Education policy-making is two-faced, and perhaps never more so – surprise, surprise – than during the run-up to a general election.
It has a kindly aspect, which talks soothingly about helping teachers to make this the best country in the world in which to educate children. And – as Stephanie Northen illustrated in last week’s CPRT blog – it has a tougher side, or what could be called a Robocop ‘20 seconds to comply’ mode for fans of late 1980s sci-fi, in which politicians boast of having ‘zero tolerance of failure.’
This contrast was illustrated for me perhaps more vividly than ever in this week’s launch of the Conservative Party manifesto. But it also sits underneath what seems a different vision being put forward by the other party that may be in position to lead a government from May: Labour.
So, to the Tory manifesto first. And I must avoid getting sidetracked here by its highly questionable claims about recent governments’ education records, such as on the performance of UK pupils in international tests; on the record of sponsored academies; and on the management of free schools.
But what struck me first about this document was the juxtaposition, in the bullet points with which the education section starts, of the manifesto’s plan to ‘help teachers’ with its insistence that there would be ‘zero tolerance of failure’ in primary schools. Meanwhile, there would be takeovers of ‘failing and coasting’ secondaries, which would automatically be turned into academies.
The question is whether it is possible to talk meaningfully about supporting teachers to do their jobs well while at the same time espousing ‘zero tolerance of failure’ when the schools in which they work underperform.
I think this is a very difficult circle to square, in the reality of how schools operate: the hunch must be that if you use ‘zero tolerance’, so making schools extremely fearful as to their next bad set of results, you probably will make them unattractive workplaces for many teachers or would-be teachers.
In fact, the Conservatives’ tough talk seems to crowd out more narrowly-framed statements which might be seen as more supportive, from a teacher’s viewpoint, in this document.
Its promise about ‘helping teachers’ is followed by the words ‘to make Britain the best country in the world for developing maths, engineering, science and computing skills’. This strangely implies that these named subjects are to be privileged: is world class status for the others not something at which to aim?
And while the manifesto pledges to cut the time teachers spend on paperwork and to reduce the burden of Ofsted, no further details are provided.
Instead, under ‘zero tolerance of failure”, there is talk of “ensuring our best headteachers take control of failing primary schools’, and a factually dubious statement that ‘nearly 800 of the worst-performing primary schools have been taken over by experienced academy sponsors with a proven track record of success’.
Any school judged to require improvement by Ofsted would be ‘taken over by the best headteachers’ , with ‘coasting schools’ ‘forced’ to accept new leadership. This last promise, by the way, comes despite the current Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, telling the House of Commons Education Select Committee in October that she was ‘not really a forcing type of person’.
That other f-word – ‘failure’ – stalks this document, with promises that pupils unable to meet ‘required standards’ in primary school will re-sit tests at the start of secondary, ‘to make sure [a heroic assumption, on which books could be written] that no pupil is left behind’.
The document adds: ‘We will expect every 11-year-old to know their times tables off by heart and be able to perform long division and complex multiplication,’ without admitting that one of those implied stipulations – the teaching of long division in primary – was opposed by virtually every maths educator I know as counterproductive.
Readers can make their own judgement on whether what seems to me to be the stress-infusing atmosphere which this continuation of our present policy regime implies in schools will help create the right kind of learning environment for our children. As suggested above, I am sceptical, to say the least. I think this document is certainly out of line with the more thoughtful, much less top-down vision of the Cambridge Primary Review, which talks – particularly in chapter 23 of its final report – about bullying policy centralisation.
This document reminds me again that the tough, posturing, unilaterally-decided and shallow incentives of ultra-politicised policy-making in England are in collision with what might be seen as some of education’s more nurturing, positive and consensual ideals. Yet, tragically perhaps, politicised policy-making usually wins.
A contrast with Labour’s recent policy pronouncements is revealing. Labour’s manifesto itself is striking in its brevity – only two pages on the detail of schools policy – though its statements that ‘children develop and learn best when they are secure and happy’ and that ‘education is vital to achieving personal fulfilment [as well as] economic prosperity’ are worth noting.
I found the speech of Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, to the annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers last month more interesting.
Mr Hunt pledged that the negativity of recent policy-making, which he attributed in particular to Michael Gove through the latter’s attacks on educationists as ‘enemies of promise’, would end. Mr Hunt said: ‘I promise you today: this deplorable, hostile, almost militaristic rhetoric towards the profession dies alongside this Tory government’.
He added: ‘The idea that our children’s potential can be fulfilled if we just raise the targets, stamp our feet and demand one more heave is now, surely, approaching its end stages.’ The days of education by diktat were over, he vowed, with Labour moving schools away from the ‘narrow, “exam factory” vision of recent years’.
Mr Hunt concluded that he wanted to ‘remove this centrally-controlling, profession-bating, target-obsessed government from inflicting five more years of evidence-free market mania on our children’s future’.
Cynics – and readers of Cambridge Primary Review reports from 2007-9 and ministers’ responses to them – might wonder if the last quotation could apply almost equally to the last Labour government. But the real question for Labour, should it lead the next administration, is whether its warmer words about standing back and supporting teachers will withstand alternative policy-making pressures.
Specifically, will central government be able to back off even slightly from tough-sounding interventions in schools, predicated as they always are on being intolerant of failure?
Even in Mr Hunt’s speech there was a glimpse of that tension, as he talked of a reformed Ofsted but which needed to be ‘an interventionist inspectorate tasked with rooting out underperformance wherever it lies’.
So, is it possible to preside over a national government pledging to raise standards without resorting to macho – and shallow – ‘zero tolerance’ in its rhetoric and in the detail of its policy-making? I think so, and that an alternative vision is possible for our schools, which moves away from policy-making’s notorious ‘discourse of derision’ towards something more supportive. But it will need some courage from the politicians.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist and author of Education by Numbers: the tyranny of testing (Methuen, 2007).
We have indeed been there before. Read chapters 2 and 23 of ‘Children, their World, their Education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review’, for an analysis of educational policy and the language of educational policy under Labour between 1997 and 2010. Similar threats and promises, almost identical rhetoric. Indeed, the CPR final report noted (pages 21-25) not just the ‘discourse of derision’ referred to by Warwick, but also the discourse of dichotomy (education’s complexities reduced to a starkly polarised choice between just two alternatives, good and bad, us and them), and the discourses of myth and meaninglessness.
Regular readers will by now have noticed that recent CPRT blogs have concentrated, in these last few weeks before the 2015 UK general election, on the politics of primary education; and they have done so by reference to England rather than Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales because it is in England that heavy-handed government intervention and tough or vapid ministerial rhetoric seem to take their most extreme forms.
In the week before the election we shall pull all these blogs together into a special CPRT policy supplement which will include a re-assessment, with the next government in mind, of the policy priorities proposed by CPR and CPRT. After the election we’ll try to restrict this depressing talk about policy and return to children and their education.