consequences of the focus this makes on a narrow focus on narrow examinations.

    The problem is not that a “genuine, rigorous logical analysis” of all this has not been developed. It has. The problem is that no politicians are listening or are even interested. The same goes, by and large for the media. This missing ingredient is not the analysis. The problem is the absence of a political party which rejects neo-liberal dogma and which determines its policies on the bases of a detailed critique of current problems and informed democratic debate to determine alternative paths.

  8. Terry Loane says:

    The question of whether we currently have marketisation or Stalinist centralisation is an interesting one, Trevor and David. Let me add two ideas to the debate.

    Firstly I don’t think that the government’s privatisation agenda is driven by a real belief that competition will improve services. No, I think it is driven by the desire of those in government to give away public assets and funding to corporations, in other words to line the pockets of their wealthy friends. Now this has to be done in a slow and stealthy way when it comes to education and health, but progress in the utilities has advanced much further. We are sold the lie that we have choice over who provides our electricity and that this competition keeps prices down(!) but the reality is that whichever electricity supplier I choose, here in London the wires bringing the power to my home are owned and maintained by ‘UK Power Networks’. Although the name UK Power Networks could sound almost statist, the reality is that this company is owned by three Hong Kong-based companies, all of which are under the control of one man: Li Ka Shing. So there is no market at all to protect me the consumer from the (not infrequent) power cuts we have here in Ruislip. I have no choice but to have my electricity delivered along cables owned by Asia’s wealthiest man. The situation with telecommunications is similar, as all landline connectivity (except for those using Virgin Media) is the responsibility of Open Reach, a division of BT. And the situation will be the same in schools if and when most of the ‘independent’ academies are either gobbled up by maybe just two mega-chains or outsource many of their services to a couple of the big providers. So we will have neither democratic accountability nor ‘competition and choice’.

    The second reason I think that it is just bogus for politician’s to claim they believe that competition ‘drives up standards’ (to allude to the original focus of this discussion) is as follows. They may pay lip service to ‘local choice and diverse provision’, to use your phrase, David, but we only need a couple of troublesome news stories and central government reverts to (Stalinist?) diktat. Just within the last fortnight we have heard Cameron insist that school governors should “actively promote British values”, and Gove outline new rules to ensure that “pupils will only be offered two portions of deep-fried, battered and breadcrumb-coated foods each week” in all new academies and free schools. These statements show no confidence at all in the stated belief that markets can ensure high standards of governance or nutrition.

  9. The deep problem is the lack of sustained analysis and breaking the consensus, particularly in the media. This debate is vital because it is highlighting this. There is a need to highlight the contradictions and the lack of credibility in the consensus, but still more the potential for change. THis has to involve parents. As change is de facto imposed from the top whatever the rhetoric, the potential for support amongst parents is considerable – and in the run up to an election, a lever to be used.

    Wilshaw’s call -on the front page of the TImes – for parents to be fined for not reading to kids highlights both the incoherent absurdity of the new culture of imposition, and the potential for opposition Question is how to tap this.

    What Labour says is not relevant. However the specific idea of half a dozen commissioners running schools is part of the incoherence. The Party is totally wedded to anti democratic top down politics. As Trojan Horse shows, flying squad inspections do not work. In Stafford, the quality control people have finally, after some 8 years of a failing hospital, decided to ask the local people.

    Time we did the same. Oh, and I can’t see any comment by Labour on Stafford or other failing hospitals, the disappearance of district nurses or the impending collapse of the family doctor service. Inside the Westminster Village, these issues do not make an impact.

    trevor fisher.

    • David Pavett says:

      We should be specific about the consensus on education. It is a consensus of among our politicians. Polls would suggest that it is not shared by a majority among public at large. What we lack therefore is a political party which breaks from the consensus and fights for a different view. As you say the potetial for support among parents is considerable.

      When you say “What Labour says is not relevant” I presume that you mean “What Labour says is wrong” since, right or wrong, what a party commanding the support of just over a third of the electorate cannot be irrelevant.

      We need to get the details right so that we cannot be undermined on that basis. Labour is not proposing half a dozen commissioners – that’s what the government is doing. Labour is proposing Directors of School Standards. The exact number proposed as not been stated but it is clear that there would be many more than six. Large authorities would probably have their own DSS. Smaller authorities would be grouped to share one. I don’t support the proposal but we need to be clear about what it is.

      I agree with you on the basically anti-democratic nature of Labour’s proposals. The problem is made worse by the fact that Labour supporters who otherwise might be critical friends are falling into line in the lead up to the election. Some of them have even suggested that the proposal for DSSs as a step forward. Labour’s proposals are overall based on the same assumptions as the Coalition. They moderate the implementation of policies based on those proposals but do not question the basic assumptions. I don’t think that it helps anyone if critics remain silent in an effort of pre-election solidarity. If it was a matter of tweaking a few details that might be right but Labour’s education policies are fundamentally flawed.

  10. Terry Loane says:

    I believe you are quite right, Trevor, about “the contradictions and the lack of credibility in the consensus”. Schooling has become a performative game in which the wellbeing and real education of young people are mere distractions from what is seen to really matter – league tables and compliance. The great danger for us is to focus on issues of governance and accountability and thus leave unchallenged the assumptions underlying the ‘test/exam factory’ culture. That’s why I can’t get hugely excited about the local authority vs. academy/free schools issue. Yes, the move away from local authority involvement represents a serious diminution of democratic accountability and is undoubtedly a softening up in preparation for the introduction of state-funded, for–profit schooling. But it is surely a mistake to focus energy just on moving schools back to local democratic accountability. A local authority ‘controlled’ exam factory is only a little better than a for-profit exam factory.

    No, what we surely need to do is to engage parents with us in re-imagining schooling, in fact in ‘de-schooling’ the education of young people. I wrote in an earlier comment in this discussion that “there is often no dedication to the actual stuff of learning, just to its instrumental value in getting the highest test marks.” At some stage the emptiness of this approach must become apparent to a majority of parents and pupils, so I agree, Trevor, that “the potential for support amongst parents is considerable”. In conversations with both teachers and parents I find an increasing awareness that what schools are asking young people to do is to engage in a game whose beneficiary is the school management rather than the learner. But it is going to be a big job to change attitudes. I suggest that the first thing we need to do is to get across the notion that human learning, being a complex phenomenon, is not subject to linear measurement. Therefore test marks and everything that flows from them, are meaningless constructs. Now it is going to be really hard getting people to accept this, given the centrality of test marks and grades to the consensus narrative, but I fear that a less fundamental starting point may just result in cosmetic rearrangement of deck chairs.

  11. I agree with David and Terry on the gap between the Westminster village and the public. The NAHT opinion poll found parents were not supportive of the changes, big majorities on change, exams and the need for QTS

    However we can’t get an teacher parent alliance. Maybe we can work on exams and specific issues to build an alternative consensus. Does anyone track the organization “Parents want a say”????

    Trevor Fisher