Like many others in recent weeks I have become something of a ‘party policy watcher’, comparable to those who watch the fascinating antics of dolphins so as to try and understand how their brains work. As the General Election gets ever nearer, the behaviour of these policy wonks seems to have become ever more erratic, eccentric and represents apparently hopeless organisation behind the scenes. Much of this seems like stupid decision-making processes and the inability to see the short comings of their own slogans.
To an outsider such as myself this is all enormously frustrating as I seek signs that some politician, somewhere, has both the width of vision to see how and why the education system is broken, and has the human courage, insight and wit to lead a confused and largely compromised people into a better place. Such leadership necessitates real vision and the most careful handling of public perceptions.
I read with dismay the recent news items “Class, say hello to Miss Goldie Hawn” (The Sunday Times 14/02/2010) and “Teachers to take over their school and fire the headteacher”, and the insensitive linking of “organisations with dark agendas” to an attack on creationism. This is no more than sensational and light-weight stuff. Journalists tend to pick up on symptoms rather than the more complex underlying problems, which raises the question as to who is actually doing the dumbing down – is it the politicians themselves, or is it the journalists? Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow minister of education, should know the answer to that better than anyone as he was once a leader writer for The Times.
A couple of years ago I attempted to explain to a number of Westminster politicians the on-going problems created in 1944 by splitting schools at the inappropriate age of eleven into primary and secondary. Several Members suggested that it would be useful if I were to turn the ideas into a Briefing Paper specifically for parliamentarians. I took that challenge very seriously and consequently spent the better part of four months working on this to produce a synthesis of key ideas from many recent technical reports. It concluded with Ten Actions that an incoming government would have to take if it were – at long last – to seek to deal with those deep-seated assumptions that have effectively scuppered so many earlier well-intentioned reforms. The Initiative sent this Briefing Paper to all MPs last August in the hope that it would stimulate a national dialogue, but we heard nothing from most of them, and nothing whatsoever from the three main parties’ spokespeople – Ed Balls, Michael Gove or David Laws.
Which has to be troubling… for those who fail to understand their history simply live to make the same mistakes again.
In explaining how English education has come to be in its present predicament the Paper carefully unpacked the biomedical, epistemological and historic reasons as to why the Finnish education system is so much more successful than is the English one. It also explained how Finnish teachers, with both a three-year honours degree in their teaching subjects and a three-year degree in pedagogy and epistemology, have such professional autonomy that there is little need for micro-management by government. Questions are being asked about teacher education. Neither the PGCE or the B.Ed courses come anywhere close to the Finnish three-year pedagogic degree in terms either of what is studied, or the rigour with which it is delivered.
Projecting these ideas onto England, while also drawing upon the most recent research into the nature of human learning, suggested that the current practice of assigning greater resources and status to secondary schools in preference to primary education is, quite literally, upside-down. If these resources were to be reversed and then reallocated in line with an appropriate pedagogy, this would enable formal schooling to start a dynamic process by which students would be progressively weaned of their dependence on teachers and institutions, and given the confidence to manage their own learning when working in less structured situations in later life (which surely should be the aim of any education worth its name).
All of which is vastly important, for it comes at a time when the Treasury is calling for swingeing cuts in public expenditure over the next few years. Yet I see no reference to that in Michael Gove’s statements, which is especially worrying because, according to the pollsters, he is likely to be the next Minister of Education.
Surely the country has had enough of ‘patching old wine skins’, and feels that the time is long overdue for a thorough review of secondary education, especially as there is the real chance that many youngsters coming out of ever improving primary schools at the age of eleven, are ready for a far more challenging form of learning. The principle of weaning is therefore utterly fundamental to reshaping this relationship. This would have massive implications for the distribution of resources, and the very shape of the schools and the communities that surround them.
All of which would necessitate quite enormous political skills to confront the inertia within the present system and gain the support of parents and teachers, as well as achieving cross-party support for a reform which should put vitality and a unifying purpose back into education. Should a future Minister fail to do this then their other proposals would inevitably totter on weak foundations.
Throughout the Briefing Paper I stressed the interdependence of school, home and community (the intellect, the emotions and cultural awareness) in the balanced education of a child. Most politicians only appear happy when they project alternative governance models for schools, and find themselves most uncomfortable when talking about preferred ways of learning. Being sensitive, as I hope they are, to the problems created for teachers by children coming from inadequate homes, politicians must know even better than the rest of us how these two issues have to be addressed together, not separately. In addition there is the urgent need to strengthen the community, for the more unwilling or incapable are individuals to accept a responsibility to help their neighbours, the more rapidly does the cost of social care escalate.
No one has ever rolled these three issues together better than did John Milton when he wrote in 1644 “I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices, public and private, of peace and war.” Milton’s thinking had been much shaped by his voluminous correspondence with the Czech philosopher Jan Amos Comenius who, following Milton’s death, went to Scandinavia where his ideas took root more than 300 years ago. I would argue that Finland’s current success owes much to that clear, all-embracing set of values.
Teaching behind such a banner as Milton’s would give all the space and direction that good teachers need to do an exceptional job; without such a banner English teachers stagger to hold themselves high enough to cope with all the weight of centrally-devised procedures, often tripping over their own toes because they can’t see which way they are going.
In a post-modern, relativistic and secular world politicians are reluctant to talk about morality and value systems but Milton knew all those years ago that he needed to express a vision that could ‘bind’ a people together. Interestingly Milton as a theologian understood that it was beliefs which held a people together, not simply laws (‘religio’ in Latin means bind together).
Here is the key question for our times: amongst the politicians offering themselves for high service is there a future Minister able to express a vision compelling enough to enable him, or her, to so bind the country together as to willingly rebuild the system from the roots upwards?