I’ve written a piece for TES, asking questions about how we teach the First World War and suggesting that popular memory remains committed to a series of myths which teachers must challenge.
You can read and comment on the full piece via this link.
I also spoke to the TES podcast as part of their World War One special. You can listen and subscribe to the podcast via this link.
The Da Vinci Code is the most famous of Dan Brown’s utterly dreadful books about Havard “made-up-subject-ologist” Robert Langdon and his curiously obsessive if largely accidental war on the Catholic Church, but it wasn’t the first. That book, entitled Angels and Demons, I first read as bookshop assistant on my lunchbreak, choosing it from the free, pre-release paperback samples (sent constantly to bookshops) on the broken shelf in our subterranean staffroom. The cover was cleverly designed, so that whichever way up it was held, the title still appeared: the gaps in the word “angels” spelling “demons” and vice versa. This morphed into the book’s story, in which those who should be saintly turn out to be sinners and nothing is as it seems; ultimately, pleasingly, it’s all solved by a very clever man with a doctorate. I was sixteen, into conspiracy theories, and I thought it was terribly good.
I say this, for today should have brought another epic confrontation between a brilliant young holder of a PhD and a shadowy, sinister mastermind operating in the shadow of a great church (the DfE’s Sanctuary Buildings stand just behind the imposing edifice of Westminster Abbey). Sadly, Michael Gove (he’s the mastermind in case this tortured link got lost there) didn’t bother to turn up to confront Dr Tristram Hunt, newly-minted Shadow Education Secretary, so we got David Laws instead; as though, to move film metaphors completely, Bond rocked up to the volcano lair to find not Blofeld but just the pretty little cat.
Still, the showdown was on the question of the al-Madinah free school, which has now been operating in Derby for a year, and has just received what must rank amongst the worst Ofsted reports of all time. In such a circumstance, it should have been clear who was on the side of the angels: the Labour Party, attacking Gove for having permitted this terrible school to open and serve students, despite repeated warnings about the weaknesses of this school in particular, and the general lack of due diligence on free schools in general.
But Laws, feline-like if not feline-looking, wriggled free: when Hunt announced, “It is not just Al-Madinah school which is dysfunctional. It is the education secretary’s free schools policy”, Laws suddenly proclaimed that actually al-Madinah was evidence of the success of free schools. On the one hand, he thundered, most free schools weren’t like al-Madinah, and on the other hand, that al-Madinah was being so ruthlessly intervened with was in stark contrast to all the failing schools Labour had left behind. The Tory whips had clearly decided to back their honorable friend in the LibDems and duly marched in MPs to proclaim how dreadful Hunt was for bringing up a failing free school but not any other type of school, and how he’d done a U-turn on support for free schools. The angelic doctor was revealed to be a demonic dogmatist; he was the sinister shadow in education policy, not Michael Gove.
This is, of course, nonsense. Three points need to be made clear: 1) Hunt has made no U-turns; 2) bringing up al-Madinah in the House was right and necessary and Gove should not be permitted to evade the very serious questions he has to answer over that school; 3) Coalition claims that they are ruthlessly intervening in all failing schools are demonstrably false.
On the first count, claims Hunt has changed his position from Sunday do not stand up: under Stephen Twigg and now Hunt, Labour has committed itself to the retention of all currently-existing free schools where they are good; no one has turned on excellent examples of the type, like School21 or even Toby Young’s West London Free School. However, Labour has voiced serious concerns over the level of due diligence performed by the DfE in setting up free schools; in his Sunday interview on Andrew Marr, Hunt specifically referenced al-Madinah as an example of the kind of mistakes that have been made. This is why Labour will offer “social entrepreneurs” who want to establish new schools the chance to establish Parent-Led Academies (PLAs) using more stringent criteria than the current free school system. That is no U-turn.
