I’ve written a piece for today’s TES explaining why Gove remains such a signififcant figure for all education reformers (of whatever political background). His ambition and willingess to slay sacred cows was exhilarating, even whilst the precise nature of his ambitions and his slaying techniques could be exasperating. With him in charge, education had not just a day but several years in the sun – and as anyone who’s looked outside today will tell you, the sun can burn as well as heat.
Anyway, my piece is about two-thirds of the way down this page, and it starts like this:
“Famously, on the wall of what is now his former office in the Department for Education, Michael Gove had pictures of Lenin and Malcolm X. However, the historical figure he most reminds me of is George S Patton, the maverick American general of the Second World War. Almost any Patton quote sounds like a Govian manifesto: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week” or “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”. Like Patton, Gove is charismatic, aggressive and steeped in the history of the battles he fights.
His forcefulness and unwavering commitment to education reform often cast those of us who believe in the need for great change in England’s schools (especially those of us from different political traditions) as Omar Bradleys…”
This post is cross-posted from Progress.
As the Major government limped to its destruction at the hands of New Labour in 1997, it played a few final cards in a desperate bid to cling on to the political hegemony established in 1979. There was the famous New Labour, New Danger poster, which only served to illustrate that, even with the eyes of an infernal horror from the lowest pits of hell, Tony Blair still looked a more plausible leader than any Tory. Policy-wise, perhaps attempting to recover from the spectacularly minimalist Cones Hotline-style gimmicks, there was to be ‘a grammar school in every town’, a truly audacious promise to reverse the greatest structural change in English education since the war.
It would be wrong to suggest that grammar schools are written into the DNA of the Conservative party – Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary who closed the most, often at the behest of Tory councils whose voters were suspicious their children weren’t going to get into them – but to be in favour of selective schooling, either state- or privately provided, is not a sin in the Tory party, while within Labour it is the Ultimate Heresy. Aside from the NHS, nothing unites a Labour party meeting faster than a denunciation of selective schooling, especially if it is paid for directly by parents, whereas the Tory party is led by the privately educated, and aspirations for selective schools are considered healthy, perhaps even praise-worthy.
Which makes it all the more interesting that the current Conservative government, despite the educational storm and fury of the past four years, has not only made no move to expand grammar schools, but has actually presided over the elimination of numerous private schools, which have entered the state-sector as academies. Though undoubtedly committed to traditional Tory educational values, Michael Gove has explicitly justified himself as seeking these things for the many, not for the few. Much of the upheaval in education has been a result of the education secretary’s determination that his curriculum and qualification convictions should be felt by every teenager, not merely by the privileged.
In such an educational environment, in which both the major parties are committed to the provision of excellent non-selective education for all young people, it seems very odd that the Sutton Trust should commit itself so forcefully to a new version of the old assisted places scheme. Yet last week, on the back of research illustrating that privately educated young people have access to higher earnings over the early career, the Trust essentially advocated exactly that: the state should fund needs-blind admissions to leading private schools for the most able pupils.
The idea that the answer to England’s educational woes (and they do exist) lies in providing golden tickets to a lucky few is profoundly misguided, and rests on some very faulty assumptions. The first is actually revealed in the report itself: although the earnings premium for private school pupils is trumpeted as being nigh on £200,000, taking account of social background and prior attainment it comes in at just over £60,000, or about £300 extra per month over the early working lifetime (26 to 42). That is not nothing, but it hardly seems enough to justify an outlay of several hundreds of millions on the Open Access plan.
Second, there can be little reason for assuming that the answer to a state/private earnings gap is to have thousands of young people abandon the one system for the other, rather than examining what about the private system causes its products to be more successful. Cristina Iannelli of the University of Edinburgh has recently produced research suggesting that the earnings differentials for pupils attending selective schools are a result of the curriculum on offer. In short, the academic curriculum is not only appropriate but also necessary for all children to have a chance of social mobility. It should not be necessary to send young people to fee-paying schools to deliver such curricula, it should be their right to access it in the schools their parents’ taxes pay for.
