The Golden Age – part 1

 

the-golden-ageThe Golden Age in Greek mythology refers to the first of several sequences of the ‘Ages of Man’.  Being ‘Gold’, it is obviously the best and the subsequent ages: Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron denote a period of steady decline. So, even by the 1st century BC life in general was already past it. Even by the Daily Mail standards this is pretty gloomy but it shows quite neatly that as a race our default setting seems to be: it was better yesterday but enjoy today because it will be worse tomorrow. As a result every single conceivable idea or movement has apparently already had its golden age: Hollywood, comics, sci-fi, hip-hop, there has, I am reliably informed by Wikipedia, even been a golden age of porn-but due to internet restrictions on my broadband I am unable to inform you of when or what that was.

Presumably there was a golden age in education and presumably we all missed it. However our brave Secretary of State for Education, dear little Micky Gove is determined to find it and put it back in its rightful place. This personal quest of his helps to explain why each week he spews out more and more demented policy ideas in the hope that one day he’ll hit gold. He’s not having a great deal of success with this strategy; I mean if you read all of his ideas for schools and education in order it’s as if he’s playing his own version of the BBC game show ‘Pointless’ where he’s gradually trying to find the one idea that absolutely no teacher will like.

Give every school a free bible? ‘Not bad, 85 teachers liked that idea.’

2014 Proposed Curriculum? ‘Ooh that’s a good one, only 35 teachers liked that one.’

Longer school days? ‘Very close, 8 teachers were in favour of that.’

Shorter holidays? ‘Wow, that’s a very low score with only 4 teachers being in favour of that.’

Inset a device into a teacher’s inner ear so they self-destruct after two successive ‘less than good’ lessons as voted for by pupils who weren’t there at the time ? ‘Congratulations! That is a totally pointless answer.’

There are three only possible sensible reasons why Gove seems to be selecting education policy as if he’s playing a blind ‘education policy’ lucky dip whilst taking vast quantities of crystal meth that is having a serious effect on his ability to apply reason:

  1.  He is an idiot.
  2. He is a genius who is subversively managing the government’s plan to have every school a privatised academy by the May bank holiday by enforcing unpopular policy.
  3. He is really bad at playing ‘truth or dare?’

gove

Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: Thanks to Mr Gove, we are definitely not living in the golden age of education.

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’.

(educatoinengland.org.uk/history/chapter8)

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.

Goodbye Mr Chips, Hello Mr Squeers.

One of my largest gripes with the current government’s handling of primary education was the snatching away of (then) current frameworks and curriculum guidance with no replacement in sight for years. I know, I know! As a Head Teacher I could have quite easily mapped out a whole school framework for English & Maths based on a set of principles laid down in the renewed (old) framework for Literacy & Maths.  However that would mean messing around Google looking for the archive files, Gove’s online lair for banned practical and useful resources, like Indiana Jones’s less brave nephew.

But it wasn’t just the new (old) Literacy & Maths framework that had gone: the whole ruddy renewed (old) national curriculum had gone! The good one, which Rose had contributed to – that was almost but not totally the same as the current (old, old) national curriculum but with a bit more skills and the long sentences split into smaller ones. I know, I know! I could have bought into a corporate curriculum that ‘guaranteed’ to be in line with current government legislation and also ‘promised’ to be fun. (You could tell it was fun because one of the topics was called ‘Chocolate’. )

No it was far easier for me to sit back and wait for the new National Curriculum. And wait I did.  After a lot of waiting I could only think that this new curriculum was going to be amazing! I mean they were not doing a rushed job; they were really taking their time. And I waited, and waited and carried on waiting, even when the rumours starting flying around that it was just going to be about knowledge and content. ‘No!’ I said, standing on my chair batting older, more grumpy heads on the nose with a rolled up copy of Gove’s Bible, ‘Our Government are not taking this long to craft a national curriculum based on lists of stuff children should know and they are definitely not taking this long because they’ve nicked it from an American approach to education and they have to go through all 6000 pages changing ‘Math’ to ‘Maths’.  

So I carried on waiting until the day finally came and the proposed national curriculum arrived. I missed it actually, but luckily quite a few people were tweeting it about so I got me a copy. It’s getting a bit of flak but I think there are some good bits in it. Most commentators however are tooling up and blog-bashing Gove over the wider curriculum elements and History in particular is getting firmly happy-slapped.

Granted, it does appear to be rather long lists of historical facts that are to be learnt and this does beg the question did Mr Gove get his ideas on effective education from Mr Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby? ‘When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it. That’s our system.’ But, I personally don’t mind the scope of historical study outlined in the document but then again, I like history. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: I like knowing about stuff that happened in the past.

My biggest problem (about me not the curriculum) is that while I enjoy each episode of ‘Simon Schama’s A History of Britain’ I cannot retain a single sustained fact about any of Schama’s lessons six weeks afterwards. My biggest problem (about the curriculum, not me) is that it is in danger of producing a system of education that will not enable any child to retain a single sustained fact about any teacher’s lesson six weeks afterwards.

Effective education…really effective education, in my mind, is about: acquiring knowledge through the application of skills.  Just giving away knowledge isn’t good enough. The joy of primary school education is teaching children facts by equipping them with skills and this can only be done through a broad and balanced curriculum that allows teachers to combine subject skills to create well-crafted topics. Topics that inspire, allow children to think critically about the information they receive and allow them to actively engage in finding out about the world around them. Only then will you get passionate learners who are then ready to consume knowledge at a more advanced level. As much as Gove wants, children are not going to leave Key Stage 2 with a complete knowledge (let alone understanding) of the British Isles based upon his mighty list alone.

I am sure that Gove is not expecting teachers to just churn out facts and get children to memorise Kings and Queens but his draft history curriculum does seems disproportionately weighted towards understanding historical events through knowing FACTS. The fact that you can get children to learn about historical events, personalities, bias, politics, and culture through, say, art seems to be lost.

This, as I see it is the biggest disappointment of the national curriculum: it’s just a list that he want children to know. At least the old (old, old) national curriculum had the dignity to suggest some interesting schemes of work that linked with other subjects. (Yes, I know they got a bit over-subscribed to but they were a start) Gove apparently has neither the time nor the inclination to attempt something as complex as joined up thinking across the subjects. The idea that some subject’s skills lend themselves well to learning about other subject’s content is less important it seems than promoting selfish, single minded subjects.  The idea that education is about developing true intelligence and nurturing talent is less important than being able to test an individual’s penchant for fact regurgitation at the end of each year.

This expectation for mass content knowledge coupled with a lack of thought on curriculum skills may, I fear, mean that topics as I know and love them will disappear. Lessons will be dis-jointed. Children will learn isolated facts. The concept of cross-referencing skills over a series of subjects linked by one over-arching topic will be lost. Pupils will be judged on memory. Our nation will become a nation of pub quiz bores. Sadly the battle between producing ‘historians’ or ‘Statisticians’ will have been won and the interested, well-rounded and skilled citizens of the future will lie dead, underneath a car park full of cars parked by knowledgeable but ultimately useless eggheads.