“The days of education by diktat must come to an end” – is Labour really going to take on the Germ?Posted: April 7, 2015
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.