Open Access is an unnecessary way forward for England’s education system. Already, we have in place the tools by which the excellent practice found in many private schools can be shared with the state sector. Already, some state schools match and exceed the success of parts of the private sector. Some private schools are becoming academies, other leading public schools are sponsoring academies. The pioneering London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, where I will be working from September, is supported by Brighton College, Eton, Caterham and others, sharing best practice in both directions. Bridge-building, not lifeboats, should the foundation for stronger links between private schools and the state sector.
On Saturday, Policy Exchange held an excellent conference on the future shape of education policy after the next General Election. It really was a invigorating day. In a previous post, I have argued that those of us who favour on-going educational reform need to ensure that we are airing our differences as much as our agreements, and work to shift the debate onwards away from the more reactionary elements of the educational crowd, and I think PX managed that exceptionally well. In particular, Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, a former education adviser to President Obama, was inspiring (Tom Bennett–who evidently has nowt but stone for a heart–mocks my rapture at Mike’s speech in his post about the event here, but I sense even he’d had his heart melted by the end of the day).
You can watch videos of all three keynote speeches (Johnston’s, Michael Gove’s and Tristram Hunt’s) as well as the panel sessions, following this link. The video it’ll bring you to first, though, is the one for the panel I was on (my speech is 19m-25m), about curriculum, assessment and workforce. My speech addressed a phrase Tristram had used earlier in the day: that of a “mature profession”. My contention is that teaching is not a mature profession: we lack the conviction in evidence, the ethical clarity and–largely–the responsible leadership to claim ourselves a proper profession; I hope the write more about this in due course.
The others on the panel all made excellent contributions, although if you have time for only one, click to 31m (runs to 39m) and watch Tim Oates – a genuinely wise discourse on how the education research community in England is not giving policy-makers what they need to create excellent policy; turns some key issues on it’s head and is well worth the time.
p.s. Tim Oates was also responsible for the finest and most devastating heckle in the history of education policy: when the National Secretary of the Anti-Academies Alliance claimed in the final panel session there were no private schools in Finland, Tim pointed out that this wasn’t true, but it was illegal to charge for private schools in Finland, so essentially the country has a voucher system. “Less than 1% of schools,” came the disdainful reply. “37% in the Helsinki area,” came the devastating response.
I’ve written a piece for TES in response to criticisms of my appearance on Newsnight last week. You can find the whole article here: http://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2014/04/28/39-it-is-a-simple-fact-the-far-left-run-the-nut-39.aspx
You can watch the piece that led into the original Newsnight debate here:
And my appearance discussing the piece here:
Today is strike day. Many of my colleagues have already made the decision to go on strike and are, I suspect, having a nice lie-in right now. Good for them – it is their right to strike, and they’ve received a clear strike call from their union.
But I’ve argued for a long time that the NUT’s campaign against, well, everything in education, is going absolutely nowhere, so I am sad that teachers up and down the land are today losing a day’s pay purely so their leadership can pose as effective trade unionists, when the reality is they lost this battle long ago. Part of the problem is the sheer lack of imagination displayed by the NUT Exec: another strike? What really? Are there no other campaigning tools you can think of? The world has erupted in single-issue campaigns and even revolutions over the last 20 years, all running with new and different ways of getting messages across, and yet the NUT still thinks “all out” is the right tool for every job,
This kind of thinking, especially from people who will happily chant the mantra that school organisation is “stuck in the mode of the industrial 19th Century”, is deeply peculiar, because nothing is more stuck in Britain’s faded industrial past than strike action from public sector unions.
In industrial circumstances the threat and meaning of a strike is absolutely crystal clear: we do the work that makes the money; we don’t work, there is no money. Private sector employers can find various ways to hold out against this, and ultimately there is always the Mutually Assured Destruction threat (“if there’s no money for long enough, they’ll be no company and then there’s no money forever”), but the cause and effect relationship is obvious.
