Sunday, 11 July 2010

It's all a question of Gove and take.

So I haven't proven to be a terribly consistent blogger I'm afraid. I can only plead mitigating circumstances in defence of the nine month interregnum between posts. A new job, a pregnant wife, an Ofsted inspection and a coalition government. Only one of these things could have been reliably predicted in September.

But as the primary focus of this blog was always to be education and pedagogy, let me try and focus this post on my thoughts post election. The landscape has shifted, we are under new management, and the next decade of learning and teaching in British schools is going to be very different to the last ten years of 'strategy' and consultant led centralisation.

Around September time I found myself engaged in a spirited exchange of correspondence with the now much more ubiquitous Toby Young. In a rare fit of pique I had responded, perhaps rashly, to an article he had written in the Observer about his desire/intention to set up a school in the style of the Swedish 'free school' system in his corner of London.

From: spencerrichard1979@hotmail.comTo: howtolose@hotmail.comSubject: HelpDate: Sun, 23 Aug 2009 12:38:56 +0000


Can you explain to me how a 'comprehensive grammar' would manage to solve the need to raise access, achievement and well being in working class children and, by definition, how existing comprehensive schools and academies are failing? If you seek to embrace an 'inclusive philosophy', then surely everyone in Acton will have access to your Utopian dream? Or will it become a cosy ghetto for you and your middle class friends?

The best thing about the political landscape of the 1970s was that it was honest. The left and right had clearly defined goals and constituencies. You and the other Cameronites are so intellectually dishonest it is staggering. Your aims are not inclusive, but very much exclusive. You seem to have very little grasp of educational philosophy other than a very simplistic notion that Grammar = rigour and excellence / Comprehensive = mediocrity and failure. As an educationalist I wouldn't dream of pretending to know how best to run a hospital, a military campaign or a legal chambers. What then, qualifies you to establish a school in your own image?

Can I suggest that you stop agonising. It is clear that you want the best for your children, and that you fear sending them to the local state school will not furnish them with the best odds of success. You are wrong, but you are entitled to make that choice (although I would ask you to carefully consider the impact of people making that choice has upon the success and viability of state schools in your part of London). What could be truly dangerous is peddling the patent lie that allowing middle class parents to set up schools in their own vision (I presume you are also happy with mosques, churches and temples doing the same?)will somehow raise the bar for the most socially disadvantaged children. That isn't what you really want is it? You'd like to be able to segregate your children from these sections of society without calling upon your wealth and privilege to do so. The current government has betrayed many progressive principles through its education policy of late, although at least it has retained a stated intention to promote inclusion and to raise standards for all.

If you believe in streaming children from a young age and a three tier education system, then
go for it. Wave the flag for that model, which has many strengths and many enlightened and erudite proponents. In the meantime, perhaps visit some of the most successful comprehensive schools and join in the debate as to how and why they succeed in providing a well rounded, rigorous and inclusive experience for a range of students from diverse backgrounds. These schools (and there are thousands of them) follow many of the paths and practices which I suspect your 'comprehensive grammar' notion would seek to emulate.

Articles like yours do so much damage to a system which suffers from the ceaseless barrage of armchair experts. Your own experiences in the 1970s do not make you an expert. Having an educationalist for a father doesn't either. Visiting a few schools and consulting some serious research around the contemporary debates in education might.
Richard Spencer

Now, ok, I was angry and somewhat intemperate in my expression. But I stand by what I wrote, and feel justified in holding up the whole 'comprehensive grammar' piffle for the oxymoronic tripe it so self evidently is.

I won't (and probably legally can't!) betray Toby's confidence by publishing the exchange which followed. Suffice to say he was charming and persuasive in his defence, but in the final analysis was happy to claim to be an 'unashamed elitist'. It is this phrase on which I think I'd like to hang my commentary on the philosophy which is in the ascendancy in the Govian present.

Whatever crimes Labour was guilty of in their handling of Education (and despite being a card carrying and unbowed Labourite, I am perfectly happy to accept that they are multifarious and occasionally heinous), with the exception Ruth Kelly's brief and depressing period in charge, I always had the sense that the core values and intentions of policy makers were essentially progressively sound. This provided some small comfort in moments of anger and indignation at the dunderheaded pronouncements and data-insanity which punctuated so many of New Labour's education policies.

