“The days of education by diktat must come to an end” – is Labour really going to take on the Germ?

Ever since the 1980’s, the direction of travel in education has been in one direction. Pasi Sahlberg famously identified the characteristics of an international trend that he called the Germ – the Global Educational Reform Movement. In his view there are five key features that have come to dominate, disastrously, policy making in the last 30 years. They are:

• centrally prescribed curricula, with detailed and often ambitious performance targets and frequent testing of students and teachers;
• the focus on core subjects at the expense of social studies, arts, music and physical education;
• minimizing experimentation, reducing the use of alternative pedagogical approaches, and limiting risk-taking in schools and classrooms;
• the use of corporate management models as a main driver of improvement;
• standardized tests and external teacher evaluations that devote attention to limited aspects of schooling and determine the success or failure of schools and teachers.

All of this will be very familiar to anyone who has followed English education since the 1980’s. What may not be yet realised is that Labour seems to be developing a serious critique at least some aspects of the Germ.

In recent speeches from both Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt, we’ve seen a serious assault on central control, on the crushing of innovation in schools and on the narrowing of the curriculum.

To ATL, Hunt said “it seems to me that the managerial, target-driven performance culture that has permeated our education system in recent years is beginning to threaten the very purpose of schooling itself”. And “we want young people who are confident, determined and resilient; young people who display courage, compassion, honesty, integrity, fairness, perseverance, emotional intelligence, grit and self-discipline”.

To ASCL he talked about how “the joy, wonder and beauty of schooling risks being buried in the avalanche of bureaucracy that emerges out of the increasingly byzantine demands of inspection”. He went on to say that “the days of education by diktat must come to an end. Change in education must come from the bottom-up. That is first and foremost a challenge for me to let go. But it is also a challenge for you to step up.”

In his speech at Haverstock, Ed Miliband pledged to “redress this government’s attempts to downgrade the creative subjects, like drama, art, design and technology”. Both of them have focussed strongly on the need to foster innovation in schools and to “call time on the ‘exam factory’ approach to schooling.”

Speeches, especially at election time, of course are easy to make and often very hard to deliver on once in government. It is possible however to identify some specific policy commitments that support this direction of travel. As well, of course, as some tricky issues that as yet we don’t know too much about.

There is a clear commitment to give all schools much more freedom to determine their own curriculum. And there does seem to be a growing determination to do something about Ofsted. Despite a huge nervousness about seeming to be soft on quality, Labour is starting to talk about a new system built on peer review. And there is a welcome focus on teacher professionalism, on initial qualifications and on continuing professional development.

But there are still a lot of questions that need to be asked. They include:

– Looking again at the testing regime – both because it narrows the curriculum and because it’s used as a simplistic and inappropriate accountability tool.
– Asking how targets and performance tables fit into a much more decentralised system.
– Ensuring that exams test a wide range of skills and are not just the crude test of memory that Gove has imposed.
– Asking if schools have greater freedom, how we make sure that pupils get what they’re entitled to and that no school goes off in an irresponsible direction at the expense of its pupils?

Labour has vowed not to fall into the trap of centrally driven “initiative-itis”. But just letting go won’t be enough. Many of the key systems that drive behaviour in schools will need to be redesigned if we really want schools to really look and feel different.

Ministers will still want to be able to influence the behaviour of schools. For example how will you get them to give greater priority to the arts if schools have curriculum freedom? How do you make sure that schools do indeed focus on all the personal qualities that have been identified as desirable? This kind of thing has already been a huge issue with academies when ministers want them to do something – British values for example – that isn’t in their funding agreement.

Is this all election rhetoric? Warm words, the implications of which haven’t been thought through? Or are we looking at a reversal of a 30 year trend and a once in a generation change of direction in education policy? Before we can be sure there will need to be a lot of flesh put on the quite limited number of bones that are now in view. But, perhaps unexpectedly, there may just be the beginnings of something serious and transformative on offer on May 7th.

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9 Comments on ““The days of education by diktat must come to an end” – is Labour really going to take on the Germ?”

  1. LeahKStewart says:

    Thanks for a grounded update on this topic… the line “it is also a challenge for you to step up” is key and exciting. Although, it has to be said that many, too many, people feel a terrible lack of self-worth as a result of being educated within centralized schooling system that couldn’t then fulfill on the promise of a “good stable job” in return for doing well. But, what might change from the “bottom-up” look like? I’ve had an article featured in the Huffington today on this, using an Easter Egg Hunt analogy (of all things! Oh well, it is the Easter Holidays!) if you’d like to look here it is – http:// huff.to/1MYgVOg

  2. terryloane says:

    Thank you, John, for focusing on Pasi Sahlberg and his criticism of GERM. But I am afraid I remain quite sceptical about labour politicians’ commitment to moving away from “the managerial, target-driven performance culture” and “the increasingly byzantine demands of inspection”. Surely politicians of all parties will, in the run-up to an election, say almost anything that resonates with the deep-seated concerns of key groups of voters and that plants a warm glow in the hearts of the gullible. (We even heard Jeremy Hunt today promise that a future Conservative government would give the NHS “whatever they need – it might be more than £8bn”!)