That is not the case in teaching – there’s no profit being made, so the strike is an indirect attack: parents are inconvenienced by the need to keep kids home (and kids obviously lose a day’s education). To make this in any way effective as a tactic, the response of the parents is the crucial battleground. In local or individual school strikes, this can be highly effective: headteachers are placed in an extremely awkward position if they have to write home to parents saying that actions they, the Headteacher, has taken, have driven out on strike the teachers that the rest of the year the Head praises to the skies. A personal washing of dirty laundry in public is unpleasant and favours dispute resolution.
None of this applies in the case of a national strike. In the first case, the battle is not between your child’s teacher and your child’s Headteacher, it is between teacher trade-unions and an elected politician; much more impersonal, and between people much less trusted by the populace at large. The terms of battle are entirely different, the access to (and respect available in) the media are profoundly imbalanced and the audience is not simply parents concerned about their children, but citizens and tax-payers weighing up who is managing the economy well and capable of solving the country’s problems. In such a battle, any government–even an unpopular government–can hold out for as long as it is prepared to: after all, it is the teachers who are shutting the schools, not the government. Government looks responsible and sensible so long as it even suggests it it open to talks, the unions look angry and exploitative, especially if, as is the case with this strike, there is a fatal lack of clarity about what it is actually about (although attempts to explain it is about pensions are, as ever, likely to go down like a lead balloon with a populace who couldn’t buy for love nor money a pension half as good as that of teachers).
Individual and local strike action can work (whether it is the most effective and sensible tactic is another issue) but it is increasingly obvious that national strike action by teachers is fundamentally flawed: it not only fails to deliver its objectives, but every time it gives government a chance to denounce unions as irresponsible and unrealistic it makes the tool ever less useful in future.
Today thousands of teachers are missing a day’s pay, thousands of students are missing a day’s school, and thousands of parents are missing a day’s work, which is all cases many can ill-afford, and the sum result will be negligible. The vanity and pride of the NUT Exec has led its members into a campaigning cul-de-sac. The vital need for stronger and better professional leadership for teachers has never been clearer.
Last night I attended an event at the Institute of Education in London. Four big names in education politics (Ken Baker, Sally Morgan, Estelle Morris and Jon Coles) discussed what potentially might appear in the major party manifestos for the next general election. In a way, it was a peculiar event: by focussing on all the parties, it inevitably tended towards a broad brush approach, which then tended to consensus, since in the broadest terms, the major political parties obviously agree. Education reform over the past 30 years has always been a cross-party affair: Callaghan’s Ruskin speech is as much a forebear of the Education Reform Act as the Black Papers were, and Michael Gove’s Blairite heritage is a matter of public record. The big ticket items of education policy–school autonomy, strong accountability, rigorous qualifications–are all agreed by the education policy-makers in the major parties.
Or, at least, they are all agreed upon in contrast to the statist command-and-control agenda which education reform arose to combat. But that view, though it still finds it’s friends in parts of the education policy world, is neither dominant nor likely to become so again. The united front of education reformers against their common enemy is in danger of closing down necessary discussion about what does divide them. Last night, for example, funding was barely mentioned, yet there is a very real risk that that FE colleges are going to start going bust inside the next two years: that needs a fix. Some would say that should be answered by a pure free market – send the weak to the wall. Others would point out that the financial architecture underpinning FE, and indeed schools, is presently so full of perverse incentives that there is no guarantee it is the truly weak who will go down. Thorough-going debate about that is essential to ensure that, whoever is in government, the scenarios have at least been considered.
Curriculum was discussed a lot, but mostly in focussing on “creativity”, a term which was used abstractly and differently by all the panellists and those in the audience, and with no one getting their teeth into the real debates going on about how, and why, a particular curriculum might be worthwhile in a school. Too many still seem to believe that the content of the National Curriculum is the most important determinant of what happens in schools, rather than how schools (and the trusts or academies they fit may belong to) respond to that document, a response mostly driven by the requirements of the inspection and qualifications frameworks.
