education is no longer centre stage
It seems a long time ago that Tony Blair made “education, education, education” the centre piece of the election that brought New Labour to power. In 1997 the mantra signalled Labour’s determination to invest in public services and in so doing, bring hope to communities left stranded by economic restructuring, whilst re-building a strong conception of the state working for the citizen. This election, education is no longer centre stage. Instead the parties compete to offer voters deals that might leave them feeling monetarily better off. The fragility of the recovery post crash and how that is felt by “hard working families” or the “squeezed middle” dominates debate. Education has fallen down the political agenda. It deserves more attention.
Manifesto pledges on education cluster round a technocratic set of themes: the amount of money parties will spend on the school system and the methodology they will use to determine this; the level of fees they wish to charge students in Higher education; and what they will do via apprenticeships and vocational education to strengthen the links between education and work. There are some clear dividing lines: only the Conservatives unequivocally support free schools and advocate hastening the transfer of locally-run schools into the control of academy sponsors; the Liberals wish to rebuild local management of schools led by local authorities; Labour wants to appoint regional Directors of School Standards to monitor school performance. There is general support for establishing a Teacher’s College, with the Liberal and Labour parties pledging to employ only qualified teachers in state-funded schools. With the exception of the Greens, whose education policy well articulates their stated values and priorities, this feels like tinkering around the edges, a managerial set of responses to issues defined by system managers. The Conservatives promise to micromanage selective aspects of education – making behaviour management compulsory in teacher training, or expecting every 11 year old to know their timetables off by heart. The SNP do not advocate for a Scottish approach to education in England or Wales, which could have made a genuine contribution to a UK-wide debate. The Labour party play safe with few policy commitments. Only the Liberals set out a detailed set of prescriptions to address the problems they perceive with the Tory approach to managing education. It remains to be seen what all this will mean in the negotiations that will lead up to a new administration. Here are some principles that should shape the deals to be made.
In England we have reached a crucial point in the policy cycle with the fragmentation of the school system through academisation, free schools, and the increasing numbers of schools run as organisations that are not formally accountable to their local communities. Government has effectively withdrawn from its responsibilities to provide a shared sense of who we are and what we value as a society through the way it funds and supports education. Parents have to rely on whatever provider has been picked in Whitehall to run the service locally, on a contract that is often poorly specified, with oversight resting on performance management data that is increasingly unfit for purpose. For that is what the examination system has become. Ofsted hit squads on lightening visits cannot rectify this. Universities are struggling to function as the businesses whose habits they are being asked to adopt, whilst adult and vocational education languish, with the FE sector starved of funds.
We need politicians who can voice a clear alternative to running education by numbers in this way. In England, a semi-autonomous school system is a political fix that answers the problems of accountability that politicians feel, faced with the story the numbers seem to tell: that someone is always doing better than the rest. Performance management that relays data away from the frontline service does not create good teaching. Children are not standardised products, whose make up can be substantially altered by devising new pedagogic recipes. Nor can anyone reasonably expect that the same inputs will guarantee the same outputs from each individual child. The data themselves tell us this, when analysed appropriately. Parents know this too. No one expects a standard model child, built to a given pattern, whose behaviours and capacities can be fully replicated, one child to the next. Life isn’t like that.
Good politics provides the resources to the education system that are necessary for good teaching and good research to thrive, and distributes those resources so that those with the greatest need get more
So teaching cannot be safely monitored from afar by checking that teachers have stuck to the script or delivered the same pedagogic product in the same way. Professional judgement attuned to the particular case will always be fundamental. The job of teachers, teacher trainers and researchers working close to practice is to build and refine the appropriate resources for exercising judgement that takes into account the child, their circumstances and capabilities, and then do more with these ingredients than might be expected. Good teaching precisely gets out of children more than the inputs would predict. Good politics provides the resources to the education system that are necessary for good teaching and good research to thrive, and distributes those resources so that those with the greatest need get more. We need politicians prepared to make the case for this to happen.