When Shadow Education Secretaries Lose the Plot | @oldandrewuk

photo (10)Andrew is a teacher and editor of Labour Teachers (and writing in a personal capacity).

A little over a month ago, Lucy Powell MP became Labour’s fifth shadow education secretary since the 2010 election. Of her four predecessors, only Ed Balls, who skewered Gove over the botched cancellation of the BSF, acquired any glory from time spent in that role. Messrs. Burnham, Twigg and Hunt, despite all starting in interesting ways, all ended up with little to say other than some subset of the following points, which I hope Lucy Powell will avoid:

Reform of Vocational Education

Labour politicians love talking about vocational education. A few soundbites about “parity of esteem” and they think they have a policy. Yet the record of government-led reform in this area has, for decades, been one disaster after another, all dissolving into dumbed-down options or bureaucratic nightmares that lack “esteem” only because they don’t deserve it. It’s not that nothing can be done to help vocational education, but complex plans are not needed. All that’s needed to improve vocational education is decent funding for FE colleges. That’s it.

Teaching Soft Skills and Character

Like vocational education, this is a policy based on a middle class person’s idea of what working class kids need and is also a dead end the Tories have driven into. It’s not that teachers and schools never make a positive contribution to a young person’s character; it’s that this is not something governments can ever regulate, legislate, fund or promote in a meaningful way. They can only encourage an array of gimmicks, gestures and distractions. Schools are there to make kids smarter, and keep them behaving sensibly enough to make it possible to do that. Responsibility for instilling the other virtues is shared far more widely. There is no weapon in a school’s armoury that can ensure a young person is kind and good. Attempts to require this will only lead to teachers thinking they are there to be therapists, preachers and thought police.

Promoting Technology

Since at least as far back as Edison’s dream of replacing the textbook with the film reel, there have been those who think technology is about to transform education. A century later, in which technology has only ever allowed incremental improvements,  the same mix of dreamers and con-men are waiting for gullible politicians to stuff their wallets with public money under the delusion that the ed-tech miracle is about to happen or that this will be the generation of school children who mainly go on to do “jobs that haven’t been invented yet”. Don’t listen to the  technological gurus begging for public money. They are trying to persuade politicians to buy their products because they know they cannot persuade teachers.

Dismissing Debate Over Pedagogy

Teachers are frequently told how to teach by managers, consultants and colleagues. The debate over methods of pedagogy, between progressives and traditionalists, is long-standing. Within the system, only those who are fully supportive of progressive education, or are unaware of the alternatives, claim there isn’t a debate. Others live the debate every day of their working life, knowing that at any moment their view of the aims, content and methods of teaching could be challenged on ideological grounds. Politicians don’t have to take sides – they could argue for teacher autonomy-  but attempts to dismiss the debate as out of date simply indicate one is oblivious to classroom realities.

Taking the Politics Out of Education

This is the worst suggestion of the lot. By all means give autonomy to teachers and school leaders where they know what to do with it, but don’t ever hand control of policy to the unelected. No matter how much the vested interests, or so-called “experts”, claim otherwise, it is not the politicians that have made education political. Education is political because a good education gives one access to power and wealth and because the distribution of power and wealth is about as political as it gets. The only reason anybody asks for power to be taken from politicians and given to “experts” is the hope that those experts will pursue an ideological agenda that nobody would ever vote for if they saw it debated in public or in the media. Few clichés are more toxic than the claim that, by debating their ideas in public, politicians have made education “a political football”.

23 thoughts on “When Shadow Education Secretaries Lose the Plot | @oldandrewuk

  1. Well said–but to give Ed Balls credit for skewering Gove over the cancellation of BSF is to ignore the fact that this monstrous waste of money was largely inspired by the ed tech industry, working in collusion with fashionable architects and other notorious rent-seekers. Gove is certainly open to criticism on a number of fronts–not the least for failing to understand that relying on Ofsted to implement his policies was a disaster that only led to an explosion in teacher workload–but he deserves full credit for cancelling BSF despite the unprincipled obstructionism of his officials.

    And let us not forget that Balls was education secretary when the Gilbert Review was setting the agenda to transform education in exactly the ways you so rightly expose as misguided at best.

  2. Excellent article, though I do agree with Tom, above, on Michael Gove and Ofsted.

    Ever since the 1944 Education Act successive governments have tried to do “technical schools” on the cheap. Andrew is right on the only solution today – money to the FE colleges and let schools do their own job, which isn’t community cohesion style plastering and repair. It may be my age, but I cannot remember a time when our society seemed on a knife edge, yet all the politicians seem intent on answering questions no one is asking.

    The politicos and the civil service need an urgent memo – the UK is not the USA, nor is it New Zealand. Seeking social programmes from these places is much like the IT snake oil outfits hovering around our schools seeking up front commission and damn the consequences, in terms of cost and wasted time.

  3. I agree that in the areas of Vocational Ed and Character Education Labour’s contributions range from the vacuous to the terrible, but I disagree strongly that these are areas schools should simply disregard.