On professional development, everyone agreed that “human capital”–please God can that phrase be exiled from debate–is important and that central government fiat is not the way to ensure it is developed. But that doesn’t mean government (or potential governments) shouldn’t be thinking about who will do these things, and have some idea how they might do them. At the very minimum, politicians cannot announce something is going to happen without a clue how it will be delivered or if it is even possible.
Education policy is running with a surfeit of vision and a deficit of detail, which is ironic given that in all parties the details-people are in charge. The bear pit of the Commons and the media’s desire for personal acrimony is breeding arguments over the wrong things (under whom will Jane Austen be taught better is not a sensible debate) and ignoring the things that matter. A debate about how to make INSET days better isn’t going to make it into any election manifesto, and education could probably do with some time out of the limelight, but some very boring, very necessary work needs to be done by reformers in all parties, and some arguments need to happen between them, to ensure that the achievements of education reform are not lost in a consensual discussion, which whilst not false is not the whole truth either.
p.s. It was great that IoE organised this event, but the construction of that horrendous building means phone reception is negligible in the concrete basement and the wifi networks were locked, so only about four people out of the much larger audience could live tweet. That was a shame.
I’m not a huge fan of Vince Cable*, but two things strike me about his statement that “teachers know nothing about the world of work“. The first relates to general dissatisfaction I have with the nature of a lot of discourse about education, and especially about teachers: hordes of people turned up on Twitter berating Cable for having said it, and saying how mean he was being about teachers. The same thing happens every time Gove, or indeed Tristram Hunt, says anything about teachers: teachers complain they are being disrespected, as though no politician can be permitted to talk about education without first saying how absolutely lovely and hardworking teachers are. This is plainly absurd and a mark of a profession peculiarly uncertain about its status. Do we honestly need to be love-bombed by Westminster’s finest every time they speak about our field? Are we so unsure of the value of our work that we need politicians to tell us it is any good? It is a tedious discourse, taking offence when it’s probably best left lying where it is (which would, incidentally, have the effect of blunting a significant number of the DfE’s media attacks, but that’s a different matter). It was abundantly clear that Cable wasn’t writing off all teachers as idle shysters who’d managed to bandy access to a blackboard into a lifelong laze in front of the class, so the outrage was utterly unnecessary.
It was also unhelpful, because it obscured a chance to discuss something quite interesting (and this is my second point): Cable is pretty much correct. Cable’s point was clearly that teachers are not especially good at preparing their students for the world of work. Not only is this mostly true, I would argue that it is pretty much as it is supposed to be. Between myself and the state, quite a lot of money has been spent training to make me a history teacher. My job is to induct students as best I can into the discipline of
history. That I should necessarily be expected to also acquire to skills of a careers advisor and interview coach seems to me a misallocation of resources: I have one job the state pays me to do, why do I need another one?
This is not to suggest that schools shouldn’t take a very large role in careers training, but why expect a profession made up, in the main, of people who pursued academic training in a particular subject to suddenly acquire a profound insight into how to persuade organisations as diverse as Gregg’s and GoldmanSachs to give students a job. I’ve had five jobs since I left university: one I was elected to, and the other four were decided by interviews in schools, three of which involved teacher a demonstration lesson. None of these experiences are even remotely representative of the ways most students will find work. This requires dedicated attention and skills, yet career responsibility in schools remains largely an additional responsibly put on top of a teaching load. Of course, many such teachers do their jobs well, but inevitably most don’t have either the time or the space to focus on developing the strength and depth of careers advice, links to the local employment market and quality work discovery and work experiences that are required to make careers training truly effective. Fundamentally, this needs to be a role that belongs to someone full time; at present, the non-teaching full time staff of a school include admins, site supervisors, nurses, EWOs and data managers. In such ways are the things schools find important reflected. Full time careers officers in school are a vital part of improving careers advice.
But a final point, and this is what Cable should really have been criticised for: although schools should be the site of great careers advice, a significant portion of the responsibility should fall on companies (like those led by those Cable was talking to) themselves to build links to schools. That’s the message he should carry to them: if you want schools to help you, it’s time to help them.
