Words that don't come easy

6th July 2001 at 01:00
Michael Fielding takes issue with phrases like "delivery of education" saying the real language of learning is being lost.

What are we to make of it all? What are we to do now? What are we to make of a laudably-committed government which cares passionately about raising attainment "no matter what", but has forgotten what education is about?

Here is a government which has reduced curriculum to standards; become obsessed with target-setting as the necessary panacea of every problem known to humanity; denied, misunderstood and unwittingly contributed to a teacher crisis, and shown every intention of carrying on within an intellectual framework that is morally and spiritually bankrupt, catatonically dull, and productive of spurious data than any human can reasonably be expected to tolerate. Why, in the compelling words of Tony Blair's guru, John Macmurray, writing some 65 years ago, is it still the case that: "We have immense power, and immense resources, we worship efficiency and success: and we do not know how to live finely"?

One of the reasons for this impasse goes to the heart of what Clyde Chitty has recently called a "crisis of identity" in New Labour's approach to education. It concerns the language in which the aspirations of the Government are expressed. Language is not a peripheral issue: it shapes and guides our understanding and picks out what is important. As Michael Ignatieff reminds us: "Without a public language to help us find our words, our needs will dry up in silence."

The public language of education that we are invited to engage with, and the discourse which frames our aspirations and practices is now dominated by the persistent prodding of performance, the bullying imperatives of bullet-point thinking and the unremitting emphasis on "delivery". Not only does this marginalise much that should be central, it also gives rise to two particular concerns: one has to do with the realities of teaching and learning; the other, with the overemphasis on outcomes.

Firstly, I worry about the hectoring dreariness of it all. The Government's way of expressing its aspirations and articulating its requirements, is deeply and damagingly dull. Too much is managerialist, too often enunciated in ways which are overbearing in their insistence. Why is it that we have such little confidence in the capacity of the more subtle, ethically-nuanced language of education to express what is important to us as teachers and learners? Why do we feel impelled to borrow the disfiguring language of "performativity" which has neither the capacity nor the inclination to articulate what matters most to us in our daily work and our enduring intentions? Teachers are leaving in droves, not just because the job is so demanding and all consuming in largely unproductive ways, but also because the archetypal language of "delivery" is symptomatic of an approach to teaching and learning that is intellectually dishonest (you cannot deliver learning) and personally offensive (education is primarily a personal and not a technical process).

Secondly, the myopic over-emphasis on performance and results of a particular, measurable kind marginalises the subtlety and complexity of how we achieve them. This, surely, brings us to the heart of why New Labour's approach to education cannot succeed in educational terms, why so many teachers feel it comes close to betrayal of their professionalism and, most of all, of their learners.

We need a new way of understanding how we can integrate both outcomes and processes, and how we can develop a "person-centred school" which is both morally and instrumentally successful.

What we cannot do is continue as we are, but with greater determination and even more hard work. To intone the mantra of "what works" with redoubled fervour is likely to be counter-productive. Our means of accountability must match our seriousness of purpose: they must be complex rather than crude, patient rather than perfunctory or populist, creative rather than controlling, and productive in a richer and more wide-ranging sense than we currently allow.

At this juncture, our most important tasks are intellectual. We are operating in the wrong frame of reference and as a consequence our lives will continue to become busier, more exhausting, less humanly productive or satisfying, and increasingly devoid of meaning. Alternative frameworks exist that are likely to serve our human needs more profoundly and more engagingly - it would be foolish to ignore them.

How ironic that one of the most creative and productive of these alternatives rests on the philosophical and educational writings of John Macmurray, to whom Tony Blair owes such substantial intellectual and spiritual allegiance yet, at least within the field of education, whose work he shows so few signs of understanding or taking seriously.

Michael Fielding is reader in education at the University of Sussex. "Taking Education Really Seriously, Four Years of Hard Labour", a collection of essays about Labour's education policies and performance, edited by the author, is published by Routledge Falmer. Michael Fielding's email address is: m.fielding@sussex.ac.uk

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