    Vocational qualifications have always been a mess because they are qualifications. The need to give individuals a grade means the most important ‘vocational’ skill – working with others – is deprioritised. The financial constraint of grading means work must be written down, so you end up with something like BTECs which aren’t vocational at all, they’re clerical. Trying to fit vocational education into an assessment system designed for testing academic achievement is what makes it crap. Remove that straight jacket and you can design great vocational education for all.

    The big impact schools have on character is through placing children in a hierarchy. When you tell a child that they’re the bottom of the class it’s perfectly natural that their response is to hate you and the children you say are their superiors. It’s just how humans (and other primates) respond to humiliation. The children we respect grow up to be respectful, those we disrespect grow up to be disrespectful.

    Your final point is spot on, Education is political. The way we treat children today determines the society we live in tomorrow.

    1. First point, vocational qualifications are nothing like academic qualifications in how they are assessed. That’s part of the problem. Second point. Hate to break it to you, but schools don’t put kids in a hierarchy. Teenagers form those naturally and only the truly fortunate are in schools where academic achievement is part of that.

      1. Kids write stuff that stuff gets marked. That’s how we assess “vocational” qualification.

        Schools decide what constitutes achievement and they’ve decided that it’s academic achievement. Then they rank children from best to worst according to their academic ability. Do children form their own hierarchies around who’s sporty/good looking/cool? Absolutely. But the ranking that decides whether you’re going to be rich or poor, high or low status is the one that the adults in the room have formed. Children may do their best to convince themselves and others that they don’t care if school has branded them inferior, but the anger and defiance they typically show suggests they do.

    1. Given that I can think if no reason for describing assessment as a “hierarchy, as if grades determine power, I can’t really say why it’s Wright beyond the fact there is no reason to think it.

  4. Of course grades determine power. If you get good grades you get to go to University then on to stable well-paid employment. If you get bad grades you can expect low wages or none at all. In addition with high grades you grow up believing people should respect you because the adults in your world have deemed your work to be good. With bad grades the signal you (and your peers) receive is that your work is bad and therefore you are worth less.

    1. This is a bit like saying weather is caused by weather forecasts. Grades are used to predict ability, which is the basis of the different opportunities. Getting rid of the grades wouldn’t get rid of differences in ability or opportunity.

  5. Your assumption is that the curriculum has to be just academic subjects in which, you’re right, some have greater ability than others. But the curriculum is not like the weather coming from God, it comes from man.

    1. Well yes. Schools could cease to be academic. They could become “orphanages for children with parents”. But I’m not sure why tax payers would fund it.

  6. They pretty much only teach them. Subjects like Art and Drama are partially assessed through writing, ensuring that only kids who write well excel at them. Vocational subjects are clearly signalled as inferior because we test everyone academically first then only offer vocational courses to those found lacking.

    Differences in wealth come from differences in status and school confers high status on the academically successful.

  7. For what? Average Y11 timetables going to 12-15/25 periods En/Ma/Sc. If the govt has its way then 90% of kids can tack on 3 Humanities and 3 MFL. Apart from 2 PE there’s a good chance whatever else involves sitting at a desk writing. Are you seriously arguing that the curriculum is not dominated by academic subjects?

    1. You didn’t claim academic subjects “dominated”, you claimed school “pretty much only teach academic subjects”. Can I assume you didn’t actually believe that?

      I’m not sure why we are looking at the KS4 curriculum, anyway. There’s almost a decade of schooling before that begins.

  8. I don’t see a big difference there, I don’t think there’s a solution to the formula ‘I’m the worst in the year at English and Maths but I’m good at x, so I’ll be alright’

    I also don’t think the academic dominance differs significantly for younger children. I have a primary school teacher friend, and she had a kid say ‘Miss when George is older he’s going to live in a house’.
    She said ‘Well, aren’t you?’
    ‘No’ the boy said ‘I’m going to live in a flat’
    ‘Why’s that?’
    ‘Because George is good at English and Maths’
    That kid had come to school and learned he was going to be poor for the rest of his life. He was 5 years old.

    1. I suspect he came to school to learn English and maths.

      Seriously, I cannot work out how anyone thinks too much time spent learning English and maths leads to greater inequality. Last time I looked, there were few life skills that could substitute for literacy and numeracy when it comes to earning a living. That’s nothing to do with schools, that’s an inevitable consequence of those skills being useful.

  9. He came to school because that’s what his mum told him he was going to do. When he got there he saw that other children were better than him at the things his teacher said were really important. He concluded that those children would be rich and he would be poor. Would it have profited him to say ‘I’m going to work twice as hard as those children for as long as it takes until I’m just as good as them’? Absolutely. But that not how a 5 year old, or a 10 year old or a 15 year old typically responds to that situation. It’s far more common to avoid the humiliation of being judged against your peers and found to be inferior. That avoidance brings sanctions, which make you angry which leads to worse behaviour.

    I agree with you that academic learning is really important for all children and I share your anger at so called progressives who want middle class children to study history and poor children to do something vocational or whatever. I just think the way we’ve set school up means the kids we call the bottom hate school because school humiliates them and that hatred is an impenetrable barrier between them and the benefits of academic study we want them to have.

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