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Radical reforms? Please, we’ve seen it all before

Character education, GCSEs, zero tolerance: they're nothing new. Real reform would shun this failing system, says JL Dutaut

Radical reform, education reform, character education, off-rolling, GCSEs, behaviour, Damian Hinds

Have you managed to keep up this week? Assessment week. Mock week. Half-termly data-drop week. Parents’ evening, curriculum planning meeting…oh, and teaching, of course.

For all the talk of reducing workload, as the February break approaches, it’s business as usual.

Amid all that, you’d be forgiven for missing that Damian Hinds has launched his flagship policy. Given the becalmed character of his tenure, the flag doesn’t have to fly high to stand above the flotsam. Aboard his lonesome raft, cast adrift by the Brexit tempest, Mr Hinds has been contemplating the nature of character and deduced its five key components. These will constitute new school self-assessment benchmarks. Miraculously, they will not add to teachers’ workload. Yes, it will be business as usual.

The "character" benchmarks are to be modelled on the Gatsby careers-guidance model. The one most schools ignore and the government makes no effort to ensure compliance to. Another set of fine words for a privileged audience. Another policy without meaning or intent. Business as usual.

You might have also missed this week that one academy trust has employed a crisis-management PR firm to deflect criticism of its alleged behaviour policy; another has had the finger pointed at it by Ofsted for off-rolling; and a third is set to sell its curriculum-support product to other schools. In essence, the organisations running our schools are secretive, coercive, exclusive and exploitative. You could say that’s business. As usual.

Meanwhile, Lord Baker has joined a chorus of voices calling for the GCSEs he created to be scrapped. There’s no sign from him of any regrets about introducing an education market and a punitive accountability system to police it. The rationale for scrapping them is that raising the leaving age has made them redundant. Efficiency: the core purpose of business, as usual.

And as I write this, the Royal Society has come out in favour of scrapping A levels, too. The rationale? They don’t prepare young people for the 21st century workplace. Young people are leaving without the skills they need for business. As usual.

All of this and more is driven by a thriving cottage industry in international comparisons, stoked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development through its Pisa and Timms rankings. While we look abroad to pilfer from high-performing systems, others look to us to magpie ours.

Policymakers everywhere are in thrall to this global ranking system. There’s soft power in it. Winning means market share for our private and semi-private education institutions to get a hold of in the developing world. All the better, I assume, to share with the rest of us the proceeds of business. As usual.

As usual, too, all of these policies are promoted by people presenting their ideas as radical.

A failed anti-radicalisation strategy

Character education has been in the works for years, to no avail. Hinds has supposedly discovered a radical way to see it through. Except he hasn’t. His only claim to radicalism is in devising a policy implementation that convinces who it needs to convince, while delivering nothing at all. He’s given the market a choice to buy or not buy into one of education’s core purposes.

Zero-tolerance behaviour policies are presented as a radical rebirth of teacher authority. Except they aren’t. They simply capitalise on the ripe old idea of parent choice to justify selection.

Ofsted’s move to look for and call out off-rolling is supposedly a radical shift. Is it? What’s radical is to have convinced so many that it wasn’t responsible for stoking the fires of competition to such a heat that many chose to compromise their professional integrity rather than to see their schools and careers incinerated.

Is Ark Schools’ Curriculum Plus programme a radical new way for schools to share expertise in a self-improving system? No. The trust, once led by Amanda Spielman, has simply brought consultancy in-house to leverage its position as a leader in curriculum. It’s using other schools’ budgets to purchase its place at the top of Ofsted’s new judgements, spearheaded by Amanda Spielman.

Lord Baker labelled his call for scrapping GCSEs as radical on the grounds that the Department for Education opposes it. If that’s the only criteria, then we’re all radicals. Unlike Lord Baker, however, few of us get the opportunity to scrap something we created – that a country has spent 30 years trying to make work – and call it radicalism rather than a monumental mistake.

And scrapping A levels? Radical? The former permanent secretary to the DfE called for this four years ago and Cambridge University led the same charge 10 years before that.

Our brand is crisis

There isn’t a trace of radicalism anywhere in our system. Nothing and nobody goes anywhere near questioning the fundamental problem. That’s the definition, surely, of radicalism.

Everything else is just tweaking – no matter how big or burdensome the tweak might seem.

So if we’re done tweaking and we want radicalism, we need to ask what is at the heart of our system that nobody questions anymore. What has become so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we are blind to it? What has achieved such quasi-religious status that to speak of it is taboo?

Since Lord Baker’s tenure, the market has been the key driver of all education policy, the yardstick by which we are measured, the carrot by which we are rewarded and the stick with which we are punished. Today, it is the only mechanism for school improvement in England.

Far from delivering what it was meant to, it has created a recruitment crisis, a retention crisis, a workload crisis, an exclusions crisis, a behaviour crisis, a curriculum crisis, a qualifications crisis, a teacher mental health crisis, a student mental health crisis, a million PR crises, and as many faux radicals as the invisible hand can hold to offer solutions to each of them.

If we don’t want to be sold crises anymore, nor the snake oil meant to relieve the symptoms of crises, then real radicalism means turning our backs on the marketplace, where problems are created, and heading back together to the town hall, where they are solved.

There lies the real test of our character. No more business as usual.

JL Dutaut is co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers' manifesto (Routledge). He is currently on a career break from teaching to research school accountability systems around the world. He hasn't found one he likes yet, and he doesn't think you would either

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