The Blob 2: this time it's personal

17th October 2014 at 01:00
The educational establishment described as `the Blob' by former Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead is no longer pulling the strings. But will a new beast rise to fill the vacuum, asks William Stewart

In February this year, five teachers entered the inner sanctum of Ofsted's London headquarters to pass judgement on the watchdog's performance. They were not union leaders, board members of education quangos, movers or shakers. By their own admission, the "Ofsted five" were not representing anyone but themselves.

So why was Michael Cladingbowl, the inspectorate's director of schools, asking for the views of these ordinary teachers? Because they are also prolific education bloggers, with thousands of followers on social media - and strong opinions on Ofsted.

Only five years ago, such a meeting would never have taken place. It couldn't have; today's teaching Twitterati had yet to discover Twitter. But even if they had, it wouldn't have mattered. Back then, if you were a senior figure in government or Ofsted and wanted to consult teachers, you would probably have contacted their unions.

Today, the NUT, ATL and NASUWT's collective position as the voice of the profession in England is under increasing threat. And they are not the only part of the traditional educational establishment whose influence over what happens in schools is on the wane: local authorities and teacher training institutions are suffering the same fate. This is because these groups, which right-wing critics like to deride collectively as "the Blob", have been squeezed over the past four years by a new group of power brokers, the Ofsted five among them.

The term "the Blob" stems from a 1958 horror film about an ever-growing, indestructible, jelly-like alien that crashes into a small town in Pennsylvania, US, consuming everything in its path.

The mid-1980s was the first time the term was used in an educational context, when US president Ronald Reagan's education secretary, William Bennett, adopted the term to describe the "bloated educational bureaucracy" that he felt was blocking much-needed reform in American schools.

In 2002, the concept crossed the Atlantic when it was adopted by Ofsted's former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead - now Sir Chris. He described its influence in a Sunday Times article: "Shapeless and inert, the Blob sits heavy on schools and teacher-training institutions alike, squashing the oxygen of thought out of the profession."

More recently, Michael Gove, the Conservative former education secretary, and his supporters took up the expression with gusto. They accused the Blob of imposing a wrong-headed "progressive" consensus on how classrooms should be run.

Cracks in the power structure

If ever that was the case, that power is now under serious threat. It is not just that technology has given grass-roots teachers a powerful voice, threatening old power structures; there has also been a deliberate political assault under the coalition government.

Many local authority education departments are now withering on the vine thanks to the wave of academisation encouraged by Gove. Meanwhile, the teaching unions that became an integral part of the education policy process under New Labour have had their calls for meaningful talks with ministers studiously ignored. Lastly, the university education departments that right-wingers like to portray as "madrasas" of "trendy" teaching are facing a growing challenge from the government's drive for school-based training.

Space to breathe

So, as these traditional power structures are bypassed, are teachers finally getting their breath back, freed from a stifling 1960s-rooted educational dogma? Do we now have a sparkling, open new pluralism, where everyone has their say and all ideas are welcome? Or is a new educational establishment emerging with its own orthodoxy about how schools should be run?

As a major power broker today who began teaching in the early 1980s, Kevan Collins is well placed to judge. "When I first started it was basically the local authority that controlled everything," the 52-year-old remembers. "Even the government wasn't that big a player until the mid-1980s, when the national curriculum and accountability came in."

Collins went on to run education in a local authority - Tower Hamlets in East London - and ended up as chief executive of the council. Today he holds the same position at the Education Endowment Foundation, a government-funded charity that is unleashing a new wave of school-based research.

"There are undoubtedly new players on the block now," he says. "And they have got their space, whereas before they were almost drowned out." He believes that these new faces have ushered in a "more traditional view of education".

It's true that many of the emerging educational movers and shakers share the same set of beliefs. These centre on a zealous desire to transform the educational chances of society's most disadvantaged and the conviction that, to do so, more academic "rigour" in schools is essential. There is an insistence on the teaching of facts, as opposed to isolated skills, and an emphasis on the importance of direct, didactic, teacher-led instruction and strict "no excuses" discipline.

Many of the "progressive" and child-centred ideas that went before are viewed with deep mistrust and there is often a thirst for research into what really works in the classroom.

