Stop the change, I want to get off

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Power brokers are this month discussing faster education reforms, but teachers are already overloaded

Just how out of touch are our political classes with what has been going on in schools?

It is a question with which I have grappled for quite a few years now, as often the debate about education reform takes place at an ideological and political level, without any real consideration of its impact on the day-to-day classroom experiences of pupils and their teachers.

But sometimes, the remoteness of many within the opinion-forming and political constituency from reality continues to stagger me. The latest example was upon reading the details of a debate on education that is being held at each of the three main political party conferences, this week at Labour's in Brighton.

The jaw-dropping title of this event, sponsored by the New Statesman magazine and featuring front-benchers at each of the conferences, is: "Can the education system change fast enough?" This prompted me to ponder many cynical answers.

First of all, how much change do they want? If and when the Conservatives form the next government, should they aim to match the one initiative a day that David Blunkett announced in his first weeks as education secretary in 1997? Or should they go further - maybe a minimum target of 250 in the first hundred days?

Do they want the national curriculum changed again? Because the primary and secondary curriculum have been fundamentally altered once in the past two years, and by 2010 it will also have been two years since the last wholesale reform of A-levels and 12 months since GCSEs were completely overhauled. Or is the Diploma - a reform born way back in 2004 - now in need of change?

Or perhaps they'd like to start with school structures, as clearly there has not been enough policy development on that front? No, we need more types of institution, to go along with the community schools, foundation schools, specialist schools, academies, City Technology Colleges, federations of schools, trust schools, chains of schools, National Challenge schools ...

Or maybe another education bill? It is clearly needed. Since 1997, we've only had the Education (Schools) Act, the Teaching and Higher Education Act, the School Standards and Framework Act, the Learning and Skills Act, the Education Act 2002, the Education Act 2005, the Education and Inspections Act, the Education and Skills Act, and, doubtless, the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009.

I know, there have been at least 25 other acts relevant to schools and colleges over that time. But I take their point: we need more. After all, education is vital, and how else are we going to demonstrate that we are taking action to improve our "underperforming" schools?

Sarcasm aside, there are, of course, serious points here. The most fundamental is that change, however urgently it is sought by all kinds of people with views on education, cannot ever be seen as good in itself. Too much of it, and nothing ever gets a chance to become established, as professionals struggle to keep up with the latest policy fetish. That is in the long-term interests neither of teachers nor of those they educate.

These are not just my views. In the years up to 2005, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority carried out a little-known, but in my opinion highly valuable, survey, led by Bill Boyle of Manchester University, of schools' views on many aspects of the curriculum and assessment system.

In 200405, these surveys featured a section where teachers - mainly heads and, in secondary schools, heads of department - were given free rein to make comments. What struck me on reading those from primary schools in particular - aside from the refrain of concerns about the impact of league tables and test-driven schooling and the difficulty they found making time to complete survey forms - was the comments bemoaning ceaseless change.

Here are a few, from unnamed teachers ...

"As a headteacher, I have great concern about the constant change, new initiatives and ideas that are thrust upon us. It takes time to develop a quality curriculum, to assimilate information and train staff together so that there is a shared understanding."

"Give us the time without endless other initiatives. Headteachers need time to be pro-active and keep their schools moving forward, not continually burdened with endless bureaucracy just trying to keep up to date."

"We are still suffering from information overload and cannot find time to read relevant material, let alone search it out on the internet."

"Please, please, please can we have a period when the goalposts are not moved again?"

Professor Alison Wolf, of King's College London, wrote in 2004 that "for 15 years, English schooling has been in a state of more or less constant change", moving from the most decentralised curricular and teaching system in Europe to one of the most centralised. Reforms have probably speeded up since then.

Last year, the Royal Society said: "Science and mathematics education, particularly in England, has been assaulted by reform over the last 20 years. Unless we break the cycle of politically motivated, knee-jerk reactions and constant change, we are in danger of ... not getting to grips with what works and what doesn't."

Making these arguments is not to say that the education system should be immune from revision. The claim that it has not changed enough at a fundamental level since Victorian times may have power. And, of course, I should admit that I am one of many who has advocated change, in my case a fundamental review of the effects of high-stakes accountability.

But all those calling for reform have also to acknowledge the hyper-activity of recent history. Change carries consequences for those on the front line. It needs to be handled very carefully.

Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing is published by Politcos

Warwick Mansell, Author of 'Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing'.

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