Should a Labour government ‘drive up standards’ in education?Posted: June 20, 2014
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.