These views are not all-pervasive, but those who do hold them include education ministers, teacher bloggers with the ear of the government, people in key positions at Ofsted and exam body Ofqual, academy chains, thinktanks, free school founders and training schemes such as Teach First, which are challenging traditional training colleges. The new guard may be relatively small in number but they hold powerful positions, share a philosophy and many are members of the same tight-knit, overlapping networks. Collectively they could exert a huge influence over what happens in schools.

So, are we witnessing the rise of the new Blob? If we are, then Daisy Christodoulou must be at the centre of it.

Still in her twenties, the Teach First graduate and now research and development manager at academy chain Ark Schools has already written a book, Seven Myths About Education, that has become a bible for the growing band of neo-traditionalists. It crystallises their misgivings about "so-called progressive" education and is a fierce polemic against the "evidenceless theories" she says have infected classrooms in England.

The book is full of bold, evidence-backed claims, such as: "Much of what teachers are taught about education is wrong." But Christodoulou is more reticent about discussing the existence of a Blob, new or old. In fact, she won't talk about it at all, insisting: "I don't want to get drawn into not very helpful debates."

Is it because Christodoulou views the term as divisive?

"I am not even going to comment on that," the 29-year-old says. "This [her work] is not about setting people against other people. It is about looking at the available evidence out there and trying to get classroom practice that fits with that."

Invasion repelled

Indeed, it is people with a more overtly political outlook like Gove, rather than the teachers, who have always been keenest to talk about the Blob. And perhaps that Blob really is now irrelevant: it could be argued that it was defeated years ago.

By the time Woodhead first publicly attacked the Blob, Conservative and New Labour governments had put the school system through a radical reform process. Greater school autonomy and accountability, league tables, national tests, a national curriculum and even national strategies on how to teach key parts of it were all firmly in place. It was the type of change that would have made Bennett, the Republican who defined the original Blob in the US, a much happier man.

But for Woodhead, who by 2002 was a former chief schools inspector, this was clearly not enough. He wanted what was then known as the Department for Education and Skills to be radically slimmed down, and said that local education authorities, teacher-training institutions and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) should all be abolished.

Today, even all this has come to pass. But Woodhead warned only last October that the "battle for the soul of education" was "far from won". He remains troubled because he is concerned by what is happening in classrooms. He believes teachers are still being diverted into "old, progressive, child-centred ways" and rails against the idea that skills can be "taught in a knowledge vacuum".

Such views will be remarkably familiar to anyone who has read Christodoulou's work, that of fellow Teach First graduate Robert Peal, or other prolific grass-roots teacher bloggers and tweeters including Andrew Old and TES columnist Tom Bennett - one of the Ofsted five.

Oxygen of publicity

So the ideas of the potential new Blob are not new, but what has changed is the breadth of voices promoting them. Back in 2007, Nick Gibb explained to TES why he thought the "root cause of educational underperformance in this country is ideology promoted by the educational establishment". Gibb, a Conservative shadow schools minister at the time, cited American academic E D Hirsch, who said that the US had failed its pupils because a prevalence of educational theories resulted in their being taught critical thinking skills at the expense of subject content.

Until then, Hirsch's name had rarely, if ever, appeared in TES. Today, he is common currency in UK educational circles, in part thanks to Christodoulou's book.

This is just one example of the recent rapid sea change. Viewpoints that were either largely ignored or dismissed as irrelevant in England a few short years ago have now entered the educational mainstream.

Why now? First, the political climate allows those who express such views to push against an open government door. Teach First is another factor: the training scheme is pumping bright, ambitious young teachers into education - and many have plenty to say. Even more importantly, social media is providing them and other teachers with somewhere to say it.

"It would have been harder in days gone by to have found an outlet to publish these viewpoints because so many organisations within education were aligned towards the sort of child-centred ideas that are now being criticised," says Peal, a 26-year-old history teacher at the forefront of the anti-progressive campaign. "Now you can just set up a blog and put the ideas out there. People have been thinking these things for a very long time, but they have never had a voice before."

A good example of this new power is ResearchED. It was a Twitter conversation that led directly to the establishment of the grass-roots conference that is feeding and stimulating the growing appetite for evidence on what works in the classroom. The event, begun by TES columnist Bennett, has become an annual gathering of the new voices in education. It is about to expand to New York City and Sydney.