On the question of why this school was raised at this time in that place, where else should Hunt have raised the problems of al-Madinah? The Secretary of State for Education is, by virtue of the funding agreements for free schools, the legal authority with oversight of them – it is entirely proper this be raised in the House. What is not at all proper is that the Secretary of State did not bother to turn up to answer these questions. A teacher asked this morning if I believed Gove should resign over al-Madinah; at present, I would answer ‘no’ – I think ministerial resignations rarely solve anything as often the problem runs deeper than a single individual. But Gove does have questions to answer: what went wrong in the application stage for free schools which permitted al-Madinah to get this far? Why were the pre-opening warnings from Ofsted not heeded? What has changed in the assessment of new free school applications which will prevent this from happening again? How, if necessary, will this school be closed and the students’ well-being safeguarded? These questions may have excellent answers, but Gove himself should give them. If he continues to dodge these questions, then it is entirely fair to say Gove’s free school policy is in trouble and he himself is in trouble. Schools must be accountable and so must ministers.
Gove, and indeed Laws, should also account for the misleading of the House which went on today. Laws repeatedly claimed that the current government is ruthlessly intervening to improve failing schools. That would be news to the parents of Seven Sisters Primary School in Tottenham, which was found to be inadequate by Ofsted a year ago, and should therefore have been found an academy sponsor to take on running it and begin improving it from the woeful state it finds itself in. However, the failed management are still in place, some of them key leaders of the ferocious and wrong-headed attempt to prevent the Harris Federation from taking on and improving neighbouring primaries. The local authority is powerless to do anything about it because responsibility now lies with the DfE. Presently, a new free school is being considered for Hornsey, wealthier neighbour of Tottenham, yet a poorly-performing, mismanaged primary–in the heart of a deprived community–has gone entirely unaided.
There are few in the Labour Party who have been more vociferously in favour of the kind of ruthless intervention against failure which Laws proclaimed the government was performing, and few more willing to endorse the freedoms of free schools than I have been but today, I found myself incredulous at the way Laws and his Tory colleagues responded to a sensible and necessary question about their policy with an attempt to demonise the opposition and mislead about their own weaknesses. Gove dodged an important test. Education reform deserves better than being made a cheap political thriller.
I’ve got a post over at Progress that develops on some of my thoughts about Tristram Hunt’s debut as Shadow Education Secretary and brings in a few issues I didn’t consider in my initial post (as well as having a slight pop at some of the more febrile responses Hunt has received since last Sunday).
Tristram Hunt made a strong start in his new role as shadow secretary of state for education last weekend: a clear and passionate exchange on the Andrew Marr show (best line: ‘I’ve got a PhD from Cambridge. No one needs to tell me about rigour’) followed a frank interview with the Mail on Sunday in which he put the rhetorical rocket-boosters under the parent-led academy plan outlined by his predecessor Stephen Twigg, and also took the time to apologise to ‘yummy mummies’ and ‘faddy daddies’ for deriding currently-open free schools as vanity projects.
Such a robust opening act has made waves among the Labour education establishment…
Tristram Hunt has just concluded a robust and impressive interview on the Andrew Marr Show, following on from a strong first interview in the Mail on Sunday. He has hit the ground running, policy-wise, by resolutely committing Labour to retaining existing free schools (if they’re good enough), backing “social entrepreneurs” who want to open new schools in areas of need under a Labour government (these will be called “parent-led academies”) and, for added measure, refusing to concede that Michael Gove is the only game in town when it comes to “rigour”.
I think there are three things here worthy of quick comment:
1) None of this is new policy and Labour activists should not be in the business of attacking a Shadow Secretary of State less than a week into his new job. Judging from the reaction of many, especially from the Left, on Twitter, you’d think Tristram had announced the immediate charging of fees in all state schools. Parent-led academies and keeping good free schools were all announced by Stephen Twigg when he was Shadow Education Secretary, and both are developments of Labour’s commitment to academies which was well-established under Blair and Brown. And the these policies remain within the wider framework of Labour’s policy commitments to ensuring all young people have an excellent education, both to fit them for the work they wish to do and to allow them to enter into a world of thoughts and ideas that academic education provides. What Hunt has done, quite rightly, is put the rhetorical rocket-boosters under Labour’s policy. Good for him – Labour activists should support this clear commitment to be on parents’ side, and not engage with the ever-hostile moaning of certain parts of the education establishment. Indeed, we need to get the shields up to protect him from attack from both the bitter Far Left and the frightened Right.
