Schools for students, not for markets

Submitted by AWL on 10 February, 2015 - 5:17 Author: Editorial

For the Tories, education is about training children and young people to follow instructions and to jump through stereotyped hoops, and grading them accordingly.

That approach works poorly even to develop job skills, and very poorly to help young people become confident, cooperative, practically-competent, informed, critically-minded, imaginative thinkers.

It does work to classify most young people as "failures" and accustom them to subordination; and to "sort" the labour market into a hierarchy. It does create sort-of "markets" in which students compete with students, teachers with teachers, schools with schools, universities with universities, and all are kept in holy fear of the Great God Market.

And to make it work better? Just squeeze harder!

The Tories have announced that if they win the general election they will remove the notional protection they promised to school budgets in 2010, and cut by around 10% over four years.

Because school budges allow little flexibility - either you have a teacher in the classroom, or you don't - such cuts will mean lots of teachers and other staff losing jobs, lots of students losing options, lots of schools operating in ill-maintained or inadequate buildings.

Despite the nominal no-cuts promise since 2010, teachers have suffered cuts in real pay. Many schools have already suffered from the siphoning of funds to "free schools" and academies. And a not-negligible amount from those siphoned funds has ended up in the pockets of head teachers or "executive heads", through high pay or through such things as contracts given to firms in which the heads or their cronies have an interest.

That's the Tories. And what does Labour's education shadow, Tristram Hunt, think? All we know is that he is terrified of rejecting Tory policies outright on any front, because that might seem too left-wing.

The teachers' unions and the whole labour movement should campaign for the reorganisation of education on democratic, accountable, emancipatory lines.

In the Sunday Times on 1 February, education secretary Nicky Morgan said that she would "launch a war on illiteracy and innumeracy... We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel", she said.

"They should be able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar... Some will say this is an old-fashioned view, but I say that giving every child the chance to master the basics and succeed in life is a fundamental duty of any government".

Worse, every school where, in both of two successive cohorts, any single child fails to meet the standards, will be forced to become an academy in federation with "outstanding" schools, and head teachers will be removed.

So, more smashing-up of local democratic control of schools, and more pressure from the top which will force its way downwards to heads, to teachers, and finally to the children.

No doubt this plays well to bedrock Tories who believe that primary schools are staffed by loony lefties who roll in at 8.50am, leave at 3.45pm, and don’t give a stuff about whether children can read, write or add up. The reality is that the average working week for primary teachers is over 60 hours and that the vast majority care passionately about the children they teach.

No one would contest that primary education should ensure that every child goes to secondary school literate and numerate. Whether the rote learning of their times-tables or the learning of a specific method for division and multiplication indicates a child is numerate is another matter.

Speedy recall of tables facts is a useful skill and should be encouraged, but this government’s obsession with going up to the 12 times tables just demonstrates their inability to think outside of their own experiences. The 11 and 12 times tables were everyday needs when measurement was in feet and inches and money in shillings and pence, but are not so in a metric and decimal world.

Children should be able to multiply and divide, but why must we dictate the method they use to do it? No one in adult life is at a disadvantage if they "chunk" to divide numbers rather than use the long division algorithm. Again, it smacks of "it’s the way I learnt approach" to formulating the curriculum.

"Being able to read a novel" seems as vague as to be worthless. Which novel? Does the child just need to understand the basic events of the novel or do they need to understand the motivations of the characters and why events occur? Maybe they just need to be able to get to the end of the book.

Being able to "write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling, and grammar" is, again, vague. Whether you inspire children to write fluently and effectively by a focus on grammar, spelling and punctuation is questionable, although clearly children do need to learn all of these skills. This marks is a further focus on the secretarial skills of writing against the imaginative, creative, organisational and expressive skills.

A focus on these times-table, long-division, and spelling-grammar targets will exert a huge pressure on schools and teachers to concentrate on teaching them as discrete skills and at the cost of a more rounded and textured curriculum. Already the pressure in schools which are deemed to be underperforming is high to focus on literacy and numeracy at the exclusion of virtually everything else - although there is a lot of evidence that literacy and numeracy skills are best obtained through a rich and varied curriculum.

Morgan’s announcement indicates an increase in the government’s meddling with and control of the curriculum. England is unusual in Europe for having such high level state control of the curriculum. In primary schools there is only one way we are allowed to teach reading: synthetic phonics "first, fast and only". Regardless of the merits of synthetic phonics, the proscriptive sole use,works against teachers using their professional judgement about how best one of their pupils may learn.

All this shows how massively mistaken, to say the least, has been the shift in the publicity from the leaders of the National Union of Teachers from "Gove out" to "Tell Nicky".

Tristram Hunt, shadow education minister, responded to Morgan’s announcement by saying that a Labour government would reverse the rule change that allowed unqualified teachers to teach permanently in a classroom. He spotlighted the quality of teaching as the key factor in raising attainment.

With his previous commitment to license all teachers and to force them to undergo regular testing, that tells you that Labour too will be blaming teachers for the failings in education. The poverty of Labour’s response to the onslaught on education by Gove and Morgan is shocking.

The last Labour government commissioned Jim Rose to review the primary curriculum. His report suggested a radical and inventive overhaul of primary school education which lessened the grip of central government over the curriculum.

The report was far from perfect, but why doesn't Hunt mention it? We should demand an incoming Labour government implement it immediately.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan also announced her response to the Department for Education’s survey showing the huge scale of overwork in education. The government’s Workload Diary 2013 survey had already shown the average primary teacher working nearly 60 hours a week, and the average secondary teacher 56 hours, a marked increase since 2010.

Her key points, according to the BBC, are:

1) Commitments by Ofsted not to change their handbook or framework during the school year, except when absolutely necessary

2) Giving schools more notice of significant curriculum changes, and not making changes to qualifications in the academic year, unless urgent

3) Tracking teacher workload by carrying out a "large scale, robust survey" in 2016, and then every two years.

In summary: absolutely nothing, apart from lukewarm words.

That Gove was a figure of hate within education is understandable. But he was not the problem, only a particularly unpleasant symptom. His replacement with Morgan was simply an attempt to win a few teachers’ votes for the Tories.

That the leaders of the National Union of Teachers played into the Tories' hands with their dramatic change of tone in response to the superficial change of minister, and that they called off all national action with the excuse that they had to see what the new minister would offer, starkly shows the importance of building the Local Associations National Action Campaign (LANAC), the rank-and-file campaign in the NUT to ensure that the union fights for the needs of teachers and of students regardless of who the government or the minister is.

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