In 2010, Michael Gove’s Education White Paper perhaps sent us a glimmer of a world about to go wrong. Even its title was set to diminish a key component of education: ‘the importance of teaching’.
It was not called ‘the importance of teachers’. The approach taken made me angry. I was concerned the language of educational practitioners exercising good compassionate judgement would be lost.
Soon, my concerns were realised.
The sector de-professionalised and inspection regimes became increasingly politicised. Mr Gove appointed a new Head of Ofsted – an individual frequently quoted by Coffield (2012) and others for saying ‘if you know morale is at an all-time low you know you are doing something right’. Anyone who paid the vaguest of interests in Brexit knows that Gove’s view of experts is poor to say the least. It was a foreshadow of things to come.
As Covid-19 has demonstrated, the NHS, as well as the state education system has diminished thanks to an unhealthy rejection of experts. Dr Richard Horton, editor of the weekly peer-reviewed medical journal the Lancet has lambasted the UK government for its systemic failure to properly engage with science.
At the end of January the Lancet published five research papers from around the world regarding the potential effects of COVID-19. It seems SAGE and the chosen scientists did not take that science into account, or indeed, speak with international counterparts. But the very existence of these five papers, each presenting a different outcome, shows why science cannot easily be ‘followed’. For ministers to say they are being led by science demonstrates complete naivety.
Science is about developing ideas, testing them, discussing them, and finding a way of forging understanding and knowledge. Science is a way of being, not a way of knowing which so many ministers seem to think it is. Ministers blame scientists when things go wrong and do not take responsibility for executive decisions.
Now is the time for action; to hold a mirror up the politicians who have diminished the role of experts and inquiry. As Dewey said in ‘Democracy in Education’ (1916) ‘education is life’ and so the education we receive should allow us to access all facets of life. It should give us the strength to challenge given assumptions. The knowledge and skills we teach people, how we build curiosity and what we value are all brought to bear by educators. Evidence from a series of journal papers (see below) suggest Mr Gove’s phonics strategy was informed by a narrow range of advisors. Still, we will be living with the legacy of this strategy for a long time. The plurality of voices which constitute good democratic decision making seem to not to have been present. So what is to say it is the right policy?
What is to say the narrow literature base that Ofsted have used for their current inspection methodology is the right one? How do we know we measure the qualities that matter most? And why are professionals not allowed to challenge these given assumptions?
I must confess I am an educator and I know a lot of educators. I am a fourth generation educator. But as well as having some vested interests, I also have some expertise on these matters.
When, during the current crisis, teachers receive messages saying ‘I don’t know how you support my child all day every day. This is really hard work,’ we must realise there is an opportunity in Covid-19 to reclaim the language of education.
Finally, the world has realised it needs experts: scientists, doctors, nurses, designers, retail workers, drivers, public servants and many more. All experts in their own right. But all experts need expert teachers who work in democratic and open structures, and espouse high standards to inspire future generations of experts.
Our call to action must be to support education and encourage experts and others to express their opinions, to better engage in intellectual tussle, and be trusted to develop systems based on values and not league tables.
Today, the youngest generation are inspired by the work of experts in their fields, and their resilience is equally inspiring to all of us currently seeing them cope with being ‘locked down’. Our youngest are inspired to better use technology to learn and inspired – finally – to play.
The seventeenth clause of the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child establishes that children have the right to access information and the media. Until the advent of internet broadcast and a range of broadcast apps, there was one full time FM radio station in this country where children made shows for children. The UN Childrens’ Charter calls for universal quality primary education and it is essential if we are to create a greener and more internationalist world post-Covid.
Within this system exist educational experts. Teachers should now be consulted with. We need a national conversation on how we develop skills, encourage democracy, allow people to challenge given assumptions and offer an expertly crafted and broad curriculum.
Today, much of education is concerned with inculcating the knowledge and skills young people need to get jobs and serve industry. I do not condemn this because young people grow up to need jobs – but they also require the skills and education to appreciate many things such as art and music which can lead to a more fulfilling life. Educators should be encouraged to equip young people with the skills needed to contribute to the community, fully engage with their democratic rights, speak truth to power and identify false information within the public sphere.
Part of this national conversation ought to include how we develop this new curriculum. Only then can we debate the standards we want to see celebrated. We must ask if the funding and inspection structures create the best possible system of education and if our qualification and exam system perpetuates more of the same or helps to take the light of inspiration and embed it in young people’s activity.
We must ask the government why it has failed to respond to the expertise and recommendations of the independent Augar review panel. After the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, which further marketised and regulated Higher Education, a £2.5 billion bailout has been sought (and not granted) when what is needed is greater collaboration between government and educators. We have to ask why in further education, over £500m has been spent on Area Based Reviews and bailouts and the government is now considering bringing the whole sector into public ownership.
Taking decisions without the use of practical wisdom (something the Greeks called Phronesis) is catastrophic. Should we fail collectively, to articulate the values of education and the central role of educators, the long-term promise and intergenerational commitment of societal progress will be lost.
Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, 2015, Gov UK
The Office For Students Regulatory Framework, 2018
Biesta, G.J.J. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21 (1), pp. 33-46.
Brigg, S. and M, Fielding. (2005). It’s an equal thing … It’s about achieving together: student voices and the possibility of a radical collegiality in Street, H. and Temperley, J. (eds) Improving Schools Through Collaborative Enquiry. London. Continuum.
Carr, W. (1995). Education and Democracy: confronting the post-modern challenge. Journal of the Philosophy of Education, 29 (1), pp. 75-91.
Coffield, F. (ed). (2014). Beyond Bulimic Learning. London: London University Institute of Education (IOE).
Dunne, J. (2005). What’s the Good of Education? In Carr, W. (ed) (2005). Reader in Philosophy of Education. London Routledge.
Elliott, J. (2001). Making Educational Evaluation More Educational. British Educational Research Journal, 7 (25), pp. 555-574.
Fesmire, S. (2015). Dewey. London: Routledge.
Morris, D. (2017) “Be it enacted: The Higher Education and Research Act”. Wonkhe
NUS responds to the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill, 2016, NUS
Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, 2016, Gov UK
Robin is a Borough Councillor on Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council and has over fifteen years experience in the Further Education and Skills sector.