2) “Need” is going to need to be defined clearly. Hunt has said parent-led academies will appear in areas of “need”; well, that can mean a lot of different things. Clearly, in a time of economic austerity, Labour would be irresponsible (as the current government has been irresponsible) not to have some regard to already-existing provision when locating new schools. However, Labour cannot and should not be in a position of telling parents that, because the local primary down the way has places spare, they have to send their kids there if the reason there are spaces is because the school is awful. Asking parents to have more kids to quality for a PLA isn’t going to work. Instead, Labour needs a clear definition of need that encompasses quality as well as quantity of available school places.
3) What about the teachers (and other types of social entrepreneur)? Most free schools have not actually been set up by parents – teachers have been in the driving seat for many of them, and academy chains for several more. These have been powerful drivers of improvement, and Labour needs to make sure that this entrepreneurial spirit is not lost. PLAs will also need to encompass teacher groups (especially because such groups are more likely to be a moveable feast, willing to set up their school in areas of need rather than in their home locality) and those academy chains who are proven successes in delivering new schools. I’ve always understood that was the case, but it’d be good to have that made clear.
All in all, Hunt has made an excellent start to his new role: a clear communicator who is obviously determined to take Labour’s case to parents and not afraid of Michael Gove. Well done.
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These posts appeared on the Echo Chamber blog in the last 7 days:
Stephen Twigg’s recent “No School Left Behind” has firmly established Labour policy on school structures for the next term. Although much of the debate in education is now raging about standards—and we can expect more from Twigg on that crucial issue in the near future—structures do matter (after all, they establish who is responsible for pursuing high standards and what happens if they do not succeed) and this speech has established a number of key principals for the next stage of education reform.
The speech can best be thought of as a kind of schooling “births, marriages and deaths” column. The “deaths” in question are those of the National Curriculum as we have known it, and the Free Schools policy as it has been operated by this government. Offering the freedom from the National Curriculum which academies enjoy to all schools without a change of status, heralds the end of the centrally-proscribed curriculum first introduced by the Education Reform Act of 1988. That is not to say all schools will now be free to teach whatever they wish: it is a legal requirement, which applies to all extant academies and indeed Free Schools, that the curriculum be broad and balanced, and the potential danger of, say, Creationism in the Science curriculum remains ruled out. However, the days of checking carefully compliance with the minutiae of the National Curriculum documents, including all appendices, are clearly numbered. Such freedom will need careful monitoring—there was, after all, a reason that curriculum control was removed from schools in the 1980s—but with Labour’s commitment to a strong accountability system, led by Ofsted, a better balance will be struck between central power and school-based autonomy.
The death of Free Schools is intimately linked to the birth of new parent- and teacher-led academies. Michael Gove has had some fun demanding to know what the difference is between these policies, but, really, it is clear: Free Schools can, if the DfE so desires it, be established anywhere that parental demand can be plausibly demonstrated; Labour’s new academies will require a greater demonstration of not just demand but need. This is a perfectly sensible innovation. Whilst Labour should never be in the business of offering local parents the Hobson’s choice of a poor quality school or no state school at all, where there are good quality local places, parents should be directed to them, so that money—which we all must acknowledge is not going to be is massive supply, even after 2015—can be directed to the areas of most urgent need. Stephen Twigg’s position sensibly ensures that the entrepreneurial spirit which Free Schools has amply demonstrated amongst the teaching profession is not rudely reined in, but instead channelled into avenues that are cost efficient as well as educationally beneficial.