    If the parliamentary labour party truly is in touch with the ideas and ideals of Pasi Sahlberg, if it is really prepared to “let go”, and if it genuinely believes that “change in education must come from the bottom-up”, then let it do one simple, courageous thing – let it make abolition of OFSTED a manifesto commitment.

    • terryloane says:

      Leah, I really like your ‘hunt the Easter Egg’ article – thank you for writing it. (Btw your link did not work for me, but I found the article easily enough using Google.) For me it’s important to consider that your powerful metaphor applies not only to school pupils but also to teachers and school managers. All are caught up in a futile game that has few or no real winners. Like the parents in your story, many school staff deep down want to “right this wrong”, but they are so embroiled in the ‘hunt the Easter Egg’/’pander to the compliance-monger’/’tick the box’ culture that it is difficult for them to step outside the crazy rules of the game. Yet stepping outside what John calls “the key systems that drive behaviour in schools” and rethinking them is exactly what we must all do if we are to see the sort of bottom-up re-awakening of education that our society desperately needs. The politicians won’t do this job for us.

  3. David Pavett says:

    John poses some questions which need an answer if we are to know where a Labour-led government would take us on education.

    It is worth noting in this context that the Pasi Sahlberg analysis referred to was published in 2010 (in a book called Finnish Lessons). In the last year of the Labour government. In his discussion of GERM Sahlberg says the ideas of the GERM have “become accepted as a ‘new educational orthodoxy’ within many recent educational reforms throughout the world, including reforms in … the United Kingdom …”. He was clearly referring to reforms instituted by the last Labour government.

    Gove picked up on those reforms and ran with them to virtually no resistance from Labour.

    The warm words advocating policies which have not been thought through is one thing. But another is the the fact that despite some anti-marketising rhetoric from Tristram Hunt the reality is that Labour is still wedded to GERM doctrines. This shows particularly in Labour’s continued advocacy of diversity of provision to enable consumer/parental choice along with the attendant control of schools through testing regimes and league tables. And it is on this issue that we should pay particular attention to the rhetoric of “decentralisation”.

    Sahlberg says that one of the inspirations for GERM was the “competition and accountability movement in education that has accompanied the global wave of decentralisation of public services. Making schools and teachers compete for students and resources and then holding them accountable for the results (i.e. student test scores)… .”

    For Labour to break with all this a careful critique of past and present policies would be required but no such thing is even vaguely in sight. In fact Labour does all that it can to ignore work done on this. As for decentralisation Labour wants to give all schools the “freedoms” of academies thereby further decoupling schools from local democracy AND to put them under the control of a government approved “statutorily independent” Director of Student Services who would commission new schools on the basis of competitive tendering. The advocacy of free schools re-branded as “parent-led academies” is not exactly encouraging either.

    Are we looking at a possible “… reversal of a 30 year trend and a once in a generation change of direction in education policy?”. If so I wish I could see the signs. I am sure that Labour would attenuate some of the worst aspects of Coalition policy but a change in direction? I don’t think so.

  4. trevorfisher2 says:

    the labour front bench cannot stop giving orders. Miliband in his art speech said that OFSTED would be compelled not to give a grade 1 unless art was outstanding. Goodbye to technical education then…. and the UTCs which Labour started. The local UTC here actually complained to the Select Committee that they only got zero on the EBacc as they were technical. No humanities subjects….. (its the JCB Academy at Rocester. a fascinating place. Visited by STephen Twigg when he was shadow….)

    WOrse, Miliband is going to give orders to OFSTED, which finally would demolish the claim that OFSTED is independent. Its a centrally controlled system whatever the Westminster Bubble might say in speeches.

    And innovation. We do NOT need school level back of the envelope innovation. Properly tested and evaluated schemes are a different thing. But all Bubble politicians have a demented belief that autonomy is what the GERM offers and decisions must be made at the school level.

    Anarcho Syndicalism or what? The Select Committee in January gave the thumbs down to the academy system…. then proposed all schools should have their own curriculum.

    The politics of the madhouse.

    Trevor Fisher.

  5. terryloane says:

    I really like how your comment starts and finishes, Trevor: “The Labour front bench cannot stop giving orders”, “The politics of the madhouse”.

