Schools are in the education business

13th March 2009 at 00:00

Suppose a school ran itself like a bank. Obsessed with narrow, short-term targets such as improvement in national test scores, its profits and league table position might well soar. Impressed by slick marketing and presentational strategies, inspectors, just like the Financial Services Authority, would no doubt be convinced that something which is so "successful" must really be excellent. In due course, the head would be awarded a Pounds 1 million bonus and a knighthood would presumably follow.

But what would happen when the charade comes to an end and we remember that the school is a school? When we discover that its test results came about through boring and drilling the students? When we see the dismal scores for children's long-term commitment to learning? But it couldn't happen like that, could it? Because, although schools are responsible for society's most precious assets, they are not banks, are they?

Learners must be supported and developed through skilled teaching, rather than by trading in the markets. And any profit does not belong to the provider but to the learner and to society as a whole. Sources of potential "loss" must be treated with care, for the system cannot exclude those with learning difficulties to fend for themselves or make them redundant in a restructuring.

Setting the business model aside, what would result if our education system was based on what we know of how people learn?

There are excellent research syntheses from many parts of the world. The UK's Teaching and Learning Research Programme has drawn on these and its own work to identify 10 principles for effective teaching and learning. Such principles affirm the importance of a broad, holistic view of education, of meaningful subject knowledge and of the need for children to be actively engaged in their learning.

For an educationally sound future, teachers, policymakers and researchers need to use such knowledge to build relationships and new forms of understanding about high-quality education. To be politically sustainable, the latter must resonate with the public as a whole and be seen by the media as legitimate. We need to move beyond simplistic rhetoric about education.

What we need is a new balance between professional accountability and autonomy: a framework for trusting teachers, political parties with the vision and commitment to bring it about and teacher associations with the imagination to see how it would enhance the interests of their members.

This is no sinecure for the profession, for it would mean that teachers and heads would have to take more responsibility for their actions. They would not be able to blame government edicts, methodology or scripted lessons, or to lean on them too heavily. There would need to be debate and learning in all staffrooms. However, the growth in teacher autonomy, expertise and fulfilment, allied to the long-term educational benefits for children, would surely make this worthwhile.

www.tlrp.orgpubcommentaries.html; www.tlrp.orgfindings

Andrew Pollard is professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, and a director of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme.

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