"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Friday, May 13, 2011

The problem with education in this our two countries...

The answer to this varies a great deal, depending on whom you read, although those taking a regular interest in this will note that there's always one single big problem rather than numerous small ones - the latter being altogether too mundane and demanding on the attention for the average online pundit.

For some the core of the problem is the dead hand of the state. 'Producer-capture' has given us schools controlled by unions who are invariably described as 'Jurassic', or some other epithet used to indicate the state of being on the wrong side of History, and 'trendy teachers' who distribute condoms to teenagers in a value-free environment and think all must win prizes.

Or it could be the influence of ideologically-driven reactionaries who want to pursue the twin objectives of returning to the 1950s whilst turning the school system into a supermarket - contradictory goals reconciled with the assumption that the liberated consumers will use their new-found freedom to make the right choice.

Or it could be a bit of both but I'm increasingly of the view that it is neither for reasons I'll attempt to explain in my usual cack-handed way...

My country first. Unlike my own pusillanimous union, I see that the SSTA has decided not to take the line of least resistance to the Scottish Government's plan for pay cuts and reduced conditions of service for teachers. And amongst the grievances are included a criticism of the new curriculum as not being 'fit for purpose'. This is a repetition of a previous line, which was echoed by one of the curriculum's architects, Keir Bloomer:
"Keir Bloomer, a member of the team that created the Curriculum for Excellence, described it as "not good enough". The former council leader and director of education was particularly critical of the literacy element, calling it "complete nonsense".
Complete nonsense it undoubtedly is but to reproduce it for your amusement might distract from what is for me the most important piece of information in the excerpt above.

This is that the gentleman making these remarks is a former council leader and director of education. He had nothing to say when he was doing the job. Perhaps he only formed this opinion when he was approaching retirement but the more likely explanation is that he didn't say anything earlier for the same reason everyone doesn't say anything if they are in a similar position. You don't spend all that time climbing a hierarchy in order to say things that would immediately identify yourself as not belonging there.

This is the problem with projects like the Curriculum for Excellence. They will be a mixture of good ideas and bad, will have elements that work and some that will not. It is not that these are difficult to distinguish, it is that the institutions through which changes like this are mediated simply do not allow for this process.

Because it gains a bureaucratic momentum that is difficult to stop and, above all, they become projects in which people have invested political capital to the extent that the practical functioning of the initiative becomes secondary to survival of it as a partisan political project.

What is happening south of the border with the whole 'free-school' plan illustrates this point. As a way into this, I'll make a token effort to be even-handed. There are in Gove's plans one or two things that strike one as being reasonable ideas. For example, the idea of having five core subjects is from a Scottish perspective uncontroversial since this has been the practice here for many years.

On the other hand, from what this outside observer can gather from any concrete proposals suggested thus far, there's more than one or two elements of the free school plan that don't make any sense to me at all. Perhaps it's not representative but there seems to me to be an obvious contradiction between insisting that free-schools will have no academic entry requirements and suggesting - no, guaranteeing - that the "vast majority of...pupils will get 5 grade Cs at GCSE in academic subjects", as Ms Birbalsingh does for her proposed "Michaela Community School".

However, to focus on this would be to miss the point I am trying to make. This excerpt is from an article entitled, "How to dispel the myths surrounding free schools". Even if this were possible, I somehow doubt the pages of the Telegraph is the place where this is likely to happen, being as it is a space to preach to the choir rather than the unconverted.

In some respects it has already ceased to become important whether free-schools are a good idea or not because they have become a partisan political project and people will, have already, assumed positions accordingly. People will oppose this Conservative plan because it is a Conservative plan, with rightwingers occupying the defensive trench for exactly the same reason. Political capital has already been invested in this and its survival has likely already become more important than whether it actually works or not. Wheels looking a little wobbly on the NHS reform wagon so better make sure this one stays on course... But the felt need to maintain this course necessitates the sidelining of those voices that might carry the practical knowledge that might come in handy if they want to avoid the potholes that would impede the journey.

Enough with the clunking metaphors. Education in our countries has been a political football for as long as anyone can remember. Some of this is unavoidable in a representative democracy but in Britain it is felt more acutely than elsewhere in Europe. At the risk of producing my own monism to replace those on sale elsewhere, I would suggest this is simply because our educational systems are more centralised than in most other countries. Any proposed reform would work better if there was genuine decentralisation at almost every level. Central government should back away from local government, who in turn should back away from the management of individual schools. I would go on to suggest that school managers should also desist from attempting to micro-manage individual departments but they are but creatures of a system that gives them little incentive to do so.
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