Monday, 28 February 2011

The importance of learning?

Michael Gove's education reforms fail to realise that learning is just as important as teaching

Michael Gove’s education white paper The Importance of Teaching is nothing if not ambitious, containing within it an overhaul of nearly every single aspect of education from primary school provision through to post-16 assessment.  Its central themes are greater autonomy but increased accountability for schools, a slimmed down National Curriculum (NC) focussed on more traditional subject areas, comparing our children’s performance internationally and empowering teachers so that are able to concentrate on teaching.  All of this will, it is implied, raise standards.

However the implicit and most clear theme emerging from the white paper is that the status quo is simply unsustainable and it offers a withering assessment of nearly every area of current education policy.  The system is dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic and places teachers and teaching secondary to league tables. 

Three obvious criticisms quickly emerge.  Firstly, the underlying issues that create and or exacerbate the problems within the classroom are ignored and it is assumed that simply changing our schools will alleviate them.  The link between poverty and educational performance is highlighted as unacceptable (the pupil premium forms a key element of the strategy to tackle this), but the bigger question is how the causes of poverty will be tackled in the first place at a time when benefits for the poorest are being cut.  

In order to attract a higher calibre of university graduate to the profession behaviour management is to be tackled by increasing the powers that teachers have.  Teachers will be empowered with the ability to physically restrain pupils, they will be able to search them and place them in same-day detention.  The presence of ex-military personnel, who will be encouraged to retrain as teachers, is expected to improve behaviour.

But disruption is caused by many things; including a lack of ability (children choose to disrupt as they cannot take part) yet at this very moment primary school initiatives to improve the reading of those that struggle are being cut.  Disruption can also be caused by unstable and abusive domestic lives, but these children are to have less access to one-to-one support.  

The idea that allowing teachers to physically restrain pupils empowers them seems contradictory, it places teachers in a litigation minefield and there is no detail on how they will be defended by their local authorities from prosecution.  By allowing teachers to fight fire with fire while ignoring the wider social issues involved may simply lead to an escalation of an already difficult situation.  

The second obvious criticism is that there is little focus on learning, rather than teaching.  Singapore, Finland and South Korea are held aloft of as examples of excellence from which we can learn.  Yet it is assumed that the numerous elements of best practice adopted from these education systems will be equally successful when parachuted into the completely different context of the UK education system.   

The shift toward traditional subject areas will allow the NC to be slimmed down, providing an outline of what knowledge children should have when they leave school, with less focus on how that knowledge is acquired.  The NC will focus on English, maths, science and physical education.  Shortly after entering government the coalition scrapped a radical overhaul of the national curriculum (introduced under Labour) that would have moved teaching towards themes, rather than strict subject areas, as this is considered a more effective way for children to learn.  One suspects that this move is based upon ideology, not evidence.

The third criticism is that schools will, in reality, have little or no extra autonomy unless they convert into a Free or Academy school.  The pressure placed on schools is likely to increase as they are asked to do more with less money.  Schools are struggling to maintain their current levels of provision, yet the shift towards traditional subjects will force many secondary schools into taking on additional humanities teachers, without any additional funding.  

Schools will still be expected to continue teaching those areas that are no longer part of the NC such as personal and social, music and cultural education.  In theory this may give schools greater autonomy, but there is a suspicion that these elements will be quietly dropped as schools need to focus on the increased accountability to which they will be subjected.

That league tables have forced schools to encourage their pupils to pursue qualifications that may not be wholly useful to employers or universities is worrying.   That the solution to this is the introduction of new legal tables is somewhat baffling and contradicts the notion of greater autonomy.  By retaining league tables and making some elements of the curriculum discretionary it incentivises schools to abandon these non-core areas.  It is also unclear how comparing the performance of British schools internationally logically leads to an increase in standards.  

The age at which individuals can leave school is set to be raised to 18 by 2015 in order to reduce the number of NEETS (Not in Employment, Education or Training).  To facilitate this the number of vocational training courses and pathways will be further increased, acknowledging that a university education is not appropriate for all.  The introduction of the English Baccalaureate is also set to offer students a broader range of subjects at to study at sixteen than currently offered by the current A level setup.

For those studying A levels there are two potentially worrying developments.  The first is the discrepancy in funding where high school sixth forms receive more funding per head than sixth form colleges.  The solution to this inequity is to cut the level of funding to high school sixth forms.  Secondly an arbitrary limit will be placed on the number of A level modules students can re-sit, making it harder to boost the grades required for the best universities in the belief that this will, somehow, increase standards.

The single biggest failure of the white paper is to acknowledge that in the current system some schools in very challenging circumstances are incredibly successful.  The reason is often leadership, as noted in John Humphrys excellent documentary, Unequal Opportunities.  Good leadership and management can transform the opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, something The Importance of Teaching is greatly concerned with.  It is therefore a shame that the white paper is unwilling to accept that the current system has its successes.

This article appears in the March edition of the Young Political Bloggers e-magazine.

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