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.

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Vince Cable has made the mistake of being accidentally correct

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.

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The Cordelia Question; Or Would You Rather Be Thomas More or Thomas Cromwell?

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 Cromwellthat 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.

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For Independent Voices: How a Labour government could help our schools

I’ve written a piece for the Independent’s online comment section, building one of the 14 ThingsI 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 …

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