Hop on board the big idea

5th April 2013 at 01:00

So there's this bus. Outwardly it's a bus like any other, travelling along the road, picking up passengers as it goes. Above the windscreen there's a destination board, but it's not really necessary because there is only one possible destination. Just as there is only one possible bus.

Every time it stops, more and more people clamber aboard. None, however, gets off. Because there is no alternative to this bus. To suggest otherwise would be laughable.

Soon people are clinging to the outside of the vehicle and hanging off the roof. It's a risk they have to take, though, because this is the bus that no one can afford to miss.

The overloaded vehicle begins to pick up speed. Everything else on the road is swept out of its way. Faster and faster it goes, until its momentum is seemingly unstoppable. One bus; one route; one direction.

Suddenly the brakes go on. But this isn't a gentle or gradual deceleration. Indeed, the driver's foot comes down with such force that several of the passengers fall off. As it slows, the vehicle shakes from side to side, shedding more bodies. By the time it comes to a complete halt, it has slewed right round and is facing back the way it came. After a moment the engine kicks back into life and it sets off again.

Despite the fact that the direction of travel has changed so dramatically, several of the discarded passengers pick themselves up and get back on. Others, afraid that they will be left behind, run alongside and hurl themselves on board. Just as before, more and more people join along the way. Nobody talks about - or even allows themselves to think about - the old destination any more. This is the only possible bus, heading for the only possible destination.

If you have worked in education for any length of time you'll probably recognise the above scenario, because it describes precisely how the UK education system works. Someone comes up with an idea. At some stage it comes to the notice of the policymakers and quickly becomes a big idea. Momentum builds and soon it is the only possible idea. Any watering down of the idea, any consideration of any other idea, is now looked upon as the ravings of a crazy man.

The last "big idea" was with us for some time. It was all about volume, throughput, success. Every child mattered, and everything that every child did was getting better in every way. Teachers were teaching more effectively; students were studying harder; every year the results kept on improving. Widening participation was the only game in town.

Then the brakes came on. How could we have been so blinded by the old orthodoxy? Hadn't we noticed how standards were declining? How qualifications were being handed out like sweeties? How even university degrees were turning into McQualifications? Down came that Success for All destination board; in its place was the new educational end point, the only educational end point: the Pursuit of Excellence.

And so there we were, all of us further education types whose whole teaching lives had been devoted to yesterday's destination, still a little dazed from our time on the ground. And all of us were wondering the same thing: is this a bus that we really want to board?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer in an FE college in London.

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