The putative marriage Twigg has announced is, possibly, a rather more rocky one: David Blunkett is to lead a policy review aiming to bring together the Miss Haversham of education reform, local education authorities, with the academies in their patches. Although much of the benefit of Labour’s original academies programme was derived from their freedom from the petty bureaucracy that too often accompanied local authority control, the enormous expansion in the number of schools with a direct relationship with Whitehall runs the risk of creating a new, even more remote bureaucracy. This clearly needs a fix, and there are two reasons to have faith that Blunkett can provide one. In the first case, Blunkett combines an excellent record as a highly effective Education Secretary, willing to make tough choices and tackle vested interests in the pursuit of better outcomes for children, with over a decade of experience on, and ultimately leading, Sheffield Council; a council that, notwithstanding its Far Left reputation in the 1980s, actually had significant success in reforming the relationship between the local authority and the community to be better focussed on the needs of citizens. If anyone in Labour can square the circle of school autonomy and local oversight, it is Blunkett. The second reason for hope is the work that Labour local authorities like my own borough of Haringey are already doing to shape the new landscape of education. When faced with forced academisation, Haringey’s leader Claire Kober convened an expert panel to advise on improving the borough’s own education offer and relationships with all schools, local authority, academies, and all the rest; such work can help inform the national picture, building relationships between Labour’s education team at the centre and in the localities.
With this speech, Stephen Twigg has committed Labour to turning the tools we inherit to a task of education reform in line with our values. It is a rational, radical vision of education that Labour should be proud to support.
Fraser Nelson had some fun today implying–on the basis of confrontational interview between Andrew Neill and Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT)–that there is almost no one of the left who has faith that poor children can achieve academically. This isn’t the case, but whilst it might be easy to write off Nelson’s contribution as a typical wind-up, there are some things that he is, frustratingly, correct about.
So, in alternative order:
Fraser Nelson is wrong … that Christine Blower is influential. Nelson cites Blower’s salary as evidence of her influence, but the real truth is Christine lacks influence both inside and beyond her union. Perhaps the starkest demonstration of this was last March when, against her advice, the NUT Executive sanctioned a one-day, London-only strike, an action that was predictably flat and entirely unremarked upon by anyone other than the poor sods who lost a day’s pay for it and the children who lost a day’s education because of it. The NUT is run by the political factions, headed by people you’ve never heard of, who hold meetings they don’t minute, to decide on strategies even they have no faith can achieve their outcomes. The only teacher trade union general secretaries who have made substantial impact since the advent of this government are Mary Bousted and Russell Hobby, mostly because they are capable negotiators who have clear values and are not ideologically opposed to necessary compromises.
Fraser Nelson is right … there is a depressing lack of ambition amongst too many people on the left in education on behalf of the poorest children. There is a disposition–not full theorised enough to be an ideology– that I encounter a lot amongst activist lefties (admittedly, many of them outside of the Labour Party, which is something of a relief) that working class children who achieve in the present education system must have cheated somehow. The best example I can offer is around the success of Mossbourne Academy, which I frequently cite to people as, hands-down, the best school in England and one with a huge percentage of disadvantaged children. Every time I say this, someone will say, “Aha, but you do know their real secret, don’t you? They cheat their intake!” Interestingly, few attempts are made to substantiate this accusation, and the precise nature of the cheating has been different every single time I’ve been told it. Which leads me to conclude that, possibly, they’re all hearsay. What seems to be the case is that Mossbourne, and other successful comprehensives, must not be allowed to be successful without having some illicit advantage, because if it is possible to succeed in the current system, then the other things some people on the left would like educational underachievement to be a result of (for example, one or more of: the continuing existence of grammar schools, Ofsted inspections, SATs, didactic teaching, international capitalism) may have to be re-evaluated.
Fraser Nelson is wrong … that Labour is not willing to challenge the culture of low expectations. As I say, most of those with ingrained low expectations are outside Labour, as Blower is (she once stood as a candidate for a Trotskyite alliance for the London Assembly). Moreover, there very obviously are those in Labour who are willing to stand up and demand an outstanding education for all students: to give only a few examples, amongst MPs there is Barry Sheerman and Diane Abbott, amongst peers, Andrew Adonis and Jim Knight, amongst Labour teacher-bloggers, Tom Sherrington and Tessa Mathews. In Haringey, where I live, the Labour leader of the Council Claire Kober responded to the forced academisation of four poor performing primaries in the borough with a commission of top quality educationalists, their explicit remit from the outset to devise new and better ways of the local authority co-ordinating local schools, to deliver an outstanding education to all our children.
