To read EduTwitter, one would think that there are very few issues in education policy at the moment which are of any consequence. The two issues which currently seem to suck in all discussions like twin black holes, are:
- discipline policy, which tends to centre around a group who support the adoption of draconian systems of control and sanctions; and
- what’s become known as “Direct Instruction”, or #justtellthem, in which a group proclaim the efficacy of what might loosely be termed a “traditionalist” pedagogical style of the teacher imparting information to students
There is a considerable overlap in the groups supporting these two approaches. Similarly, both stances have the explicit backing of the Conservative government. These positions have, of course, always existed. There have always been teachers who prefer and impose a strict regime, and there have always been teachers who prefer a didactic teaching style. There is very little under the education sun which is new. So why the increased virulence and hostility of the debate?
One reason can be found in the way some proponents are framing that “debate”. Education debates have previously involved teachers practicing different approaches, sharing those practices, and maybe seeking to persuade others of the efficacy of their methodology. Other teachers are thus able to consider, trial, and adopt or discard as appropriate. This is the traditional model of professional teaching – a reflective teacher with an armoury full of weapons, and the ability to exercise judgement in which weapon to deploy with a particular class learning a particular topic at a particular time.
What has changed recently, however, is that while some proponents of these methods may use the word “debate”, in actual fact they do not appear to acknowledge a debate in the way we normally use the word. Some appear to believe the “debate” is over. Rather, they assert that evidence shows that their preferred methods of discipline and pedagogy are so transparently superior to all others, in all circumstances, that all should be required to use them. In this they appear to be increasingly backed by a Conservative Government signalling its inclination to impose these methods on all teachers, in all schools, with all classes, irrespective of topics.
It is this shift, from a culture which respects the judgement and professionalism of teachers reaching bespoke solutions for themselves and their classes, to one which asserts the supremacy of one particular approach above all others and seeks to deny professional agency to those who differ, which has, in my view, resulted in the increasing bitterness and polarization of edutwitter.
Many, probably most, teachers subscribe to a version of Voltaire’s philosophy which might be paraphrased as “I may not prefer your methods, but I respect your right to use them“. A philosophy underpinned by an acknowledgement of the wisdom of Dylan Wiliam’s oft-quoted “Everything works somewhere. Nothing works everywhere“. Unfortunately, a brief perusal of edutwitter on any given day will suggest that for a subset of teachers, their philosophy may be better phrased as “I may not like what you do, so bloody well do what I prefer, and shut up“. Only this weekend, one influential young Conservative “joked” that teachers using ‘child-centred’ measures should be “struck off“. This sort of increasingly confident attack on any form of difference or dissent is troubling in its own right, and I’ve covered the growth of the authoritarian movement in a previous blog.
This blog, however, is not about rehashing the arguments for and against particular pedagogical styles or behavioural policies. Others have done those to death, and I don’t have anything new to add other than I subscribe to the philosophy of protecting professional autonomy within an inclusive state school system. Rather, this blog is about my concerns over where this push for reducing teacher agency and imposing preferred pedagogy is going, politically.
There is – and I know there will be howls about this, but nevertheless – a significant overlap between right-wing Conservative politics and an authoritarian stance of seeking to compel both a “traditionalist” stance on pedagogy, and a harsh “spare the rod, spoil the child” disciplinary approach. Nuance is impossible on Twitter, and difficult even in blogs, but let me be clear: it is entirely possible to teach didactically without being right-wing, and I am living proof of that. It is also entirely possible to keep a silent class, and a strict regimen with your students, without being right-wing. Of course it is. There is nothing intrinsically right-wing about either a didactic style or even a draconian disciplinary approach. Nor, the twentieth century clearly showed us, is authoritarianism confined to the right of politics. However, it is also quite clear that with regards to the ‘No Excuses’ disciplinary approach, and the #justtellthem pedagogical approach, that the desire to deny teachers professional agency in choosing whether and when to use these approaches is currently finding much more purchase on the Right of politics than the Left. This is also an observable historical trend, going back to the Black Papers fifty years ago.
