Resistance is useful...

19th May 2006 at 01:00
There is a whiff of cordite in the air as combat on the education battlefield resumes. School heads are questioning the testing of children, particularly as the basis for drawing up league tables. Universities and academics are clashing over pay - with some universities even withholding pay despite the fact staff are, largely, working normally.

Such conflict is desirable. Sometimes it is the duty of education professionals and organisations to resist flawed moves by the state to control education.

Teachers and their leaders may be ridiculed, but their actions are entirely legitimate. Educators have the right to shape what happens within education, although the Government may express opinions. Since education has been centralised, strongly bureaucratic, and overly prescriptive for so long, it is easy to forget that educators have responsibilities not merely to implement policy but, on occasion, challenge it.

The revived challenge to the Government's policies may have something to do with the current political landscape.

Certainly, limited effective political challenge in Parliament has done little to encourage alternative views. We had a long period of Conservative rule, then a long period of something rather similar from a Labour government. The similarity of policies has undermined the idea that contesting them is legitimate.

This has affected education, which has been centralised and prescriptive for too long.

Now the whole direction of colleges is being questioned. After all, the Foster Report implies that colleges should become mere skills factories within a couple of years! The intended rapid standardisation of college function actually make this a good time for colleges and leaders to act in concert to prevent the worst excesses of policy from being imposed.

It is important, though, that action - or decisions not to act - are taken quickly. Otherwise, the ideological bandwagon, supplemented by battalions of unthinking, unblinking "change agents" will infect the terrain.

It seems obvious that college principals play the major role in setting the climate within their institutions. What are the conditions under which staff operate? Are managers, at different levels, supportive? Is the institution sound in terms of finance and quality of provision?

However, individually and collectively, principals also need to contribute to the debate about the shape of education generally.

Of course, they are busy people and this does not mean that policy can be ignored. But it is better if principals take a policy lead themselves.

Educational organisations can also take a lead and, if necessary, external researchers or academics can provide options.

Understanding of policy needs to extend beyond merely importing the current government view, uncritically. However high the priority attached to a policy it may not be in the interests of colleges, their staff or their students, and can be resisted.

Such resistance is likely to need the concerted efforts of principals, educational organisations and unions, as well as external advisers.

Crucially, in implementing, or not implementing policy, principals and others will need to work on a local, regional or national level. For, there is no point in one college taking a principled stance, if the one five miles away is supping with the Devil.

Acting together, and bearing in mind their shared interests and backgrounds in education, principals, organisations, unions and researchers are well placed to resist unappealing proposals. One example of such a proposal, albeit watered down in the white paper, is the idea that building skills is the only valid approach to education. Contesting this certainly requires unity.

And there is a need to be vigilant. Because the Government operates smoothly; it also operates at a distance, often using the LSC as an intermediary to impose or cajole. For instance, cuts in adult education provision were harder to resist because of the dependent relationships between colleges and the LSC. Yet, this battleground needs revisiting.

Then again, the Government may seek to impose agents of its own. And that reminds us of the importance of principals having strong educational experiences, backgrounds and affiliations. At least that way, they are less likely to be turncoats.

Graham Fowler is a writer, researcher and consultant in FE

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