Fraser Nelson is right … that Neil Kinnock is awesome. This probably doesn’t need repeating, but it turned out he was wrong about more things than he was right about, so I needed an extra one and no one with an interest in Labour forming the next government should pass up an opportunity to praise Kinnock. Without him, there would now be no Labour Party: it was he who laboured to not merely hold together Labour after the catastrophe of 1983 but to build something stronger, to jettison deeply unpopular policies that put Labour beyond the pale for sensible voters, including many amongst the working class. His speech at the 1985 Labour Party Conference is amongst the most important ever given by any Labour leader, calling out the Hard Left as the charlatans they are and setting Labour on the path to Blair and 1997. Also, he used to be a teacher.
Fraser Nelson is wrong … that the measure of everyone being in receipt of a great education is Oxbridge entries. This is the hardest part of this to write: it would be easy to simply side with Nelson (and Gove) that low expectations have robbed bright but poor children of their absolute birthright to sit at dinner in Balliol College hall just like the proud products of Eton, Winchester and Harrow. And, in part, I do believe that: it never ceases to sadden and then anger me when my brightest students, aware of their own intellect and aspirations, respond to my question about whether they’ve considered Oxbridge with, “Oh, I don’t think I’m clever enough for that.” My ad hoc evangelism in response to this has, I hoped, moved a few of them to consider again.
But, crucially, it isn’t whether they go there that I think is the test of success, but whether they believe it is a perfectly valid choice for them to do so. Education is, fundamentally, about empowerment: every student should be empowered with the knowledge and confidence necessary to allow them to choose their own destinies. If that means my brightest student decides on bricklaying over Christ Church, alive to the implications of that choice and able to make it because their education has given them the qualifications and the qualities to pursue both, then that is as valid an outcome of education as a Double First in Classics.
So, whilst Nelson is welcome to call out those on the Far Left about the gap between their rhetoric and action, he cannot be allowed to tar all Labour members with that brush. But more than that, he should not be allowed to peddle his own form of low expectations by presuming students from working class backgrounds, given an outstanding education, aren’t perfectly capable of making choices about their own futures.
The Cordelia Question
When I was 17, I had to stop studying A-level English Literature, mostly because I couldn’t bear the writings of Sylvia Plath (although You’re is a poem I only love more and more as I get older). But the final straw was a spectacular argument I managed to stage between me and everyone else in the class. The question was something like “Who is the most moral character in King Lear?” and everyone seemed pretty clear that it was Cordelia, the daughter who tells the truth for the good of her father even though it hurts him, rather than her nasty sisters who lie to get part of the kingdom. I disagreed. I said not only was Cordelia not the most moral character in the play, she was the most immoral: it is her refusal to say a few words her father, evidently old and going senile, wanted because she felt he was being a bit needy that gets pretty much everyone killed, including herself and her dad. The immortality of this act derives from the certainty of negative consequences that will flow from it: Lear had made clear what he is intending to do, and Cordelia knows for certain that if she doesn’t do as requested (she doesn’t even have to lie, she actually does love her father!), Goneril and Regan will do terrible things to the country and her father. But she doesn’t do it – a principle is at stake. Sadly, her time to reflect on the value of that principle as her dying father carried her lifeless corpse out of a prison cell was probably pretty short. Cordelia is a woman in a political world, with a political role, who will not bend herself just a little for the benefit of the commonweal. Her purity kills everyone. Well done, Cords.*
Which Thomas is better?
It was on watching Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent recent documentary on Thomas Cromwell that I realised that Cromwell and that other famous Tudor Thomas, St Thomas More, reflect exactly the same choice. Each is posed what might be called “the Cordelia Question” – will you serve the royal will, even though its edicts are not all you want and some you disagree with, and in doing so attempt to deliver something of what you do want and believe is for the good of all, or will you stand upon your principles, bring about your death and rob the king and the nation of your service?