I know that there are people who see themselves as being on the left of politics, who believe that an authoritarian approach is necessary to impose a new educational order which will deliver social justice, via what they believe is a superior model of pedagogy and discipline. I am certain that there are also those, who identify with the left, who have convinced themselves that this is an apolitical issue, and the support of Tory Ministers for this authoritarian denial of teacher agency is not based on any goals beyond a shared interest in pupil outcomes. Those people may believe they may have hitched their leftist wagon to the Tories’ rightist horse, but only because they are both heading to the correct destination. Indeed, some leftists believe, I suspect, that they are cunningly using the Tories to shape a more socially just future through a better education system. This is, I suggest, a catastrophic error of judgement on a par with the frog giving the scorpion a lift over the river. I implore those who see themselves on the left to look again at what the Tories are trying to do to our schools system. Not what they say they’re trying to do, but what they are actually doing.
The late Simon Hoggart coined the phrase “The Law of the Ridiculous Reverse” as a test of whether a politician was saying anything of substance; if the opposite of what the politician said was obviously ridiculous, then their statement was vacuous guff designed to fool those with neither the time nor inclination to look deeper.
“I want all schools to be world class“; “I’m determined to recruit the best teachers for our schools“;”I’m passionate about every child achieving their potential”. These are all good examples of much-repeated political statements which crumble when the Law of the Ridiculous Reverse is applied. To establish what a politician or political party really believes, you have to look at what they do, not what they say, something most journalists failed to do when uncritically repeating rhetorical flatulence about Michael Gove’s endless declarations of love for a system he set about destroying.
Let’s take two competing theories of what underpins Tory education policy, and see how the main post-2010 actions measure up against those theories. The first proposition, promoted by Conservatives themselves, and believed by some who are not, is that the Tories share a desire to improve state education for all, and their actions since 2010 are thus dedicated to that end.
I would offer a second proposition. What the Tory Party cares about is reducing the amount of money spent on state education, and ensuring that more of that money is diverted out of the public sector into friendly private companies, and towards friendly private individuals (themselves). It doesn’t really matter whether this desire to direct the cash into the private “market” is pure self-interest, or a touching but hopelessly naïve belief in right-wing market economic theory, as the end is the same. This is the driving purpose behind nearly every significant Tory education ‘reform’ since 2010.
Sure, there are some helpful side-effects which many on the right quite like too: I’m sorry to say many Tories genuinely do despise teachers,
and are keen to reduce the last large public sector graduate workforce which they see as unhelpfully left-wing; many Tories acknowledge a charitable goal of ‘saving’ a select few ‘deserving poor’; and many Tories believe school has a role in inculcating unquestioning obedience to traditional figures and institutions of authority (themselves again). But, by and large, these are secondary concerns. Public policy is about the money with Tories. Historically it always has been, and I see no reason to suspect that it’s changed recently. That’s why they’re Tories, and it remains something of a mystery to me that some people who can see how this motivates the Tory Party in nearly all other aspects of public and economic policy, have developed a blind spot when considering Tory motives in education policy.
I can hear the huffing and puffing now, as readers begin to compose rebuttal blogs in their heads. Fine. But bear with me. Let’s consider their actual policies alongside these competing propositions.
|Tories genuinely committed to better education for all||Policy||Tories seek to reduce cost of state education and channel that cost into private pockets|
|There’s no relationship between academization and outcomes for students
|Academization||Transfers most secondary schools and many primaries from public sector to be owned and operated by private companies.|
|There’s no evidence that non-PGCE routes are more effective than traditional PGCE routes either in terms of efficacy or retention.||Shift from PGCE to schools-based teacher training||Money for training moved from universities to private companies.
