My first inkling that something was afoot at the Department for Education came with the Sky News report early in the morning that Michael Gove had arrived at Downing Street to meet with the Prime Minister. Was he about to be re-shuffled by David Cameron? It hardly seemed possible. Only last week I was in the audience for the Education Summit 2014 where Gove delivered a characteristically ideological key-note speech. No sense then that his personal mission to transform education would be de-railed by a government re-shuffle. And then the news exploded on Twitter. Gove had gone. The bogey-man of so many teachers and more generally the “blob” was out, finessed into the office of Chief Whip. The Education Secretary was rather like the Monty Python parrot in political terms.
So what does this mean? Gove’s departure is momentous in one sense but actually how much will it change the policies so closely associated with him? The Pandora’s Box opened by Gove is his legacy to this country – autonomy for schools, qualification reform and reform of teacher training. I list these changes rather than offer a value judgement because that goes to the heart of Gove’s reform of education. Were these reforms necessary to ensure this country continued to compete with the rest of the world or did they unleash a decade of instability and uncertainty where young people and teachers are the collateral damage?
History will judge. For now the momentum behind the Goveian Reforms means that government will continue on tram lines. The unknown is how linear the reforms will be without the force of Gove’s personality behind them. So in the hope that the new Secretary of State is open to ideas, I should like to take the liberty of sharing some of mine:
1. Let’s embrace the century we live in and, rather than harking back to a golden age of
education, ensure our young people are educated for their tomorrow;
2. Stop using data designed to assess individual pupils to measure schools;
3. Engage with digital learning to ensure we offer the best possible learning experience;
4. Work with teachers – they are the instruments of change.
The new Secretary of State, Ms Nicky Morgan, already has her work cut out because she holds her cabinet position alongside her role as Minister for Women and Inequalities. I would have thought the Education brief was big enough yet I wish Ms Morgan well. Nothing matters more than the education of our young people. I really do hope that Ms Morgan rises to the challenge of her new demanding role – certainly just holding the fort between now and the General Election will be a betrayal of a generation of young people.
Gove may be gone but the debate about the course of education goes on. It is worth reminding ourselves why education is so important and why Ms Morgan’s new role is so important. Nelson Mandela expressed this so well:
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Imagine it. You have the power to reform the education system in this country. This has been the power offered to Michael Gove and, judging by his speech at the Education Reform Summit in London, he believes his reforms have unleashed real change which will benefit all young people irrespective of class. Sitting in the audience, as Mr Gove gave the introductory key-note for this event, I was absolutely convinced that the Secretary of State’s conviction that education is the key to righting the wrongs in our society is sincere and acts as a powerful impetus for everything he does. Ministers from countries in Europe and a senior Head teacher from Shanghai appeared to share Mr Gove’s vision of education. They all talked about PISA and improving their country’s performance, raising the bar, giving autonomy to schools and academic rigour.
Yet, as the NUT held a day of action outside, clearly Mr Gove’s view of Nivarna is not shared by at least one national Union representing the teaching profession. High level strategy inevitably results in turbulence on the ground where change is not necessarily seen as beneficial for education. Steven Hodas, an advocate of innovation in education from New York, offered real insight on this dimension of change quoting Seth Godin: “Increase alignment, decrease fear.” Which points to the fundamental fissure in education in this country. Time and again speakers who advocated structural change assumed this was now a battle won whilst this was not necessarily the sense of everyone in the room – or indeed protesting outside.
So it was a revelation to cut through the politics and listen to practitioners – Head Teachers who have walked the walk because their focus and moral mission was focused on the young people in their charge. The individual who truly inspired me was Dame Kathy August. Dame Kathy was Head of Manchester Academy, the school which reinvented the failing Ducie High School. This school was part of a community which shared memories of the riots during the 1980s. A real challenge. However, Dame Kathy is a lady on a mission – a mission possible. For her, the Manchester Academy was where young people, associated with gang culture, left their tribal loyalty at the door and, upon entering school, entered the world of learning. Dame Kathy had no truck with gang language in school. This in her view marginalised them – she was very clear that students in her school would engage with the wider world and use the language of this world. She ensured that a series of mantras imbued with positivity enveloped the school.
I was particularly struck by Dame Kathy’s anecdote about how she had a weekly spot where she addressed the entire school through IWB’s. She shared with me one story where she talked about University Challenge. This was the subject of her weekly address where this quintessentially middle-class show was raised as a point of interest for everyone in the school; before long the school was discussing what their mascot would be if they were involved. Arguably University was demystified and became a realistic option for those for whom it was entirely alien. This illustration shows how the inventive Head worked hard to create an ethos of aspiration.
I enjoyed meeting Dame Kathy enormously. She clearly has been an instrument of change in her school. Other Head Teachers at the summit shared her commitment and determination. And as I left London to return to Cambridge I reflected on the importance of the individual in education. The strong leader with a clear vision; the inspirational teacher who engages students. Neither of which are easily measurable by education research or data. But therein lies the challenge – humanity v. accountability. Surely both should be valued.