    But there are a couple of sentences in the middle that raise issues for me: “We do NOT need school level back of the envelope innovation. Properly tested and evaluated schemes are a different thing.”

    Surely many of the world’s great innovative ideas start life on the back of an envelope. The story goes that Elsa Einstein, wife of Albert, on being shown around the Mount Wilson telescope and told that it could help to determine that size and shape of the universe, said “Well, my husband does that on the back of an old envelope.”

    And of course the problem with looking for “properly tested and evaluated schemes” in education is that this assumes that there are agreed criteria against which to test and evaluate. But what on earth could these criteria be? PISA rankings? Percentages getting ‘good’ GCSE grades? Undoubtedly it is the culture of testing and evaluation against such so-called ‘benchmarks’ that has resulted in the “exam factory approach to schooling” to which John referred in his original post. No, we need to come to terms with the challenging fact that human learning is a complex phenomenon (using ‘complex’ in its correct scientific sense) and therefore cannot be understood through linear numerical measurement. There can be no simple ‘learning outcomes’. So it is, I suggest, inevitable that evaluation of any educational initiative will be nuanced and contested. Claiming that we can objectively measure and evaluate any educational scheme just plays into the reductionist hands of the GERM enthusiasts.

    Terry Loane

  6. trevorfisher2 says:

    dear terry

    these are very fair comments, but we can’t not have serious well evaluated studies. It is astonishing that the OECD published a report in January saying only 10% of innovations are evaluated by government. In fact the Select Committee in its report on academies stated there are no provable advantages… and then advocated all schools should have the freedom to determine the curriculum. I guess when you have spent 8 billion on a failed policy you can’t admit it – loses votes.

    On Wednesday listening to local radio came up with the information that the Black Country UTC had collapsed. The following day, four academies from one chain in Telford went into special measures. Yes, we should have serious debate about what is success, but when failure stares us in the face, no one in the Westminster Bubble takes a blind bit of notice.

    I don’t take the envelope stuff seriously. Looking at Einsteins’ work, neither the Special nor the General Theory of relativity was devised on the back of an envelope. As for positivistic ratings of schools, which I seriously see as Stalinist, the key to looking at the complexity of the systems is to think of 3 domains – the cognitive, the physical-emotional and the social. The current systems only look at the cognitive, which is done by exam results. Dumb. But there is nothing on the physical-emotional, so suicide rates and obesity are out, and the social is done by PHSE which is largely ignored in most schools. I have always felt the public schools did well on the latter two. Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, not in its exam rooms.

    However Eton did Ignore the cognitive. Wellington had to do his own staff work behind the LInes of Torres Vedras as the brave and well disciplined donkeys turned out by the public schools fought well and led suicide charges with aplomb, but they could not add and subtract figures.

    So a balance, but we have to be able to evaluate the outcomes. OECD is right to say politicians don’t evaluate, and it is a serious and fundamental problem

    Trevor FIsher.

  7. terryloane says:

    Thanks, Trevor, for your response, which I appreciate. Yes, of course the special and general theories of relativity required more than the back of a single envelope for their full formulation. But it is fascinating to consider what Einstein himself said about the process of creativity/innovation:

    “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

    “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions.”

    It is also fascinating to compare where the world of science was around the turn of the 20th century with where the world of education is today. Lord Kelvin is reported to have said in 1900 “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Yet Einstein worried away at what were regarded as minor inconsistencies (e.g. luminiferous aether and the perihelion motion of the planet Mercury) and eventually this led to an ‘absurd idea’ that resulted in a totally new scientific world view. Likewise there are many today who seem to believe that ‘there is nothing new to be discovered in education now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.’ But surely what we need now are people who will worry away at the dysfunctional implications of the accepted view of schooling, for example the deteriorating mental health of young people (including the suicide issue to which you refer, Trevor.) There is a desperate need for novel, beyond-the-box thinking in how we can better promote real learning. I have no time for so-called free school and academies, but frankly the conventional alternatives are not much better, particularly at secondary level. It seems to me that almost all schools these days are places that inhibit both teachers and students from innovative and creative thinking. A ‘school’ that I find most interesting and inspirational right now is the Self Managed Learning College in Brighton. (Interestingly I believe it is not even allowed to call itself a school and can only operate through ‘or otherwise’ legal provision.) To those who say that it is dangerous to experiment with children’s lives I say that it is even more dangerous to continue with our present assumptions about compulsory schooling as these are based on a 19th century world view that is just as outdated and invalid as Newtonian physics. And, yes, we will of course need to evaluate any new approaches, as you say, Trevor, but we cannot do this using existing evaluative frameworks. Einstein again: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”