Devolving power is simply short-sighted

11th May 2012 at 01:00

Michael Gove's claims that his education reforms are based on international evidence are looking increasingly hollow. Nowhere was this more evident than at the recent International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York. Organised by the US Department of Education, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the teacher union federation Education International - alongside various US-based organisations - it brought together education ministers and teacher union leaders from 23 of the most educationally successful countries in the world. England's position in the OECD's Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables meant it only just made the cut.

Delegations committed themselves to achieving goals for the forthcoming year. The injection by the US of an extra $5 billion (#163;3 billion) into enhancing teacher learning and professional development was one example. Others included Japan's decision to advance its efforts towards "holistic reform of teacher preparation, recruitment and development" and Finland's statement that it would work with its unions to "develop new collaborative models for school and teacher education development", "improve the pedagogical use of social media" and "participate in an international network for teacher education".

As for the OECD, its background document for the summit argued for countries to have coherent, system-wide approaches to developing school leadership, to matching the supply and demand of teachers and to preparing schools for the teaching of 21st-century skills. In no uncertain terms, it said that education systems now needed teachers to be "high-level knowledge workers", but it warned they would not be "attracted by schools organised like an assembly line, with teachers working as interchangeable widgets in a command-and-control environment".

The summit concluded that, to be outstanding, governments - in partnership with their teaching professions - have to concentrate on creating national policies for enhancing the effectiveness and self-efficacy of teachers.

Compare that with the English government's policies. Evidence from the OECD may point to the devolution of a range of responsibilities to schools, but it also emphasises the virtues of coherence and warns against streaming and reliance on parental choice. In contrast, the complete autonomy given to academies and free schools was exactly where the other countries at the summit did not want to be. For our government, coherence is achieved solely through a high-stakes inspection system. For the other countries, coherence is about creating the conditions for realising a confident and high-achieving teaching profession.

The new inspection framework's removal of the "satisfactory" category and the government's higher penalties for failure have significantly ramped up the extent to which schools are marching to Ofsted's tune. As if to emphasise the cruel illusion of autonomy, Gove has appointed a chief inspector who reportedly believes that headteachers should model themselves on Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider and that low teacher morale is an indicator of effective leadership.

Endangering the economic recovery

Teachers are in the same situation as their heads. They have no professional council and the professional networks supported by many local authorities are disappearing. The government has no strategy for teacher professional development, other than a small number of teaching schools. Even if it wanted to develop a system-wide approach to teacher policy, the government now has few, if any, mechanisms for enhancing the effectiveness and self-efficacy of the teaching profession. In short, the education secretary has performed the remarkable trick of professing to liberate the profession while eroding its identity and creating the very system of command and control that the OECD warns against.

The contrast between the summit's conclusions and the government's strategy for education is stark and it prompts another reflection. Two years ago, the OECD published The High Cost of Low Educational Performance. It used economic modelling to relate cognitive skills as measured by Pisa to economic growth, and concluded that, "bringing all countries up to the average performance of Finland...would result in gains in the order of $260 trillion". With most of the other countries at the summit overtaking England in the Pisa league tables, is it likely that current government policies will bring England up to the average performance of Finland? Or to put it more starkly, will the government's education policies, measured against those countries the OECD deems to be high performing, actually damage England's prospects for long-term economic recovery?

Perhaps Gove should listen to the commitment that John Hayes, his colleague from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, made along with the NUT and the NASUWT teaching union at the summit. The delegation pledged to "seek to promote policies and conditions for teachers to be actively trusted and respected". It is possible that not only is England's educational future dependent on achieving that commitment but so is England's economic health.

John Bangs is visiting professor at the University of London's Institute of Education and senior consultant for Education International.

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