Go back to traditional textbooks, says Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, because all that differentiation is a waste of time! In essence this was the message from Miss Truss following the publication of an OECD sponsored report which stated teachers in England spend more time preparing materials for lessons than their colleagues in other countries. And the UK is still languishing (relatively speaking) in Mathematics and English in PISA, that oft-quoted league table of attainment which casts such a long shadow over participating countries.
Textbooks appear to be king in Miss Truss’ argument because they provide core knowledge which every student should have and clearly is not being addressed through current pedagogy. Indeed we should be learning from the pedagogy which pertains in China and Japan where textbook-led lessons are the norm: “The top performers in international tests, like Shanghai and Japan, are adept at building on years of experience, at learning across the system. Schools use textbooks which children can take home to use for homework.,” Miss Truss said. Interestingly the Minister is critical of the practice whereby teachers prepare different lesson plans for groups of children in the same class – in her view the same textbook should ensure that all children achieve the standard required.
Textbooks are an interesting concept. How can one book address the learning needs of children across a range of ability? What Miss Truss alludes to are cultures of instruction where young people sit passively in lessons in large teaching groups working hard to understand the content being delivered to them. In this context a textbook makes sense – you didn’t get it first time? Take the textbook home and work it out for yourself before you return to class. Arguably this is the ultimate in independent learning. It is important therefore to note that governments in China and Japan are themselves reflecting on pedagogical practice. There are real concerns that whilst successfully educating high performing students, these same young people struggle when challenged to be creative in their approach to learning. And there are real concerns about the level of anxiety among young people in China. Back in 2011 these concerns were being publicly voiced:
“In the long run, for us to become a strong country, we need talent and great creativity,” Xiong Bingqi, an education expert at Shanghai Jiao Tong University told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “And right now, our educational system cannot accomplish this.” In fact reform of the Chinese system of education has already begun.
So the traditional textbook as a silver bullet, although enticing, is not the way forward. Young people may learn for the tests from textbooks but this does not necessarily mean they can think independently. Which takes us back to the English pedagogical approach. And I have a suggestion which is radical but I believe would make a real difference. Just imagine if every young person had an iPad. This device is a platform for access to iTunesU and iBooks – the former offering teacher-curated access to digital resources and the latter a turbo-charged book created by the teacher for their learners. This digitisation of learning answers Miss Truss’ desire for every child to have a textbook as well as the propensity of teachers in this country to ensure every child in their classroom is engaged, inspired and challenged whatever their ability. Certainly in our school we are piloting the use of such enriched resources and already can see that access to a range of resources beyond the capacity of a traditional textbook is making a real difference to the learning environment. This is real independent learning – students engage with the digital material in ways which are meaningful for them.
Expensive solution? Yes. But what price do we place on education? As the late Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Surely this should be motivation enough.
At the recent Sunday Times Festival of Education Michael Gove declared that he loved teachers. Mr Gove’s profession of affection however is somewhat at variance with events unfolding in the world of qualifications – change which arguably is hugely challenging (and not in a good way) to teachers trying to support their students.
1. IGCSE : early in the life of the coalition Gove decided that the International GCSE would be accredited by the Department for Education in their performance data. A number of state schools have adopted IGCSEs across a range of subjects enjoying an opportunity previously only available to independent schools. Indeed this very fact was a badge of honour for Gove. However, I understand from colleagues in maintained schools that there is a strong possibility, with the advent of new GCSEs, that IGCSE will no longer be accredited to ensure there is leverage for maintained schools to offer the new GCSE. Question. Schools offering the IGCSE are clearly happy with the qualification yet they are effectively being coerced into offering the new untested qualification – why? Answer. Gove is determined to mastermind a portfolio of GCSEs which he believes are rigorous and drive up standards – yet it is not clear why IGCSEs no longer fit the bill. I hesitate to suggest that Gove clearly has a political agenda but this does seem a likely reason.
2. Ofqual : is it only me who finds it odd that Ofqual has written to every school and college to warn of the possibility of variability of GCSE and A Level results this summer? Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said : “When qualifications change we would expect individual school results to be more variable, because the changes will have different impacts in different schools and in different subjects. It is not possible to predict at this stage how the national picture will look: these changes do not pull results universally in one direction or another, but together they are likely to affect the national picture to some extent.” A.K.A. not sure what will happen with the results but at least we have warned you. Question. So A Level students, you are sitting on offers which are based on previous experience but your experience could be different. Answer. Really?
3. A Level reform : the changes proposed by Gove mean that there will be a two year period when there will be a mixed economy of A Levels – modular v. linear. There is every possibility that universities will decide to extend the current system of testing to cut through the confusion of this mixed economy. Question. How does this help the widening participation agenda? Answer. It potentially creates another barrier for students in the maintained sector who have another hurdle to climb.
So teachers have little reason to feel loved by Mr Gove. The changes to the qualification framework have a myriad of unintended consequences. Which is a timely reminder that with power comes responsibility Mr Gove.