Schools-based trainees used to reduce staff costs for schools
|No more effective or ineffective range of performance than LEAs, in terms of student outcomes||Multi-Academy Trusts replacing LEAs||Creation of private education businesses ‘competing’ in a market. Some now with budgets totalling hundreds of millions of taxpayer cash, replacing alternative public sector powerbase which might use local democratic legitimacy to restrict market operation.|
|No more or less consistently effective or ineffective than LEA schools||Free Schools||Remove place planning role of LEA, offer way for private education businesses to expand (and occasionally channel funds directly to Friends of Tory Party vanity projects).|
|Has no impact on student outcomes||Performance Related Pay||Enables reduction of teacher pay and worsening conditions|
|Has no impact on outcomes, merely changes the measure (and the game’s rules)||Changing performance measures||Provides justification for more compulsory moves from public to private sector through arbitrary ‘floor targets’|
|Have no impact on pupil outcomes||Regional school commissioners||Specific remit to increase shift of schools from public to private sector|
|Even Gove would struggle to argue this helps student outcomes||School budget cuts||Direct reduction of education budget|
|Actually lowers outcomes for most students||Grammar Schools||Secondary moderns (majority of schools) historically receive significantly less per pupil funding than the better-resourced minority of grammar schools.|
There has been some fluff along the way (for example when Gove indulged his desire to impose his own personal history ideas on the country, and sent out his own version of the Bible to all schools), but fundamentally we can see that, of all the major policies the Tories have driven through since 2010, none have any significant demonstrable impact on student outcomes. Yet they are still being pushed long after this has become clear.
Indeed, so clear is the absence of supporting evidence, yet so consistent has been the policy direction, that we’ve witnessed some shameless reversals of rhetoric as the original justifications can’t be sustained in the face of reality. Academization, for example, was promoted by emphasising increased autonomy for schools being “freed from LEA control”, yet Ministers now insist new academies join MATs, when even MAT bosses acknowledge that such schools will be far less autonomous than they were under LEAs. Free Schools were promoted as providing diversity and choice in a system which was too monolithic, yet the government’s attempt to impose mass academization was justified by claiming that the system was too diverse and fragmented!
The Government has, behind a huge cloud of meaningless statements which would all fail the application of the Law of the Ridiculous Reverse, used enormous political capital to force through an education policy based on arguments for which there is no persuasive evidence, and which they themselves have contradicted. When you find a Government offering directly contradictory justifications for a consistent policy, it’s essential to look beneath the guff at what the real drivers are. They’re not too far below the surface, and if you’re looking at student outcomes, you’re looking in the wrong place. As always, with the Tories, follow the money.
While the idea that the Tory “reforms” have been targeted on student outcomes is, at best, moot, it is unarguable that all the Conservatives’ major policies seem to focus on the complementary goals of reducing the cost of teachers (80% approximately of most school budgets), while transferring the funding stream from public to private sector. These changes are not side-effects of the goal of seeking better outcomes for children, or even means to an end. They are the end itself. A lower cost model of teaching, delivered in schools transferred from the public sector to private companies and individuals, who receive steady income streams of taxpayers’ money.
So why is this relevant to the increasing political push behind imposing compulsory didactic pedagogy and draconian discipline policies on schools? Surely these are matters of classroom practice, and have no bearing on the finances? Hence Ministerial support must be based on their merits as arguments about efficacy and outcomes? This is the claim now being made by some on the left who also believed that Ministers’ interest in academisation and teacher training was driven by an interest in “standards”. Dear friends, please allow the scales to fall from your eyes.
