Where is the vision for education?

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Focusing on performance targets rather than a high-quality learning experience will not help to engage children

The new white paper on 21st-century schools is remarkable in two ways as a vision of future education policy. First, it is short on vision. And second, it is not really about education. Furthermore, I cannot see how reading it would make anyone want to go into teaching.

If this sounds harsh, allow me to elaborate. The white paper - Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future: Building a 21st Century Schools System - is in fact packed with policy initiatives. For example, it sets out plans for a new report card system of school-by-school accountability; encouraging schools to work together in federations; new pupil and parent guarantees of orderly classrooms and broad and balanced curriculums; one-to-one tuition with children in primary schools and in year 7; and, most controversially, for a new "licence to teach" system, checking on teaching quality.

School management mechanisms are discussed at length. It also promises yet more intervention in schools and local authorities which are "underperforming".

However, search as you might, one subject appears to be virtually non- existent, and it is the one that education research shows actually matters most: that is, how a teacher can provide their pupils with a high-quality learning experience in the classroom, otherwise known as teaching.

Instead, the document is couched in the deadening language of "outcomes" and "delivery", which utterly fails to do justice to the importance of education in any broad, intrinsic or - dare one say it? - life-affirming sense.

Counting the words used in the document illustrates this point. The noun "performance" - meaning the statistical performances of schools, rather than anything to do with drama - features 84 times, with "performing" meriting a further 37 mentions. "Deliver" is mentioned 57 times, and "outcomes" is used on 55 occasions.

By contrast, the word "understand" or "understanding" - in the sense of how it applies to pupils - features only three times, and "inspire" or "inspired" is mentioned four times, while the word "library" is, remarkably, unknown to the white paper.

Most shockingly, in the entire 103-page document, there is but a single - yes, you read that right, just one - mention of the word "book". This - and you really could not make this up - occurs in a section praising a school's use of information technology.

I was particularly struck by the phrase which begins the paper's section on the need for well-led and highly skilled teachers and support staff. This reads: "It is only the workforce who can deliver our ambition of improved outcomes, with children and young people fully engaged with their education and supported to progress through it."

It is not just that the language is so colourlessly robotic (it conjures up the conversation: "So, why did you go into teaching, then?" "Oh, to deliver improved outcomes."); it is also the sheer reductiveness of making "delivering outcomes" the overriding goal of education policy.

The emphasis on school "performance" is also bizarre, if one steps out of the policy world for a moment.

When I was at school, I wanted to be taught by interesting teachers who could show me what was great about what they were teaching. I wanted the chance to follow my interests. But if anyone had tried to impress on me the value of going to a "high-performing" school, I would have struggled to understand what they were talking about. Statistical indicators were nowhere to be seen.

Somehow, I got a very good education.

The Government might say that scoffing is one thing, but "improving outcomes" and "raising school performance" are vital, not just for economic prosperity, but for notions of social justice and, more obviously, for young people themselves.

Yet I can't see how education reform will succeed if it views its goals as simply and exclusively to deliver more qualifications to young people, and to narrow performance gaps between different socio-economic groups. It runs the risk that all the focus goes on the statistical outcome indicators - as if they were ends in themselves - rather than improving the underlying quality of the educational experience, which will then encourage young people from all backgrounds to engage with learning.

Over the past decade, as an education reporter I have seen some fantastic examples of good teaching, both in and out of the classroom. These have included watching a teacher make progress in teaching basic algebra to four and five-year-olds; the use of frame-by-frame analysis to help pupils appreciate a film of Romeo and Juliet; a school in Slough - now on the Government's National Challenge scheme - doing tremendous work in personalising its curriculum for recent immigrants; and a professional development course for maths teachers which was reinvigorating their love for the subject.

Why does the Government do so little to celebrate this work?

An equal mystery to me is why it has not done more to support subject associations, whose ideals are to help professionals work together to build their teaching expertise.

Much more thoughtful visions for schools have been presented recently, in both Professor Robin Alexander's Cambridge Primary Review and in the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training. Both attack utilitarianism and philistinism in education. Both have clearly not had any hearing from ministers, if the white paper is any guide.

I have the sense that it is not just that these visions are different from those of Whitehall, but that the two camps are not even talking the same language. The civil servants appear to be resorting to management-speak as if it could be applied to anything, and the Government is not interested in outside perspectives from those who might criticise.

Ministers speak repeatedly about the need for schools to raise their expectations of pupils. For me, the much more urgent task is for the Government to raise its own sights, opening its mind to broader notions of what education really can "deliver".

Warwick Mansell, Author of `Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing' (Politico's).


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today