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Primary Education News
News Remembering the great debate: our schooling system needs a rethink
As teachers and educationalists call for change, Wendy Berliner, remembers the first education 'spring' of 1976 and examines its impact on the current schooling system
When I was a young education correspondent on the Birmingham Post, one of first big stories I covered was the West Midlands round of the Great Debate.
It was not long after James Callaghan, then Labour prime minister, had given his speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, where he had flagged the inescapable fact that there was something going wrong in state education, particularly if you were from a more disadvantaged family.
Quality education was being unequally delivered around the country and probably always had been. Comprehensive education was fast taking over the tripartite secondary selective system that had been introduced by the 1944 Education Act, so out was going the 11-plus exam which – for all its failings as an accurate measure of intellect and future promise – had provided an output measure for primary schools.
O-levels, originally aimed at grammar school children, and CSEs, originally aimed at secondary modern school children, were anachronistic in a world where most grammar schools and secondary moderns were being closed and replaced by comprehensives; one education system surely demanded one exam system, was the argument.
So to get a Great Debate on education going, in every part of the country, special meetings were set up to discuss what the future of state school education in this country should be.
I covered the one in Birmingham town hall, a Victorian survivor in the rebuilt city of the heavy German bombing from the second world war. The meeting was attended by legions of teachers and councillors and academics and a handful of journalists. We sat in a semi-circle on wooden pew-like seats discussing an education system that would still have been recognisable from the universal elementary system introduced 100 years before - complete with caning - around the time that same Council House was built.
I do remember the unions being concerned at the time about the dangers inherent in any government getting involved in deciding what was taught in schools. Way back then the school curriculum was known as a secret garden to which only teachers were privy (and it caused huge variations in what you were taught and how well you were taught it). The spectre was invoked of France where, it was claimed, the education minister knew exactly what page of what text book any French child was learning from at any given time to suggest that was not how we did things here; that was the slippery slope to indoctrination - you wouldn't want an education minister to prescribe what version of history children would learn would you now...
How little did those teachers and academics know what was coming. A fuse had been lit and, by the time my little boy came to go to school in the early 1990s everything had changed. Well, not quite everything, children were still being taught in classes by teachers but pretty much all their autonomy had gone.
The secret garden had been dug up and built over with a government prescribed curriculum and testing colossus that even the French wouldn't have contemplated.
Classrooms where governments had feared to tread and only external examinations taken by teenagers had held teachers to account, checked up on from time to time by someone from the council or, very rarely an HMI (Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools), were governed by central instructions in binders which left shelves in the head's office groaning and teachers weeping.
By the time my son took his A-levels he knew the score - schools exams were not for showing your breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding across the wider subject, they were for narrowing what you expressed down to ensure you optimised your score in the unified marking scheme.
Now we have an education secretary who is presiding over a whole scale switch away from a national system of education locally administered in favour of 'independent' state schools; and he has prescribed a version of history that our children should learn in schools.
Now it is not a Labour prime minister calling for a 'Great Debate' on education but thousands of teachers backed by academics and leading educators who are desperately concerned by the narrowing of the curriculum and not being listened to by ministers. Debra Kidd, the Manchester teacher who has raised thousands of names for her petition to the government, is indicative of that trend.
Professor Mick Waters, former director of the Curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says we need a radical new manifesto for education based on a consensus around what the purpose of schooling is. That teachers need to become activists and not just automatically acquiesce to everything they are told to do by government and Ofsted. An education spring infact. Or a new Great Debate this time led by teachers? Now that would be interesting.