Warning – Polemic – Warning
Today, the news is full of shock and anger, mostly from the Left, at the news that St Olave’s Grammar School kicked out kids that were not maintaining the ‘high standards’ and exceptional results it prides itself on. However, this outrage is hypocritical and highlights the deep prejudices in our schools. Pedagogy (the theory and methodology of education) is political, and belongs in the national debate.
Parents know how central “Education, education, education” is to the national political debate – especially around issues of social mobility and economic growth. However, if you are on the left and if you really want to make our economy more robust and our communities fairer – you need to challenge, not just who runs your school or what is studied – but how your children are learning, and why those choices have been made.
Full disclosure: I am a progressive – which means (to me) that I think we have only just begun working out how to ‘do’ mass education – and that I believe there are more improvements we can find by trying new approaches.
Mass education has been a live experiment that’s only been running since 1945 (in the UK) and was built on the models available and familiar to those running the country – that of the classical education offered in the private school system and the pinnacle of which is the Oxbridge experience.
Deep within the system and in our society, at large, are some assumptions about education that rarely get an airing. I believe that one of those is that the elites deserve power, and the rest of us should be happy with a benign and elected dictatorship.
Why haven’t other models of schooling and education had time to evolve into our national system. Reggio Emilia, Project Based Learning, Sudbury Schools , etc – work at least as well as the current system and produce successful and happier kids, and communities. See the incredible success of Expeditionary Learning and Big Picture schools in the US. Stuck out at the fringes, very few schools are brave enough to do right by their kids and communities.
“In summary, although PBL is unlikely to improve children’s literacy outcomes or engagement, it may enhance the quality of children’s learning, particularly improving some of the skills required for future learning and employment.”
Surely, you’d expect that this summary would encourage parents and teachers to expect/demand these pedagogies in their schools. Right? But,… nope 🙁
But, instead, this unwillingness to move beyond traditional approaches comes from the long held conservatism in our communities and society – because even the most left leaning parent are still in awe of the elites they claim to fight against.
One question will put this into sharp relief (especially for the parents reading):
If money was no object, you got no negative feedback from friends not able to do the same, and that your local state schools wouldn’t suffer – would you send your child to one of the better* independent (private) schools?
Most of you would. You might never admit it to your friends – but you would. Let me tell you why.
Because you are part of the class system – and you’d want to give your kids the best possible start in life – and the rest of our society projects the belief that the independent school education is most likely to give them that. Looking at the white, male, privately educated leaders of our political parties and those who fill our TV studios – it’s hard to argue.
Because you know that, under our current system, independent schools seek to give children an education perfectly suited to the examinations we use, and employment practices and prejudices in our workplaces. They get the results, right? Who wouldn’t want that advantage and access for their kids?
Because, the “best” state schools seek to emulate the independent sector, teaching through an academic curriculum, offering Latin, etc, – a pattern that has spread since the coalition government – but begun under New Labour. Seeking to copy the better funded independent sector has it’s costs; notably in class sizes getting bigger; and the Arts and Sports often getting cut.
Worst of all – by copying the independent sector – but doing so without the resources and selectivity, the state sector is voluntarily setting itself up to continually fail and to maintain the pedestal that the private schools place themselves on.
Finally, you’d do it because there is no other option but to play the game; run by, and in favour of, the elites. Unless you happen to be in one of the very few areas to have a brave school to ‘chose’ from (like School21, XPSchool or Plymouth School for Creative Arts) where the pedagogy is explicit and progressive – then you are stuck with the inertia within a stunted system.
This post is not an argument for getting rid of independent schools (although I do believe they are the single most corrosive element in our education system) or to diss the hard work of thousands of teachers and school leaders. I want to see the state sector be more inclusive and democratic. That starts by being honest about the political nature of what we do in schools.
Holding up exam results as ‘proof’ that a model of education is superior to another is to take part in an act of propaganda in favour of an archaic and discriminatory system – that favours and perpetuates the elite. We hear the debates about “Standards” and freedoms, academisation and assessment, or about workload and budgets. This makes the tension between the government and the profession, and distracts from where the real struggle is.
Those who lean on a ‘Research-led’ school improvement model are, in fact, allowing an ideology to define the educational outcomes and experiences of children- most of whom will not benefit. Almost all the research lean on performance in a very narrow set of measures in English and Maths. Shaping a school around what ‘What works’ can be as political as promoting one view of British History over another.
So, what’s to be done?
Firstly, the debate about what assumptions lie underneath how we educate and assess our kids needs to be opened and explored further – to expose the conservatism of our education system.
Not to knock what Oxbridge or independent schools do, but until we genuinely start to value learning experiences that are not slaves to those models – then a more democratic and equitable society will not be possible. Means of evidencing learning and ‘achievement’ need to encompass new behaviours – perhaps through Open Badges, but starting with the pedagogy of classroom practice.
Most of all, more teachers and parents need to talk about what mode of education they believe in – and they should make that work. We all know our current system is imperfect- so why not try another that better matches the beliefs about people and society we believe in?
Of course there will be objections. Of course the elite will pooh-pooh and demean those seeking to make change. But, if you believe, as I do, that we can make a fairer society than the one we live in now – and that is a target worth aiming for- then you have to bring your pedagogy in line with your politics.
My thanks to Dai Barnes, for his thoughtful and kind challenge, rigour and intelligence, and humanity and respect in discussing these ideas.
* Yes – I know, there are also independent schools whose results are poor. Which makes you wonder, what are parents paying for there – if not results?