It encapsulated probably the defining contrast I have seen in nearly 20 years covering education: the under-rated commitment and thoughtfulness of much of the teaching profession versus the endless dysfunction, self-centredness and dishonesty of policymakers and the policy process itself.
Here, in the day-long get-together that was the Cambridge Primary Review Trust’s 10th anniversary conference last Friday in London, was an event to convince any observer of the multi-layered professionalism present at least in potential in England’s schools system.
Yet central to the day’s valedictory keynote by Robin Alexander – he is stepping down at the end of next month after 10 years as this remarkable review’s guiding presence – was the force against which the profession seems so often to be battling. This is the largely shallow, frequently failing and usually self-referential Westminster/Whitehall/think tank policy-spewing machine.
‘Ever since the 1988 Education Reform Act started transferring hitherto devolved powers from local authorities and schools to Westminster, policy has become ever more inescapable, intrusive and impervious to criticism,’ he said.
What was needed, then, was not more ‘education reform’ but reform of the policy process itself. Hear, hear.
The Cambridge Primary Review’s Final Report, published in 2009, was unflinchingly critical of the above characteristics in a Labour government which, Robin reminded us, sent documents on the teaching of literacy at the rate of roughly one a week to primary schools in the seven years to 2004. Yet there were some aspects which contributors to the review had welcomed: Labour’s Children’s Plan, Sure Start, Narrowing the Gap and the expansion of early childhood care and education.2
The more relevant question now is whether policymaking has worsened since 2010. While Robin welcomed the concept of the pupil premium, he said the current grammar schools proposal flew in the face of evidence, dating back as far as the 1960s, as to its likely damaging impact on those not selected. ‘To have two initiatives from the same government department pulling in opposite directions, both in the name of narrowing the gap, is bizarre. But hey, that’s policy.’
On four of CPRT’s priorities – aims, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment – policy is worse in 2016 than when the report was published in 2009, he suggested. ‘Aims remain a yawning gap between perfunctory rhetoric and impoverished political reality. The new national curriculum is considerably less enlightened than the one it replaced … national assessment … is now even more confused and confusing than it was; and most government forays into pedagogy are naïve, ill-founded and doctrinaire.’
Policymakers can also be a very bad advert for the concept of education in itself, at least when they step away from the soothing rhetoric. Robin reminded us of this with reference to Michael ‘had enough of experts’ Gove and his famous observation that those teachers and academics who disagreed with him were ‘enemies of promise’ and Marxists ‘hell bent on destroying our schools.’
Listening to the speech, and sitting in on a couple of seminars and the day’s final plenary, was to be reminded of another contrast: between the decades of experience many contributors to the conference had to offer and the callowness of those often now shaping policy. I am loth to personalise, but to listen to Robin and to set his isolation from substantial involvement in policy 3 against the likes of Rachel Wolf, now opining on ‘the next round of education reform’ and the revelation that policymakers ‘must focus on what goes on inside the classroom’ a few years into a career almost entirely free of experience outside the policy bubble is to despair.4
So what of the depth elsewhere in the conference? I was fascinated by talks on the merits of philosophy in primary schools; and on the phenomenally popular, Cambridge University-based NRICH maths programme, whose director, Ems Lord, asked the provocative question: ‘is [maths] mastery enough?’ I found presentations on the ideas behind Learning without Limits,5 by academics at the universities of Cambridge, East Anglia and Edinburgh, as about the most thought-provoking I have heard.
And the final plenary, offering the thoughts of author/journalist Melissa Benn, another distinguished academic in Andrew Pollard and a headteacher in Sarah Rutty, offered much good sense. I was taken by Melissa’s description of a ‘brilliant’ – ie it sounded great – speech in 2013 by Gove, on the subject of primary education, which nevertheless showed a ‘wilful ignorance of the history of education’; welcome to post-truth politics. I was also struck by Andrew’s notion of evidence-informed, rather than evidence-based education, as the former implied the use of value judgement, which was important. However, in relation to policy, in stating that the Department for Education runs ‘consultations which turn out to be pseudo-consultations’, he reminded us how distant any kind of evidence can often feel from the directives.
Finally, Sarah launched into a quickfire, and bleakly humorous, tour de force on what it felt like to be on the end of policy suffused by a ‘lack of trust, lack of empathy, lack of joined-up thinking’, including those endless, and sometimes, she suggested, borderline incomprehensible missives from the Standards and Testing Agency about assessment changes.
‘As a headteacher, I feel a bit bullied if I’m honest. The government are not listening to our voices. They are certainly not listening to the voices of the children,’ she said.
The title of the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review, of course, was ‘Children, their World, their Education.’ Yet policy, in imposing constant change on schools because this fits both its own internal logic and the political needs of those in charge, staggeringly rarely, in reality, stops to consider the effects on those it is meant to help.
If it did, why would it have introduced major increases in the number of children likely to be deemed failing at 11 as a result of changes in the national assessment and curriculum systems without, as far as I know, having carried out any impact study as to the possible effects on pupils?
If it did, why would it have tried to force major disruptive and expensive structural change on thousands of primary schools without any good evidence that this will help pupils?
If it did, why would it publish a green paper on increasing selection without, seemingly, any consideration of the potential impact on pupils not deemed academic enough to pass a selective test?
Professionalism in spite of policy remains, sadly, the only hope for England’s schools.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist and author of ‘Education by Numbers: the tyranny of testing’ (Methuen, 2007) and the recent CPRT report ‘Academies: autonomy, accountability, quality and evidence‘ (May 2016). Read more CPRT blogs by Warwick here.
2 – CPR was not alone in this view. Another major review, the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training, England and Wales led by Richard Pring, also concluded in 2009. It investigated the notion that ‘there have been too many fragmented and disconnected interventions by government which do not cohere in some overall sense of purpose’.
3 – He has reminded me that as well as the 1991-2 ‘three wise men’ enquiry’ he has served on quangos such as CATE and QCA while his persistence over spoken language, in the face of that notorious ministerial objection that classroom talk is no more than ‘idle chatter’, succeeded in getting it reinstated, albeit reluctantly, in the current national curriculum. But my general point stands: on the one hand we have the rich but largely untapped experience and expertise that this conference brought together in abundance; on the other the supplanting of such experience and expertise by ideologically compliant special advisers and ‘expert groups’.
4 – Among several remarkable claims in Rachel Wolf’s blog is that ‘too many schools still resist testing as an “evil”’. Really? No, they’d no doubt like to resist some of the more damaging impacts of high-stakes testing, but policymaking hangs all on test results, so…