The new tone was set within just four hours of the formation of the coalition and the appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State. With the ink literally still drying on the Faustian pact the Liberals entered into with so many whey faced smiles, Gove immediately and summarily excised the 'Children and Families' elements of his brief. Within four hours the garish 'rainbow optimism' desktop theme of the DCSF website had been replaced with an 'austerity blue' background, and the somewhat sinister warning that all content 'may not represent current government policy'. This was the 'Department of Education' and Michael Gove meant business.

And so it has proven. GTC gone, BECTA gone, QCDA on its way. Diplomas withering on their feeble vine (Pity Tomlinson and his brave, lost vision). The bulldozer excitedly looming over many of the foundation blocks of Curriculum 2000. The Secondary national strategy (check out the yellow health warning at the top!) busily 'legacy planning'. The apparatus of New Labour's centralised approach is being dismantled in a bonfire of the educationalists. PGCE is under threat (Gove has publicy stated teaching is a 'craft' which requires an apprenticeship). While the 'art of deep thought' is the desired sunlit academic upland of the Govtopian future, the 'craft of quick cuts' appears to be the reductive and ideological reality of his approach to governing.

And all this without mention of the Academies Bill. My own school found itself on a published list of schools 'seeking Academy status' which Gove excitedly published (within mere days of announcing the policy and writing to schools) as evidence of the popular clamour to attain this cherished bauble of freedom from state oppression. In reality we are extremely wary of the move, and simply expressed a desire for more information out of fear of being left behind in the nervous and unseemly rush. Spin the fear, grease the engines of rapid, cost effective (?), change.

And then we have the extermination of BSF in the most attention grabbing move he has made so far. There has been a rearguard action to highlight the inefficiencies and cost of the programme, but the axing of it means we have lost the best chance we've had in a generation to replace so many of the asbestos riddled, leaky, cold and poorly designed shacks we still educate our children in. In defence we are told in sombre tones that the quality of the experience in the classroom, of the teaching, is of primary importance. No doubt all true, but a three star meal served up in a pig sty would still likely give me indigestion. I'd like to see Mr Gove teach a five period day in the asbestos building which I teach in and tell me that the extreme heat/cold (delete depending upon time of year and whether or not the boiler has packed up for the umpteenth time) has no impact on learning. One only has to spend time in France, Germany or Scandinavia to witness that we offer up uniquely shitty environments to support teaching and learning in this country. It is poor now - in five years it could degenerate to the level of national disgrace.

And all this is of course due to Labour's profligacy. Of course there is no ideological strain evident in this process at all. We regret the need to terminate all the attendant public and private sector jobs which the gleeful Gove's posturing will result in. Clearly the cutting of capital spending projects will have no impact on the private sector or raise unemployment in the wider economy. Obviously any spending undertaken by the Labour government was done so out of a wicked and wilful desire to destroy the British economy and leave it ready for Sharia law. Ok, I need to calm down. But I think you can see my own ideological fury emerging quite clearly enough.

Few teachers or education professionals will weep at the loss of the GTC (what did it ever really achieve?). Some will miss BECTA (I count myself among their number), while most will grudgingly accept that in the context of cuts to non essential services it may have run its course. The ideological case can be made for any of these cuts as long as you are prepared to accept the reality of living without them.

The teaching profession looks as if it may, just about, accept the case for a two year pay freeze. However the popular, media and political rhetoric against our pensions, working conditions and practice has been noticeably dark since the new government took power.

So, before I bring this unashamedly self righteous polemic to a close, let me return to the 'unashamedly elitist' badge Toby Young so proudly wore. His school now looks like becoming a reality. I now interpret what he meant by that phrase differently to how I did back in September. They (the government and the West London Cameroonians) are the elite now. They have their ideology, they are determined to see it through, and they are unashamed. The politically awkward details and the progressive heart of the public sector may eventually provide the Achilles' heel, but for now they are the masters and we the public servants.

There may be trouble ahead. But while the sun is shining, our (below inflation) pay rises are assured for September, and the cuts to come aren't yet casting our teaching and administrative assistants onto the dole queues, we can just about still pretend that the core 'coalition' values are sound and that those nice Liberals will take the edge off the nasty party in power. Stay tuned progressives!

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