A Recap: Where we are now. During the first five or six years of this century the Initiative had put enormous energies into delivering lectures and training programmes in response to numerous invitations in England from local education authorities; from the Canadian Council on Learning, and comparable groups in other countries. In England (the home of the Initiative) teachers increasingly argued that it was not them that needed further convincing, but that the Initiative should work with the politicians who still needed to internalise what these new ideas meant, for without such political support such ideas would remain stillborn.
Believing that within a democracy the appropriate way of convincing politicians was to empower the general public so as to be knowledgeable enough to influence policy, the Initiative developed the concept of Responsible Subversives. To this end, following the demise of the LEAs with their ability to organise local conferences and action groups, the Initiative produced Overschooled but Undereducated (June 2008). Because publication was delayed until December 2009, the Initiative prepared a Parliamentary Briefing Paper on the Design Faults in English Education (August 2009), to stimulate discussion in advance of the General Election scheduled for early 2010.
As it happened the timing was awful, because of the massive distraction caused by the Parliamentary Expenses scandal which broke only a couple of weeks before hand. As a result there was little national discussion of the Ten Action Points; less than 10% of MPs even acknowledged receiving the document, and only one of the 150+ Directors of Children’s Services made any sort of response. Fearing that we would lose any momentum in these critical months, the Initiative focused its attention on two or three blogs a week which cross-referenced current developments with both the Book and the Briefing Paper. Just how well they were read at the time we were never sure, but looking back over the period from June 2009 to the week or so after the Election twelve months later, they give a valuable insight into the mood of the country, and, inevitably, the Initiative itself during a strange period of uncertainty.
Blog 43 (August 2009), ‘Stand Firm’, touched on a delicate issue to the Initiative. As ever less money was available from local authorities to fund training programmes, the Initiative’s finances got really tight, and an approach was made to one of the largest foundations in the country for help in expanding our work. Approaches had to be limited to no more than 2 pages, which made it difficult to describe the ‘bigness’ of our Proposal. After much careful thought we submitted ‘A multi-strand strategy to prepare home, school and community for forms of learning that “go with the grain of the brain”’**. To our dismay within five days we received a letter saying, “You make a powerful case for what is wrong… and what ought to undermine policy in this complex and inter-related area… but the breadth of your remit – necessarily so, I accept – (means) the impossibility of identifying outcomes in the medium term…” It concluded by passing best wishes, “As you begin to generate the national and political debates that are so vital.” A devastating putdown, but most certainly a sign of things to come.
Over the next six months, while politicians and aspiring politicians delighted in throwing confusing statistics at each other, the Initiative constantly stressed that these were second-order questions in comparison to developing a clearer understanding of a kind of world that England thought was worth aiming for. ‘Slow Learners: a matter of democracy’ (46), suggested that it was many of the politicians who were the slow-learners, not simply the pupils. A couple of days later, the extraordinary ability of adolescents, as exemplified by a 16 rising 17 year-old who sailed alone around the world, urged me to write about not being so prescriptive as to limit adolescents’ ability to work things out for themselves; “Adolescence is an opportunity not a problem, always providing that they have been given, when younger, the physical, mental and technical capability to work things out for themselves” (47).
A week later, ‘Bigger is not necessarily Better’ (52) warned that while elaborately designed, new Academies who’s pedagogy would remain rooted in earlier structures, might quickly end up “in the breaker’s yard as an expensive out-of-date technology, irrelevant to the needs of tomorrow”. This was shortly linked to ‘End of a Partnership: Collapsing democracy’ (57). A week later, ‘Head Teacher: Leaders or managers?’ (61), made a vital distinction between the role of a Head Teacher, and that of a Chief Executive. Increasingly it seemed that politicians were regarding ‘Super Heads’ as being the agents of central government, so minimising the professional responsibility of teachers; it has been well said that managers do things right, but leaders do the right things.
Then I focused on two key issues: ‘Things Take Time; knowledge transfer’ (62), and ‘Clever Girl; emotional intelligence’ (63), which each raised vital issues about the role of emotion in education.
Seen from the perspective of 2013, Michael Gove’s speech to the Conservative party conference that October (68), makes interesting reading. ‘It was a great act…but the candidate didn’t actually answer the questions’. David Cameron’s speech to that conference was entitled ‘A House Divided Against Itself’ (70) … both strangely prescient!
Then in early November Blog 74 noted with great foreboding how Gove very cleverly dismissed the four-year study made under the auspices of Cambridge University into Primary Education, with a comment that seemed directly aimed at gaining the support of those who Cummings had earlier described as being “too busy to read very much”, and probably not interested in any case. Gove wrote in The Times, “Another academic exercise divides opinion”, and went on to dismiss its two main conclusions without further thought. As I noted in my blog, there were other aspects of that review that I did not agree with, but Gove’s dismissal of it in such a way was an insult to intelligent thought. Given the speed with which Michael Gove dismissed the Cambridge Review, ‘Chief Bureaucrat; political banana skins’ (long live political satire!) concluded, “Gove in his crusade to enable schools to think for themselves must not destroy all the middlemen (locally elected officials) or else he will be driven crazy by some 20,000 head-teachers banging on his door, all at the same time, pleading that they are special cases. Surely the last thing Michael Gove wants, should he become Minister, (or we need) is for him to be Chief Bureaucrat” (75). (What a terrible shame that this warning was never acted upon.)