More chose death rather than accept the Royal Supremacy–or rather he chose silence, which he knew would eventually bring him death–and he is remembered as something of a hero: immortalised by the Catholic Church as a saint (although not till the 20th Century) and vividly brought to life in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons (he even gets played by Charlton Heston in one version!). Cromwell, on the other hand, cleaved to the king and delivered what he desired: the divorce of his first wife, the death of his second, the cultural and socio-economic vandalism of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the grisly death of the abbot of Gloucester … the list goes on. And history did not remember Cromwell kindly. Seen for a long time as a brute and a dark-hearted Machivell, it is only with Hilary Mantel’s recent Wolf Hall that he has received a popular attempt to grant him any graces at all. MacCulloch, like Mantel, clearly rather liked Cromwell, and had him as a man of religious principle achieving a Bible in English by adroit management of the king, aiding Henry in difficulty in order to deliver projects he felt made the realm better, including founding a (very) proto-welfare state.
Most, I imagine, would not go so far as MacCulloch and Mantel in rescuing Cromwell’s reputation, just as few would go as far as Mantel in condemning More (in Wolf Hall he is an authoritarian bigot, hypocrite and monstrous egotist with not a single redeeming feature) but I think it is undeniable that Cromwell left a far greater and more important legacy to this country, and indeed the world, than did Thomas More–the innovation of using Parliament to deliver and validate the Royal Supremacy is much more the cornerstone of modern Parliamentary democracy than Magna Carta–yet More has a halo and a lot of churches and schools, and Cromwell has not very much at all.
It turns out we don’t like people who answer the Cordelia Question the hard way, the way where you have to set your principles in a political context and ask which are deliverable, and to what extent, and act accordingly. Where you don’t complain because everything isn’t exactly as you want it to be, but instead work to make it as good as it can be.
Teaching and the Cordelia Question
The Cordelia Question faces all those who work within a political context, and of course that includes teachers. And I fear that, as a profession, our public persona answers the question all wrong: we will list our complaints endlessly at union annual conferences, and seem to take pride in our disdain and derision of politicians engaged with education. And we also condemn those teachers who do try to make a difference within the system: bloggers who offer suggestions for improvement in ways that might make ministers think, teacher groups who want to build free schools to show they know what they’re doing, academy chains employing outstanding teachers to support and mentor the others. These are seen as having betrayed the purity of Thomas More; they are dissolving the monasteries and are castigated for it. In doing so, the corporate voice of teachers seems totally unwilling to build a better future. We have become the Martyr Profession: endlessly suffering our lot, and making sure that everyone knows about it, with the desire for relief but no will to get it.
Of course, in the end, answering the Cordelia Question the way he did, didn’t keep Thomas Cromwell’s head from a traitor’s spike, but then, politics is a risky business with high stakes and uncertain outcomes – a trait it shares with teaching. But, though lifeless yet, Cromwell’s eyes in death looked out on an England made anew largely in his image because he was willing to bend his own principles into those of his political master’s to deliver a workable synthesis of both. I can’t help but feel there is a lesson for education in there somewhere.
* There was obviously another side of this argument which everyone else felt was a lot more convincing than mine, but this is my blog, so you just get my one. The other side is probably something to do with virtue ethics or Kant or something. Have fun with that.
I’ve written a piece for the Independent’s online comment section, building one of the 14 Things I suggested Stephen Twigg could do, outlining ways Labour can work with academy chains, Outstanding local authorities, universities and others to build a better school improvement system for all schools.
Enormous changes to the structure of English education have taken place since 2010. As the next election approaches, with Labour likely to win, many will welcome the greater policy clarity Stephen Twigg has offered in his recent article for the New Statesman: a fully-qualified teaching force, improved post-16 vocational pathways and a requirement for schools to be part of collaborative partnerships for improvement.
The last of these, whilst a positive commitment from Labour, will require careful thought about how, and by who, such collaborative arrangements should be developed.
