Evidence Ping-Pong and “The Three Pillars of School Reform”

6th September 2010

It was good to hear the Secretary of State for Education, whose “policy tourism” approach has occasionally seemed a little pick and mix, presenting his thoughts in this structured way and I was pleased to hear something that began to sound much more like a program for government.

He began by describing the benefits of autonomy. He quoted studies that “proved” that autonomy delivered results and referred to Westminster Academy’s own success in tripling 5 A-C rates since it became an academy. Interestingly he didn’t use the 5 A-C including English and Maths figure which is normally his preferred measure. Perhaps this is because the academy gets 45% on this measure, significantly less than comparable non-academies in the area (including at my own old school, St. George’s which scores 60% on this measure).

But there lies the problem. I’m falling into unhelpful inter-school competition and an annoying game that I think I’ll call evidence ping-pong: as soon as the speech was over critics began quoting contrary studies and outstanding improvements by ‘non-autonomous’ schools. I’ve been known to participate in these exercises myself but I’m getting a bit bored of this tiresome routine: the DfE trot out one set of evidence proving the worth of academies and the anti-freeschools/academy counter with their own. A lengthy and inconclusive game of evidence ping-pong ensues whilst the more fundamental questions end up neglected. For me, one of these questions is whether schools really should be autonomous from government and local authorities.

Stop me if I’m wrong but representative democracy works like this right? – We elect the government which we think will best represent our picture of what the country should look like. Now, if education is key to shaping this picture, does it make sense to say that schools should be autonomous? Surely not. Surely we should expect the state to ensure that our children are safe in school? Surely we want to know that the billions of pounds we hand over to head teachers’ are in capable hands? Surely we expect the state to take a role in ensuring that pupils are shaped into the type of citizens whom we would like our society to be composed of? Of course, that’s different to saying that the government should heavy handidly be intervening in day to day teaching and school management but if the demands that we make of schools are such that schools need to be freed from them, then there’s something wrong with the demands, not the fact that we make demands. We should be looking at what the demands are rather than radically uncoupling the state and education.

From there we moved on to teacher quality. Nothing very new there, more praise for Teachfirst and an interesting casting of teachers as the “guardians of the country’s intellectual life”, (plus an ode to systematic synthetic phonics -primary teachers I leave you to judge the wisdom of this).

Then we moved on to quality external testing. The highlight of the speech for me came in this section with the argument that we “need to stop seeing academic rigour as somehow incompatible with enjoyable teaching”. I wonder if Gove has been reading my blog on learning and fun? Here Michael, I’m definitely with you.

We then heard more about the new English Baccalaureate. This is where inconsistency crept in again. Pillar one was autonomy from the government. Remember? Yet the Secretary of State believes that traditional subjects have greater value than others. These are, specifically: English, Science, Maths, a Modern or Ancient Language and Humanities (defined as History, Geography, Music and Art, not sure if RE was in there, Citizenship certainly wasn’t). Therefore, although we apparently need a whole new type of school and hundreds of academies so that they can be free of the curriculum, Gove has decided to get involved in qualifications in order to push (Nudge?) schools towards his particular favourites. I am convinced of the value of the IBs and can therefore understand why he might like this idea. However, if he is taking on board the lessons of the IB, I’m not quite sure why he has picked this particular set of subjects. Two great features of the IB to my mind are the Theory of Knowledge and the Project element. When I asked him about these there seemed no plan to tap into the benefits of these. He did re-assure us though that that the baccalaureate would not stand in the way of other GCSEs or vocational qualifications. The thing is, the type of intervention in the running of schools which Gove decries rarely spawns from intentional interference. The process is more subtle and with this new announcement he risks becoming an agent of it. Here’s the process:

1. Headteacher seeks “superhead” accolade
2. DfE have target for take up of new qualification (baccalaureate, diploma etc)
DfE get in touch with schools and big up the new qualification –> Head begins to picture DfE back-patting and “superhead” accolade that will come from newspaper headline of “90% of pupils at school x achieve new superqualification” –> Head shifts teachers and budgets to focus on newly emphasised subjects –> Teachers moan about interference from above, target-itis and disruption to “getting on with the job of teaching” and there you have it.

…So maybe I take back my earlier comment and we should have more autonomy…