Aspiration Nation – or History Repeating?

imagesIn a jolly, rousing, preaching to the converted, sound bite crowbarring, broad and unsurprisingly unbalanced address to his brethren during yesterday’s Conservative Spring Conference, David Cameron made clear his attitudes towards education.

I can only imagine the late night pacing up and down inside some swanky Manchester hotel bedroom as Cameron and his speech writers furiously outlined the key messages for education that had to be covered.  Insulting the profession obviously had to be there, that’s a given. Twisting an idea so that it sort-of-but-doesn’t-really-when-you-scrutinise-it-for-more-than-a-second fit into this ‘aspiration nation’ gubbins should probably make an appearance. Putting out an ideology so beyond the realms of sanity that every Head Teacher decides it’s probably best to cash in their chips and lie low until the next general election could be good for a laugh for in the bar afterwards.

So it was with these main points scrawled on the back of his hand that Cameron began talking about education and schools.  Firstly he gleefully dismissed the past decade of educational development as stemming from “a left-wing establishment that had bargain-basement expectations of millions of children”. Then he boasted that the new curriculum was centred around ensuring the youngest children in our system would, if nothing else, know the history of our islands as if their life depended on it. Finally he put forward his dream that schools would be run by Leaders who aspired “to be like the pushiest, most sharp-elbowed, ambitious parent there is”.

Where shall we start?

Bargain basement expectations? I can only imagine that sometime after he almost won the general election Cameron went online and clicked on the DfE website to see what teachers actually did and was horrified that there was nothing there! He must have been furious. Where was the curriculum? Where was the guidance? Where were the expectations? What have they been doing for the last decade? In the background Gove must have been gulping like a wonky frog wondering if he should explain to his leader that his first job as education secretary had been to delete everything leaving schools with nothing or should he just let Dave go along thinking it was the last guy’s fault. Obviously he went for the latter.

Despite clearly loving the history of this county it’s a shame Cameron didn’t bother looking back over the recent history of education standards. If he had then he may have noticed that in 1996 the percentage of pupils leaving primary schools achieving Level 4 in English & Maths were below 60% whereas in 2009 this had risen to nearer 80% and is continuing to rise. It is also a shame that he didn’t take an interest in the NFER yearly testing programmes from 1999-2002 focussed on pupils in Years 3, 4 and 5 that aimed to provide a detailed picture of changes in standards and progress from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2. The results of this programme was reported by Ofsted in 2002 and showed that there had been significant improvements in the performance of pupils throughout primary schools. This is also backed up by statistics collated by the ATL that showed in 1996 the proportion of good or better teaching in primary schools was less than 50%, this rose considerably by 2002 to just under 80%.

Now I know we can debate the difference between ‘performance’ and ‘standards’ but can it really be argued that standards and expectations stagnated or fell between the years Cameron is talking about? We all know that benchmarks change as targets get achieved and although this can be frustrating as it feels like goalposts are always changing –  the flip side to this is that as we get better our expectations of what we can do next must also rise. The increase in rigour in school’s assessment and the development of pedagogy through the Literacy and Numeracy framework strategies during Labour’s time in government highlight quite significantly that the judgement that schools were operating under ‘bargain basement expectations’ is not only insulting but is an example of political showboating that Cameron should feel ashamed of and be made to apologise for.

Now what about operating schools like ‘pushy parents.’ On the one hand what a clever analogy for illustrating to schools how much they should want the children in their care to achieve. On the other hand: what a mind-bogglingly stupid thing to say-for two reasons. Firstly the thought that schools don’t do everything they can to capitalise opportunities for their pupils to support their educational development shows an innate lack of understanding of how schools operate. Secondly, it actually doesn’t work as the Free Schools are showing us. The Free School movement which gave those pushy parents who thought they could set up a school the chance to do so has been rather embarrassed recently thanks to Michael Wilshaw’s exacting standards. The first three of nine have been judged ‘not good enough’ by Ofsted-not a great start is it? Who appointed those Head Teachers? Who set the expectations for these schools so low? Maybe the individualistic mind-set of a pushy parent is not the best way to strategically lead an entire organisation but who am I to judge…I’m just a professional.

Finally, the proposed national curriculum. I am not going to repeat things I have said about what I think about the new curriculum. Instead I will share a critique of the 1988 Conservative government’s first national curriculum:

The National Curriculum was written by a government quango: teachers had virtually no say in its design or construction. It was almost entirely content-based. Dennis Lawton, of the University of London Institute of Education, described it as the reincarnation of the 1904 Secondary Regulations.

It was huge and therefore unmanageable, especially at the primary level, and its introduction resulted in a significant drop in reading standards. It divided the curriculum up into discrete subjects, making integrated ‘topic’ and ‘project’ work difficult if not impossible. But perhaps the most damaging outcome of it was that it prevented teachers and schools from being curriculum innovators and demoted them to curriculum ‘deliverers’.


It seems incredible that the parallels are so striking and yet numbingly inevitable. The lack of insight, perspective and educational input seems to fly in the face of ‘aspiration nation’ and shows it up for the hollow phraseology it is. For a government that seems to place a lot of significance on knowing the history of this country it seems rather pitiful that with their own short-sighted views of education they are clearly in danger of repeating it.

One thought on “Aspiration Nation – or History Repeating?

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