The blog ‘Compliance: Death by inspection’ (87) was stimulated by the Chief inspector’s comment that, “fear is an excellent motivator in school improvement”. Trust seemed to be fast going out of the English education system, and I recalled with sadness the late redoubtable Al Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, when addressing a conference in London: “The more you trust people, the thinner the rule book, while the less you trust them, the thicker the rule book becomes”. Down-shifted brains do routine operations remarkably well but are useless in dealing with complex, original thinking.
The blogs rolled on. ‘Finding the Missing Piece; intelligent behaviour’ (91). ‘The Making of Teachers; a question of degree’ (94). ‘Assessing the Manifestos: Radical change, or Band Aid?’ (99) Then, Blog 101, questioned it he light of recent political statements, ‘Who will take Education Where?’‘The Urgent and the Important’ (104) went back to the very heart of the Briefing Paper when it stated, “For a democracy to be fully functional, the state cannot simply be defined in terms of a government that makes and administers laws in which individuals are then free to do their own thing. Just to live within the law means very little; but to live within the law and have a sense of civil society, is to create a great place in which to live”.
Then, the final blog before the election, ‘Competitive, or collaborative: what are we?’ (105), concluded, “Those learning structures that are moving towards a new empathetic approach to education show a marked improvement in mindfulness, communication skills, and critical thinking as youngsters become more introspective, emotionally attuned and cognitively adept at comprehending and responding intelligently and compassionately to others. Civilisation increasingly depends upon mutual understanding; the world is too small a place for alpha males (and females) to ‘strut their stuff.’ That is the challenge to all of us, especially as we educate children for the world which is hurtling towards us”. ‘Magnanimity; the essence of a responsible society’ (109) concluded with a comment by John Newsom from 50 years before: “It is important to think a little about the purpose of education, before attempting to judge whether individual schools are doing their job properly or not.” Over to you, Mr Gove, the blog concluded, before you jump to too many conclusions based simply on objective statistics. Magnanimity does not show up mathematically, but surely it is the essence of a responsible society.
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The Initiative’s effort with the Parliamentary Briefing Paper exemplified in many ways the observation made by Rand Corporation in 199x that, “Research that challenges the workings of the system is ignored or ridiculed, and that which can be used to strengthen the power and efficiency of the system is incorporated accordingly.” In this context, two books published in 2010 lay down a significant challenge to those policy-makers, politicians and educators that the Initiative sought to influence. Dianne Ravitch’s ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System’ and Spencer Well’s ‘Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilisation’ converge from diverse perspectives to describe the serious and disturbing implications of our current educational and social trajectory for future generations.
Ravitch’s book reflected an increasing scepticism of the panaceas and miracle cures which that administration had tried to impose top-down on the system. Now a well-regarded academic of Democratic loyalties, she had surprisingly been invited to become an Assistant Secretary responsible for School Reform in George Bush’s Republican administration, and had been heavily involved for some 15 years. She concluded that, “At the present time public education (in America) is in peril. Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival. We must turn our attention to improving the schools, infusing them with the substance of genuine learning and reviving the conditions that make learning possible”. Such prescient advice for the British Government, placing much hope in the American Charter Schools on which its Free School experiment is modelled, has so far been dismissed. In our review, ‘Battling for the Soul of Education’ (4*), I tied this to the experience and recommendations of the Initiative. See also ‘Turn-coat? The Life and Death of School Systems’ (2*).
Spencer Wells’ book tells the chilling story of the unforeseen cost of civilisation. I resonated strongly with this (see review, ‘Get More, Want More’ 4*), for some years ago I had the rare opportunity of spending a week in Tanzania observing members of the Hadza tribe who still practice a genuine hunter-gatherer economy in conditions that almost exactly reflect the way of life of our Stone Age ancestors some 60,000 or more years ago. They neither herd animals nor do they plant crops. They have no permanent villages, and only dry grass to cover the low huts in which they live. They own minimal possessions (other than their knives) and move from place to place for food – the self-rooting tubers of hanging vines, the fruit and berries they collect in season and – in about one day in eight – the meat caught by the hunters.
Significantly the Hadza have no facilities whatsoever to store anything. They share anything they find with everybody else around them. In such a way they manage to survive when other more sophisticated people would be wiped out by periods of drought and famine. As I wrote in my diary at the time “the questions foremost in my mind are just how like them are our behaviours all these generations later and, secondly, how has the experience of our ancestors bequeathed to us brains pre-disposed to operate perhaps more effectively in their world rather than in the lifestyle of the 21st Century?”
This acted as a very strong reminder to me of what Jared Diamond had speculated in 1997, that the alert intelligence of so-called ‘primitive peoples’ (who had to use all their wits everyday to survive) were in all probability superior to Western, institutionalised learners produced by modern universities. I had written about this extensively in ‘Face to Face with the Stone Age’, being Chapter 15 of Master and Apprentice (3*), and also made the substance of my ultimate argument in Overschooled but Undereducated.