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Primary Education News
News The future of schooling: we need a radical new education manifesto
We cannot carry on with short term, politically-driven tinkering with an old-fashioned system. We need an education spring, says Mick Waters
At a seminar in Westminster last week, Mick Waters called for a radical rethink of schooling. Here is the transcript of his talk.
We need a radical new education manifesto. The schooling system as it stands - distorted by whim, high stakes accountability and low trust - is no longer fit for purpose. We need fresh thinking.
We cannot carry on with short term, politically-driven tinkering with an old-fashioned system. From the outset in 1870, politicians have sought to use the school system for short-term political gain by addressing the perceived problems of the day, be they social, economic or fabricated.
Instead, we need a forward-looking, redefined purpose for schooling where the people involved take appropriate responsibility to create a system which is carefully managed, research and practice-driven, parent and media-supported, and focused upon long-term aims, regardless of changes of government. This is happening in Jamaica, for instance, where a concordat for schooling has been established as an all-party agreement to be supported over time.
The status quo cannot continue: we need an education spring - an uprising of passion and commitment to the role of schooling in the education of our young. Politics can change the face of education in structural terms but it should not change the heart.
This means building consensus and holding to agreed courses of action through a permanent body at arms' length from parliament and ministers; a National Council for Schooling which wrestles schooling away from meddlers and shaded advisors and places it back in the control of wider society, employers, teachers, parents and pupils.
A consensus needs to be built around the purpose of schooling and how it fits within the overall education of pupils. We need to define better the aims and purpose of schooling. This means setting minimum standards of provision for childhood and youth and building agreement about how the roles of schools, parents and community complement each other. Can the purpose be the same for all children regardless of social circumstance? We need to be clear about aspiration as an outlook of worth, contribution and spirit, rather than simply exam passes and careers. Parents need to see themselves as contributors to the system rather than consumers of a commodity and should support their local school rather than exploit the admission process. A levy on pupils who use schools further away should be directed to the school that is their nearest.
If we are clearer about the purposes of schooling then clarity of the role of teaching emerges. Teaching is science and an art, a vocation and a profession. The principles of teaching include the transmission of 'big ideas', immersion in the discipline of knowledge domains, the detailed instruction of processes and skills and, crucially, the building of enthusiasm, motivation, and capability in the learner. The principles do not include using school time for trivial activity. Just as nursing has recognised that holding nurses accountable for the narrow measurable activity of 'treatment' alone leads to a lack of attention to the central focus of 'compassion and care', so teaching has to recognise the danger of too narrow a focus on the technicalities of individual lessons.
Therefore, regulation and accountability need to be better managed. High stakes, data-driven accountability has led to schools naturally 'playing the game' to achieve recognitions rather than acting with educational integrity. Hence we see slow progress in the use of ICT and computing, more sterile learning for pupils, less emphasis on the cultural and artistic. The spouted 'autonomies' are a sleight of hand to appeal to the public whilst testing acts as a straitjacket for schools. Schools are only free within their shackles.
That is not to say there should be no accountability. What if teachers were to be licensed for five year periods with the continuation of the licence dependent upon effective professional development and contribution? Ofsted should judge schools on a good enough or not basis. Lessons should not be seen as the sole unit of teaching.
The crux of much or our present inertia is the influence of national politicians. Most national politicians confuse policy with posturing, polarising, and positioning. A few are peddling half- truths over international comparisons or abusing the rights of pupils with blatant and cynical hectoring. They manipulate the school agenda for bigger policy outcomes than education. They are far from the radical people they pretend to be and conversely hold back the profession itself by dint of undue influence from favoured czars and special advisers. Instead, ministers tend to be risk averse, seeking policy change that will carry favour with the electorate and denying change that would be good for pupils. The teaching profession often acquiesces to the latest ministerial mood swing, complaining rather than being involved, sometimes grabbing the agenda with enthusiasm or funding.
Many in schools feel their integrity compromised between their belief in the purposes of schooling and the games they have to play. Some of the ways ministers behave is dangerous for democracy. Schooling needs to act and those in the profession need to see themselves as schooling activists; for example, heads should always respond to consultations and expect their responses to be taken seriously, or could monopolise MP's surgeries to get their point to ministers and schools should be prohibited as venues for photo opportunities for MPs. Visit by all means. Leave the cameras behind.
As a first step on the way forward, we need an elected National Council for Schooling. Elections should be contested not by geographical location but by technological national ballot, either a minimum number of votes or the top, say, 25 scorers being elected. The Council would oversee aspects of school organisation and advise in national policy and practices in teaching as does NICE in health. The National Council for Schooling would also work to develop society's understanding of practice. As a channel for progress in schooling, the National Council would manage funding, determine expectations on parents and the profession, and hold fast to society's hopes for childhood and youth. In a short time, disciplined innovation would grow and the system would be recognised with accord and pride.
Our children need the adults of this country behind them to lift their expectation and performance. They need to feel the promise of good schooling and understand the investment being made in them and the opportunity offered by their nation.
Mick Waters is the former director at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and author of Thinking Allowed on Schooling published by Independent Thinking Press.