This article is part of a process known as kite-flying. The government gets a friendly right-wing thinktank – usually Policy Exchange for education, but there are plenty to choose from – to issue a thinkpiece which proposes a policy so odd or extreme that many will dismiss it as fantasy. Nevertheless, it puts the idea in the field, and keeps it there, until it becomes an accepted part of the firmament. This is about creating what has been described as “mantra of irreversibility”. Or, as it’s put in this article “create enough momentum around any change and you’re no longer arguing the merits of your idea. You’re simply treating it as a fact on the ground and rallying others to the cause.” This is what is happening right now with regards to an approach to imposing a pedagogical and disciplinary approach which would have been considered relatively niche just a few short years ago
For the last ten years, such right-wing think tanks have been flying kites which unerringly turn into policy: forced academization, Performance Related Pay, destroying HE-based teacher training, large edubusinesses competing in a “market”, free schools, the destruction of all but the most minimal LEA support – these were all once kites, and they have all come to pass. Ten years ago, the idea that a man would pay himself half a million pounds to run a private business on behalf of a carpet magnate, which had been gifted dozens of schools and hundreds of millions of pounds of public income annually, would have been seen by most teachers as a bad joke. So would Brexit, come to think of it.
The right-wing voices pushing Direct Instruction and No Excuses discipline, are not doing so because they give a stuff about student outcomes, any more than they cared about school autonomy when trying to break LEAs through lying to schools about their increased “freedom” as MAT franchises. It’s not that they want worse student outcomes, it’s just that outcomes aren’t the goal. No, they’re seizing on these themes because they enable a model of education which furthers their real agenda of reducing costs of state schools, and transferring public cash to the private sector.
Being brutally reductionist, it could be argued that teachers have two main roles in schools: the first is to impart both knowledge and the skills to deploy that knowledge in a useful way; and the second is to manage a group of children who, in our culture, tend towards individualism and independence. These are skilled roles. A good teacher needs to be able to juggle a lot of balls simultaneously in each class, to deal with the reality of different children with different abilities, temperaments and inclinations.
However, if you boil everything in education down to “things to know”, which can be delivered, memorized (or not), and repeated back in tests, then some on the right not only can argue that you very quickly remove the need for any particular teaching skill on the part of the teacher, but they are already doing so – hence the kite flown above. After all, why would you need a trained graduate for that role? Any fool, or machine, can deliver knowledge, and any fool or machine can measure whether that knowledge has been repeated back at the appropriate juncture. I know that those leftists supporting the idea of what’s come to be referred to as a knowledge-based curriculum will argue that this is a massive simplification, and that there is real skill in delivering knowledge effectively. But that’s you, my friends. Many Tories do not think like that. It is this simplistic concept of teaching as a series of factoids to be memorized which underpins Tory experiments with putting anyone-with-a-face into classrooms, whether that be untrained teachers, ex-soldiers, their own relatives or whoever.
Then consider behaviour. Such a teaching method as envisaged by those Tories would be deeply tedious. There will be some students who don’t mind that sort of passive approach to learning, but there will also be others who will be bored to distraction by it (God knows, I was when it was delivered to me like that by my worst teachers). They will do what British kids always do when bored, which is to muck about. A good, experienced teacher can manage this anyway, through judicious use of relationship-management skills: stern looks, jokes, humanity and judgement. But if those teachers have been replaced by unskilled delivery operatives, the chances of controlling behaviour through compliance using experience, training and character, are somewhat reduced. Which makes a fearsome no-excuses discipline system demanding obedience, and a “my way or the highway” school ethos, really handy for supporting a deskilled, deprofessionalised delivery system.
A simplistic fact-delivery approach to pedagogy is thus helped tremendously by a draconian policy of unquestioning obedience. One might even argue that the former makes the latter necessary. Both the reductive approach of education-as-factoids and a discipline system imported from Alacatraz, are also great facilitators of increased class-sizes. Which of course allows one to bring the staff costs down too.
“Nonsense!” I hear you cry. “My school practices a knowledge-based curriculum, and we value our teacher professionalism highly“, or “My school has tough discipline, but it enables our skilled professionals to teach better“, or “We do both, and our class sizes haven’t risen“. Sure. But I’m not arguing with what you believe about a knowledge-based curriculum or a draconian discipline system, or how you’d like to deliver that in your own school. I’m telling you what the Tories who are starting to enthusiastically push these ideas see as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Ever wondered why it is that the same politicians who argued that the whole purpose of their academization policy was to give schools autonomy, are now backing the idea of reducing autonomy even down to dictating what is taught and how it is taught in each classroom? Or why they’re seizing on this now, when their previous position on pedagogy was to encourage different models for “choice” purposes?
