Independent Review of Education offers “a new possibility space…”

In a previous life I spent a lot of time in different educational settings, across Ireland, Britain and most of Western Europe, as the non eastern bloc countries were referenced at that time, doing participatory creative work.

I was working in schools at the time of the “Great” Education Reform Bill (or GERBill for journalistic shorthand) in 1988, which brought in some useful measures (like giving teachers time away from the classrooms for ongoing learning).

The name was first coined twelve years earlier by James Callaghan and the process he initiated officially finished the following year. In reality the debate he opened up then probably only concluded with that 1988 bill.

It took from Callaghan central control of the curriculum, monitoring teacher performance and “linking of the secondary curriculum to perceived needs of the economy”. Local management of schools (LMS) landed heads with admin costs.

The whole concept of a national curriculum was resisted by teachers who had always had huge latitude in how they taught and what they could teach. Over the succeeding decades new teachers came to accept this new programmatic approach.

Nowhere else I worked in (and there is huge variation in the systems in mainland Europe), including the Republic ever quite endured the amount of political (or more accurately, ideological) interference in education as the UK has.

The Danes in particular have innovation baked into the system. But it is led by educational professionals, not politicians. I first encountered a teacher using the word pedagogy was in Denmark, so I assumed it must have been a Danish term.

In the UK it is a proxy for a class of ideological war, leading to a form of political zig zagging in which our kids often pay the price. In Northern Ireland, for example the deadlock over selection in education has led to quite a damaging drift.

There is an opportunity to review where we are right now with the Independent Review of Education and ask some big questions about where we’re heading. The local National Education Union submission shares some important insights.

The core of that submission can be read in brief in their very practical ‘ten demands’, but I was most struck by the first two paragraphs in the fuller report itself:

Our system is too contested, politically and ideologically. We need more evidence-based policy, actions and ideas that demonstrably work. Systems that are fit for purpose, can be evaluated, much like the onus on our teachers and educators.

We need a larger professional “space” or “bubble” for pedagogic inquiry. Teaching is an intellectual endeavour, but teachers are bogged down in too much ‘busy’ administrative work – routine recording, measuring, weighing, assessing, testing, examining, monitoring, tracking. We believe in the old adage that “You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it.” We need to learn from what works internationally – notably in Scandinavia, middle Europe and in the Far East.

Early years of a child are both the most demanding professionally and the first thousand days are most crucial in longer life in a child’s life, ie before they even get to school. As the report notes:

Our young people start school too early. At 4 years and 2 months we have the youngest school starting age in Europe. This is not wholly mitigated by the KS1 curriculum. We get “too formal, too early”.

We have children in reading-recovery programmes before Scandinavian children have set a foot in school. Our children are robbed of play and time to be what they are – children.

Children learn best when they’re enjoying it, when they’re relaxed, engaged, fear-free and motivated. There are many different ways to learn. [Emphasis added throughout]

And has anyone had any experience of these shenanigans?

Our children do too many exams and spend too much time being spoon-fed. The CBI is not wrong to warn of the dangers of our schools turning into “exam factories” with pupils ill prepared for the world of work.

Accountability is important. Good accountability means measuring what matters. Excessive weighing and measuring is the direct result of a system responding to narrow performance targets.

Add school funding pressures to narrow performance targets and we get a toxic mix. A mix that leads directly to gaming the system, screening out pupils from taking exams lest they “pollute the stats”, practices such as “off-rolling”, pupils being dumped (asked to leave) at GCSE or AS level, exam-switching and exam-board promiscuity (choosing “easier” exams/qualifications), teaching to the test and spoon-fed education.

These are all inevitable, if unintended, consequences of high-stakes, narrow, system performance targets as well as features of low-trust, unprofessional environments.

And here’s an interesting twist in a place where (supposedly) the 11+ exam has long since been abolished:

The expansion of grammar schooling to around 46% of the post-primary level cohort places unfair pressures on other secondary schools. Grammar school expansion disadvantages far too many children, and damages the cohesion of our society in myriad ways.

So many go to Grammars (a way stage to university that the report describes as an “expensive and ineffective investment with a weak case or claim for maintaining its current size”) leaving secondaries with a poor social mix of students.

These proposals far from being radical or ideological, are generally reasonable and in line with good practices elsewhere. They suggest bringing the Transition year they have in the south to make space for more self directed work.

Not all of them will be popular with parents of course many of whom have convinced themselves that academic education is the only way forward. But looking at the table of child wellbeing, the UK is 27th out of 38 countries.

Nothing surprises me about those countries who are near the top of that table, particularly in terms of mental wellbeing. Schools in Spain, Portugal and Italy generally enjoy a far less adversarial relationship with teachers.

The Dutch, Nordics and the Swiss all tend to take the view that education is their investment in their own countries’ futures and tend not to stint on the quality of the education their kids receive year on year regardless of aptitude.

Time to open up a space for possibility?