* I’m not a huge fan of any of the Coalition LibDems, notwithstanding that their politics are more congenial to the Labour Party than their Tory colleagues: it will take a long time for the generation sold a pup by the LibDems on tuition fees to trust in politics again. They were probably right to put up fees, but when your only distinctive policy is that you won’t, and you make absolutely no effort to defend that policy (as the memoirs of the Coalitions negotiations make clear they didn’t) you’re engaging in pretty cynical politics.
The BBC experimented with a new form of public history over the weekend, in which a lecture presented by Niall Ferguson on the causes of World War One became the keystone of a debate on air and online, which as well as being open to all those who tuned in and had internet access included a truly stupendous lineup of academic historians. Despite some misgivings, about the format generally and some of Ferguson’s history specifically, I think the idea was a great one and should definitely be repeated. I thought I’d jot down here some more comments about the whole thing.
Ferguson’s star power was clearly a big selling point for the BBC, and he very much took pride of place – I’ll address some of the problems that created in a moment, but I also wanted to highlight some of the very real problems in Ferguson’s historical argument. Ferguson is no academic lightweight and has written directly (in a book also titled The Pity of War) on the points he covered in the programme. Moreover his central thesis–that WW1 was a straightforward conflict of imperial conquest, and Britain would have been better off out of it–is on the face of it a reasonable interpretation of the facts. However, in arguing his case, there were points where Ferguson dismissed or failed to even mention evidence in a manner that was slapdash at best: commenting that a higher percentage of the French population was in military service than that of Germany ignores the fact that France has a smaller population; bringing up the spate of German surrenders in the closing months of the war whilst failing to mention the Ludendorff Offensives of early 1918 avoids making clear that the Allies decisively defeated them (thus undermining Ferguson’s argument about the superiority of German soldiery, itself based on some suspect use of statistics which ignored the strategic disposition of forces); implying that a Kaiserreich customs-union would have been substantially similar to the European Union is a piece of counter-factual reasoning too obtuse to be of any use (as someone else commented, “What if the Aztecs had attacked, what then?”). These are the kinds of historical cheap shots which undermined the seriousness of Ferguson’s argument, and for the first time made clear to me why he is rumoured to be the basis of Irwin in The History Boys, offering easy controversy as a substitute for complex reasoning.
That said, given that Ferguson was clearly calling the shots on this programme, he deserves significant credit for being willing to cede a lot of screen time to a line up of academics who, by and large, tore his argument to pieces. Heather Jones, Gary Sheffield, David Reynolds and Hew Strachan amongst others responded to Ferguson’s arguments robustly. This was by far the best part of the programme and the BBC should be congratulated for having gathered such an impressive line up… But the very fact of how impressive the line up was made it frustrating that we didn’t hear more from them, and more discussion between them. The role assigned to the historians was to dispute with Ferguson, and given how outlandish some of his claims were and how easily knocked down, this seemed a waste. I’d have preferred if the programme had addressed itself to, say, five key questions about the war and asked a different historian to take each in turn before that historian could chair discussion on that issue. Gary Sheffield suggested to me that the BBC is overly obsessed with celebrity historians: my only response is that every single historian interviewed that night could clearly carry a programme on their own, indeed some of them already have, so why not expand the pool of celebrity historians?
Other aspects of the format also jarred. All the shiny special effects were unnecessary, and indeed illustrated to be so by the occasional sudden flashes of AJP Taylor talking directly to camera with nary an animated map or neon bar graph (though he was rocking a quite exceptional green shirt and tie combo). The “final thought” speech from Ferguson at the end was not just a bit cheesy, it also summed up a debate that hadn’t happened (i.e., one in which anybody else had agreed with Ferguson). Overall, Ferguson had too much of a commanding role, was at times bending the rules of history to suit himself and left a sense that most historical debate is just statements of personal preference rather than evidenced rigorous debate.
But all-in-all, The Pity of War was a welcome mark of the BBC treating history as a serious endeavour and historians as people worth putting on the tele. Now, if it can only strengthen that commitment, it’ll be doing very well indeed.