You don’t need to believe me, of course. I’m a biased source, as we historians would say. I freely admit to being a man of the left who supports well-funded state schools, staffed by well-trained autonomous professionals, as an absolute public good. So instead of listening to me, you could, of course, just hear this argument from the horse’s [right-wing] mouth. Plenty of those on the right who see education through the lens of how to extract rent from a public funding stream, are quite open about their goals and methodology.
This article shows how the top-down dictated curriculum, delivered by cheaper teachers, is already being sold across much of the developing world with a view to making future profits for its American parent company.
This article shows that the big edubusinesses in the UK are already pushing at the door of the big profits which come from reducing both quality and quantity of staffing.
This article is remarkable for many things, but amongst them is the open discussion by right-wing edubusinessmen of reducing the requirement for trained professionals, and their replacement with minimum-wage minders and simplified machines delivering facts and tests to massed ranks of children. It’s even longer than one of my blogs, but stick with it for a vision of a dystopian future which is now really very close.
In it, the founders of the Rocketship Education concept, whose methods many large edubusinesses in the UK wish to emulate, promote a model in which they have replaced expensive qualified teachers with “Individualised Learning Specialists”, or hourly-paid ‘paraprofessionals’ with no teaching qualifications. One of the founders boasted his recruits have: “a high school degree but not a lot more than that…. you’ve got $10 an hour, $15 an hour people working there, who are overjoyed to have the job […] they’re not offended by the idea that they’ve got a script – and they’re a heck of a lot less expensive than a teacher”.
These aren’t conspiracy theories dreamt up in a left-wing la-la-land. This is real, and this is happening. Those teachers thinking “Well, at least the Tories are imposing policies I like”, take note of the target of the Reform kite-flying exercise – it wasn’t the usual targets of ordinary teachers, or even PGCE courses, who were cited. It was Teach First. Teach First, which has been championed by the Tories for years as a way to undermine PGCE courses and provide cheap labour to schools to undercut teacher salaries. Now they feel that goal is mostly accomplished, Teach First itself moves into the crosshairs, because they’re more expensive than non-graduate apprentices. After all, any bugger can read out a list of facts, right?
I’ve smugly boasted about how accurate my predictions have been regarding the return of selection, and the method by which it will be introduced. I didn’t need to be Nostradamus to see that coming. Nor does anyone need the power of prophecy to see why so many right-wing Tories, from Nick Gibb down, are swinging towards an increasingly hard line on dictating what happens in our classrooms and how we manage our students.
Let me put it this way: if you still genuinely believe that what this Government wants is only to improve educational outcomes for all students; and the fact that so many of its policies reduce costs and transfer cash out of the public sector to private destinations is pure coincidence; and why-oh-why do the “progressive” left keep moaning when those righteous Tories are so clearly on the side of the angels? Then I would say to you just this: their current flagship education policy is more Grammar Schools, and huge cuts for everyone else. Good luck selling that ‘right-wingers really care about the kids and the evidence’, schtick.
For those fellow left-wing “traditionalists” who recognise the right-wing Tory machine for what it is, but are tempted to go along with it anyway as long as it imposes your preferred methods on others, please reconsider your support. Our only protection against what is coming is our professional autonomy, both within the classroom and at an institutional school level. If we remove that teacher agency and institutional freedom, then I guarantee you that what is coming is not some nirvana of enlightened social justice promoted by traditional teaching methods. Rather it will be a bargain basement warehousing of most of our kids, with the sort of education all now enjoy being reserved only for the ‘deserving’ few who are allowed into the new grammar schools.
So by all means teach that way yourself. By all means argue the case for its effectiveness. But please think hard before joining this authoritarian chorus which demands the government impose such methodology on everyone. Don’t hitch your wagon to the Tory horse. Because like all the previous Tory education policies, it’s not going where you hope it’s going.