Caution, children crossing
Looking back in the rearview mirror over the tortured educational politics of the 1980s, the most glaringly obvious presence is the vast accountability juggernaut bearing down upon us with its headlights on full beam and the horn sounding.
Set in motion by the lunacies at William Tyndale school and given a hearty shove by James Callaghan at Ruskin College, by the mid-eighties it had become unstoppable. Even then we did nothing to get out of the way: no wonder it overwhelmed us in the early 1990s.
Accountability, when it arrived, took many forms. There was the statutory duty to teach the national curriculum. There were the tests. Then, following the 1992 Schools Act, came league tables and OFSTED inspection. Underpinning all of these, less easy to pin down but in some ways most influential of all, was the market. For a time it seemed that government believed that simply by piling up various forms of accountability they could force schools to get better.
Then, under Gillian Shephard, they finally realised there was more to it than that and embraced school improvement. This did not resolve all the problems facing teachers and schools, but it opened up the road ahead; it became possible to glimpse a more pleasant and successful journey once the accountability juggernaut had been brought under control and moved on.
These two books examine in depth different aspects of the accountability debate. Sharon Gewirtz, Stephen Ball and Richard Bowe have written a brilliant text packed with insight, analysis and evidence. The series of publications which have emerged from their Economic and Social Research Council-funded project into the impact of the market on education is perhaps the most profound and important examination of the issue available.They manage to write about what are inevitably complicated matters with clarity and wit. They allow the many parents and others they interviewed to speak for themselves by quoting them at length.
The authors admit that they are sceptical about the likely impact of market forces and proceed to ask a series of disturbing questions. Though I do not always agree with their analysis, the importance of it cannot be doubted. Nor can the need for those who disagree with them to seek answers to their questions. If I have a criticism it is that the book does not offer solutions. They would no doubt point out that that is not their purpose; yet critique of change which does not offer an alternative reads very much like a defence of the status quo.
Carol Fitz-Gibbon, by contrast, has majored in offering solutions. The ALIS and YELLIS projects have provided literally thousands of schools with information about and analysis of their examination performance. This has helped schools ask questions about their effectiveness and thus plan improvement. This new and important book is further evidence that Carol Fitz-Gibbon is an ardent advocate of promoting school improvement through the provision of good quality data. This is an idea which combines power and simplicity.
It has also led her to become a fierce critic of OFSTED inspection. She argues that it provides poor quality information to schools and that, worse still, major policy interventions are based on its unreliable judgments. OFSTED's many critics will find much to enjoy in this book, while any fans it has cannot ignore it and I say that as someone who, looking at the evidence we have so far, believes that, overall, inspection has had a positive impact on education. The book is a tour de force, full of interest and curiosity and drawing strongly on Carol Fitz-Gibbon's research and opinions.
Now the accountability juggernaut is beginning to pass on, these two books ask us to seek a new balance between accountability and professional judgment, between inspection and improvement, between choice and equity.
This raises one final thought and the opportunity to change metaphor: there is a growing emphasis these days on funding research which is directly beneficial to users, be they teachers, schools, government or quangos. At one level this obviously makes sense. At another it is essential that there is a well of critical thought of quality on which to draw, otherwise we shall all die of thirst.
Michael Barber is Professor of Education and Dean of New Initiatives at the Institute of Education, University of London.