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.

Come on Mr Mayor…don’t just plant a tree, sow the seeds of change!

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Bristol has a Mayor. This is fine, I have nothing against Bristol having a Mayor; in fact I imagine it could be quite exciting, shake things up a bit. Bristol’s Mayor is a man called George Ferguson. So far there are three things that I know about him:

  1. He wears red trousers a lot.
  2. He played a significant and important role in the redevelopment of Bedminster’s Tobacco Factory.
  3. He wants every child in Bristol to plant a tree.

Of these three statements one impresses me and causes me to think all is not lost; one has made me confine the wearing of my own pair of red trousers to when I’m gardening; and one of these statements really, really annoys me. I think it should be clear to most people that the red trousers issue is taken care of; I think the Tobacco Factory is great so that leaves us with statement three: he wants every child in Bristol to plant a tree.

It was a couple of days after his election victory that Mr Ferguson addressed a room full of Head Teachers at the University of the West of England. Poor bugger, he was probably still hung over from celebrating but his PA had obviously said ‘Get on that stage Mr Mayor, this is an opportunity’. So he came on and I remember two feelings: slight surprise because close up his red trousers were actually tartan, but more than that I remember feeling a bit sorry for him. He seemed a bit flustered and who could blame him? He hadn’t talked that much about education before and suddenly here he was talking to a load of Head Teachers, I mean what was he meant to say? Turned out he did some crowd pleasing material on us all being heroes and then, in what I imagined was a stream of consciousness, he said that he wanted every child in Bristol to plant a tree.

I quite naturally ignored this as did most people on my table. It was just a bit of fluff and nonsense designed to sound inspirational in a ‘children are the future of this planet and so are trees’ kind of way. It didn’t carry any weight, no we would forget about this idea. Put it at the back of the cupboard with the other ‘big’ ideas like building a solar powered snow plough and running a competition to find Bristol’s favourite soup.

So imagine my surprise when I received an email asking me to sign up for the Mayor’s big scheme of getting every child in Bristol to plant a tree. Why? Will it make Bristol a green city? Will it provide a safe canopy for our children to walk under on their way to school? I don’t think it will. It might make Bristol a better shaded city in the summer months and it may encourage more tree climbing therein creating a more risk taking generation which could be a good thing but…I think that might be it.

No, what really annoys me about this idea is that it is in danger of being really small minded and for a man who displayed such vision when saving such a culturally significant building as the beloved Tobacco Factory and who proudly wears red tartan trousers in public, this paper thin initiative is a massive disappointment. Education at this precise moment in time is not in the best of places and I would have thought that the proposed National Curriculum, which seems to be unifying all educators through their hatred of it, would be seen as the golden egg squeezed out from Gove’s massive egghole (urgh) to be picked up and capitalised on.

Imagine a whole city turning its back on a badly formatted and politically engineered curriculum and instead creating something truly inspiring and meaningful for its children. A City Curriculum with local and global dimensions agreed upon by all educators and pushed forward by the city’s Mayor. A newly elected Mayor should seize this opportunity to engage with school leaders and play a part in developing something far greater than the sum of its parts. A city curriculum could truly lay the foundations that would allow an entire city becoming ‘outstanding’ based on any set of criteria from anybody’s score-book. Schools may not be able to do it on their own, they carry with them too much baggage, but with a leader or a figurehead to help facilitate the journey we could do it. The Mayor is in the correct neutral position to at least give it a try. Or…we could plant a tree and then get on with teaching 7 year olds about the house of Plantagenet. Your call Mr Mayor.

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.