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Beware of 'experts' who bluff their way through education

Too many education 'experts' (who aren't teachers themselves) blag their way through research, policy and edtech creation

Education experts_editorial

Every English teacher will recognise the delight you feel when an author throws a beautiful chunk of prose at you like this one, which struck a chord with me this week: “That same dark pride and rage succeeded, sweeping over her form and features like an angry chord across the strings of a wild harp.”

Something else I read this week struck a different kind of chord with me, but one that was no less professional. An article in a leading magazine argued that what has distinguished political and other leaders in recent years has been their superficiality, their distinct lack of expertise – in essence, their ability to bluff their way to power.

It was a fascinating analysis and it struck a chord because it reflected my own professional experience. We place great faith in data in education today, but when one national publication declares that A* grades at A levels have “soared” while another insists they have “slumped” on the same day, I suspect that faith is woefully misplaced. Data disillusionment is one reason why that when things reflect my own professional experience I’m far more inclined to sit up and listen.

This argument, that the powerful in a whole range of important institutions in our society are nothing more than blaggers and chancers, people whose knowledge is a “mile wide but an inch deep” made me think hard about how this might have manifested itself in schools.  

In recent years I’ve begun to think that one of the most damaging things that happens in educational policy, research and practice is that people working in these fields, rarely teachers themselves, naively conflate secondary with primary teaching. The two roles are very different. In fact, the more I’ve thought about this question, the more I suspect what differentiates them is far more important than what links them. Although there are undoubtedly some similarities in terms of how teachers in both sectors perform in real classrooms, subject expertise, knowledge and passion are the distinguishing features of secondary teaching. They have no place in primary teaching.

But the norm these days suggests the opposite. Presentations about general pedagogical skills and issues dominate CPD events, research and policy-making, and there has been a small explosion in books that focus on generic teaching skills. Generalist pedagogues are far more likely to be found influencing decisions, or in positions of leadership, than subject scholars.

When I first encountered this issue, which is well over a decade ago, I thought it just reflected the fact that there are roughly five times as many primary schools as secondary schools in the UK. But that can’t be the case because there are roughly the same number of teachers, about 222,000 primaries and 208,000 secondaries in 2017. Something else is going on and having read this recent account about the blaggers and chancers who run many of our most important institutions, and whose faces we’re all too familiar with, I think I now know what.

Just as it has dramatically changed the entire retail sector, publishing and almost every other aspect of our lives you care to think of, I’ve long argued that the single most potent influence on education for at least two decades has been technology. Where else did the data tyranny come from that has driven schools and teacher accountability?

There is no aspect of school reform or educational policymaking that will not include a technology element. A previous government even made it the focus of their flagship national school building programme and around 10 per cent of the entire £55bn proposed budget for the former Labour government’s much-vaunted BSF programme, was given over to technology.

Technology businesses have no interest in discerning between primary and secondary teaching and every interest in conflating the two because by doing so every process and product, every service they provide, is simpler to design and cheaper to produce. I’ve seen this first hand on numerous occasions. The people in the driving seat are never educational experts or even senior sales staff – they are technicians. They are the employees who know that in the end, they have to make something work. So they have every incentive to simplify what they do and none at all to reflect the profoundly important differences that exist between secondary and primary teaching. If the only change needed across an entire software product to make it primary friendly is to substitute Comic Sans for Times Roman – who cares?

Given the current education minister’s enthusiasm for technology and his conviction that it has the potential to improve things for schools and teachers, I hope he finds a way to convince the technicians who will make all the decisions that they really do need to listen for once to expert teachers.

I also think they might be more inclined to listen to those experts if the research and CPD landscape was more balanced. I can think of only one organisation I would recommend to schools that runs its entire CPD offer around subject scholarship. The value to be gained attending conference sessions that deal with assessment or behaviour, metacognition or evidence-based practice is minimal when compared to that gained by a geographer or a historian, a linguist or a mathematician, attending events that focus entirely on their subject knowledge and expertise. The children they teach really don’t want blaggers or chancers standing in front of the class.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue

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