The Blob has a backbone

18th April 2014 at 01:00

Michael Gove dismissively refers to the education establishment as "The Blob". The derivation of this term seems to lie in a 1950s film about terror inflicted on Earth by soulless and spineless aliens. Gove appears to see himself as leading a fight against The Blob's protectionist promotion of the evils of "progressive" education and its lack of commitment to high standards.

Such a view, although expressed in rather colourful language, is not wholly new. The roots of Gove's characterisation of a self-serving educational establishment can be traced back at least to 1976 when then prime minister James Callaghan called for the opening up of the "secret garden" of the curriculum. There followed a period when the teaching profession was apparently seen as part of the problem rather than the route to educational progress. The Parent's Charter of the 1990s, league tables and publication of inspection reports were all manifestations of this trend.

Unfortunately, some actions of those in education can all too easily feed scepticism about the ability of the system to reform itself. The promotion of untested initiatives on the one hand, or stubborn opposition to change on the other, look very like romanticism and protectionism.

The current educational policy agenda in Scotland, stretching back to the national debate in 2002, offers an opportunity to avoid the simplistic analysis that views, for example, being "child-centred" as incompatible with high expectations. There has been a remarkable consensus in Scotland among parents, politicians and teachers about the way forward. It is founded on the belief that every young person in Scotland needs, and is entitled to, a stimulating and demanding broad education that will help them to thrive in an increasingly complex and competitive world. The teaching profession is being invited to participate more directly in shaping the curriculum and thus in helping to bring necessary and well-judged change.

The policy is founded on the belief that the most likely route to educational improvement lies in a well-qualified, well-motivated, well-networked and well-led profession, able to engage directly in reform. In this context, individual teachers are equipped to make professional decisions so as to achieve the best outcomes for their students and to be discriminating in their responses to outside pressures, including those from fashionable gurus or conviction politicians. Having met many teachers throughout the country over the past two years, I am sure that there is both the appetite and capacity to meet this challenge.

The anti-Blob approach is presented as being tough and rigorous. In fact, building and sustaining a culture and practice founded on a shared commitment to excellence is much more demanding, and success will be achieved only with both a strong backbone and real soul.

Graham Donaldson is a professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of the review Teaching Scotland's Future

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