Slowing the pendulum

Rather than a new Blob, then, what we may be witnessing is actually a popular uprising against the traditional power brokers, a representative effort by working teachers to claw back influence over their own profession.

Yet not everyone believes it is quite so simple. Kevin Stannard is a self-confessed member of the old Blob, who began teaching three decades ago. His critical review of Christodoulou's book accused her of caricaturing her opponents and using research evidence "patchily". Now director of innovation and learning at the independent Girls' Day School Trust, Stannard says there has been a change in climate and government policy on curriculum and exams that, far from being a revolution, is "in line with a rather narrower view of teaching and learning".

The former head of geography at Eton College sees it as the "kind of pendulum swing" that education is "really prone to".

"Our job as teachers is to transcend it and work out strategies to ensure we continue to do a great job, regardless of where we are on that pendulum swing, otherwise it is not fair on the pupils," Stannard argues.

He thinks that the reality in most schools is very different from the polarised progressive-versus-traditionalist arguments.

Kevan Collins agrees: "People present it as `these are two completely different worlds'. But you go into classrooms and you watch the experience with kids and they are not that dissimilar. People are more ready to take dogmatic positions as they discuss education. In reality, I think the default classroom perhaps hasn't changed that much at all."

This suggests that the old Blob never had an undisputed hold over education, at least at a classroom level, and that the new Blob - if it exists - won't either. The truth is that the "old" educational establishment was probably never as homogeneous and all-powerful as its critics like to portray it.

There is a danger, too, of overplaying today's changes. Unions and university education departments may be weakened but they are far from spent forces. And although many teacher bloggers take a traditionalist view, plenty are proud to be progressive. The pendulum could quickly swing in the opposite direction.

But the one thing that is here to stay is the power of ordinary teachers unleashed by technology. It means that whatever happens in the future, no institution can afford to be complacent. "The changes in the system are much bigger than individuals," Collins says. "Sometimes you get big beasts who think they actually are in charge. They're not really."

Influential circles: the new Blob?

Teach First has been at the vanguard of the growth of school-based initial teacher training that is challenging the dominance of university education departments.

Among Teach First's alumni are some of the brightest and most prominent of the new wave of teacher bloggers. They include Joe Kirby, one of several teachers whose views were read by Michael Gove and name-checked in speeches by the former education secretary. Gove regarded teachers such as these, rather than union leaders, as the real voice of the profession.

Teach First also brought Daisy Christodoulou into education. Today, Christodoulou is research and development manager at Ark Schools. Backed by hedge fund money, the charity has become one of the most prominent of the academy chains that are rapidly supplanting local authorities.

Gove is a big fan of Ark, which could explain why he was so keen to appoint its former director of education, Sir Michael Wilshaw, as Ofsted's chief inspector of schools. Education's other big regulator, Ofqual, is now chaired by Amanda Spielman, who also works as an education adviser for Ark.

Ark set up Future Leaders, a government-funded headship training scheme that teaches its ambitious, usually young participants how to implement strict "no excuses" discipline policies in disadvantaged areas, and takes them on study visits to charter schools in the US.

Future Leaders board members include Teach First chief executive and co-founder Brett Wigdortz, who appointed Gove's former policy adviser Sam Freedman as Teach First's research director.

Freedman used to be head of education for right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange. That position is now held by Jonathan Simons, who co-founded the Greenwich Free School in London with Tom Shinner.

In February, aged just 28, Shinner was appointed by Gove to a pound;105,000-a-year position as director of strategy - one of the Department for Education's most senior civil servants.

The `Ofsted five'

Tom Bennett

TES columnist, teacher at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and director of the ResearchED conference. Tweets as @tombennett71.

David Didau

Teacher turned education author. He confesses to being "rubbish" when he started in the classroom, but later became an outstanding teacher. Tweets as @LearningSpy.

Shena Lewington

After nearly three decades in teaching, Lewington now works as a professional clerk to governors. She tweets as @ClerktoGovernor.

Ross Morrison McGill

Deputy headteacher at Quintin Kynaston School in north-west London. Tweets as @TeacherToolkit.

Tom Sherrington

Headteacher of Highbury Grove School in Islington, North London. Tweets as @headguruteacher.


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