You can read the rest on the Independent’s website …
So, we come to it at last: the great educational battle of our time. And it’s as much about the Mr Men as the War of Jenkin’s Ear was about that unfortunate mariner’s flesh, waved in anger in the House of Commons.
Instead, the Mr Men War is about two distinct issues, one a question of pedagogy, the other a question of power. As a teacher of History, the subject battleground on which the war is currently being fought, I have an interest in the former; as a political activist whose major interest is education, I think there is lot to discuss in the later. As both, I’m mildly despairing that the education establishment has decided to argue via the medium of cartoons… But, for what it’s worth, here’s my contribution to the Mr Men War.
Pedagogy: is it alright to teach the Nazis using the Mr Men?
No. I didn’t used to think that – not long ago, I’d have defended the activity as a valid and useful piece of classroom business that gave the students the chance to display their knowledge in an interesting way. I’ve never done this particular activity, but in my time I’ve asked students to do things that are very similar. Certainly, I’ve used the idea of getting older students to devise ways of teaching young students to shape lessons. It is the experience of having done that, however, that has made me question the usefulness and validity of this and other activities.
For a start, unless there are actual real live younger students to teach, asking students to simplify their ideas for a younger audience just results in them simplifying their ideas for themselves, partly because if the younger students are theoretical, students have no way of testing whether they are effectively transferring knowledge to them, and thus whether they have enough knowledge to begin with; if they can’t be stumped by a younger student’s question in a way which makes them think “I need to go back and learn more to answer that question”, what’s the point? If the students are real, then having gone to the effort of getting a primary class in, I’d probably hope for a stronger intellectual outcome than the Mr Men activity implies. I think that the the rise to power of the Nazi Party is an intellectually stimulating story in and of itself, and whilst I often ask students to represent narratives in different forms, I don’t really see the point of asking students to make that story more simple.
Of course, as I’ve suggested above, the specific activity itself, isn’t the entire point: Sue Cowley’s blog suggests that the issue is one about creativity versus knowledge in the curriculum itself. I’d need a longer post to fully explore my views on the foundations of the curriculum, but I think Cowley is missing the point here, as does Miss Smith here: a list of activities you remember, or things that were creative and that your enjoyed, isn’t a list of things you have learned. Whilst it might be good if students are enjoying themselves in lessons, this is no necessary correlation between that and learning. Indeed, given that learning new things is hard it is quite possible much of it will not be enjoyable: the fun in History isn’t in the method of learning but in being able to talk confidently about the past and the discipline of History. That students are learning, and are learning as much as the can do, is surely the correct test of a lesson.
Politics: is it alright for the Secretary of State to call out particular lessons and teachers?
Yes. If someone writes something on a website, especially something designed as an exemplar for others to follow, then you have to accept a critique of that, from wherever it comes. That the Secretary of State has a pretty big pulpit to critique from shouldn’t be a problem for those who are confident in their practice – after all, he has actually surrendered the power to tell most of us what to teach in the classroom anyway, so one might argue his view is pretty irrelevant. If you believe you can defend your teaching as providing students the progress they need, then there is little to fear.
Moreover, for years, teachers have complained that ministers don’t understand them and don’t listen to them. Now we’ve got a Secretary of State who, whatever you might think about what he is doing, is extremely well briefed on education and is obviously reading the direct views of teachers, as put out on their blogs. Even those of us who are politically opposed to him can be pretty certain he and other politicians are reading our work. Given that, it just seems a little lightweight and something of a missed opportunity to churn out smug patronising stuff like this from Cowley, or this from Paul Bernal, or another petulant piece of education agitprop from Rosen. If policy-makers are reading this stuff, why not write something persuasive, rather than something that treats politicians like they’re all idiots? To his credit, Russell Tarr did respond with clarity about the purpose of his lesson and though I don’t agree with him, I think it is to his credit that engaged in this way. Argument between practitioners and politicians in a web environment with no gatekeepers is a big part of the future of education policy making: those on the frontline speaking and arguing directly with policy-makers.
But for that dynamic to thrive, those of us on the frontline have to accept that–like learning–argument doesn’t have to be enjoyable to be engaging.