[BroxtoweInfo] New blog/what is the education argument really about?
First, happy Easter! It seems unseasonal to be writing to you today, but it’s a busy life and it’s easier to do it when there’s a bit of spare time to think.
1. New blog format with comments option
I’ve been running this newsletter for over 10 years, and over 10% of all households in Broxtowe subscribe to it, but it has the limitations of old-fashioned emails, notably that I cannot attach pictures or format (and sometimes get peculiar characters from Yahoo Groups) and you can’t comment to the entire list. I don’t want to open the email list to anyone who wants it, since you’ll then start getting bombarded with spam (not to mention tendentious stuff from extreme parties etc.). But I’m going to experiment with a new format.
I have a blog here:
which you can subscribe to. The effect of subscription will be that you’re notified when I’ve said something new, and you can have a look at it if you feel like it. You can unsubscribe in the same way. You can also respond with comments, or comment on other people’s comments, so it becomes less of a monologue and I hope something of a political community site. We’ve set it up so that the first time you comment it will be moderated (this is to catch spam merchants and absolute nutters), but once you’ve had a comment approved you will be able to send comments not pre-moderated. Naturally this means that I can’t take responsibility for comments. As a general policy, we will:
Accept any poster who expresses a legal political viewpoint (this by definition excludes racial abuse and suchlike)
Reject posts that use repeated and/or extremely bad language (not that we’ve not all heard swearwords, but it spoils a debate if you have to wade through loads of them
Reject commercial posts
Remove posts that seem very offensive to anyone except me (I’m probably not bothered if you want to be nasty to me)
Ban posters who routinely send posts that need to be removed
I’ll try to respond to queries but might sometimes miss one if there are loads of comments let me know if you write something that deserved an answer but hasn’t had one.
It’s an experiment and we’ll see how it works in practice, but I hope it will be useful. Initially, it will just have my emails that you’re getting anyway (probably a day or two later), but over time they will diverge. People who want to advertise events will be encouraged just to post them on the site (so I won’t need to do that in these emails) and I’ll feel free to blog more often and more casually – at present I’m anxious not to overload your inbox with long messages, but if you’re free to go and look or not as you think best, that no longer applies.
By the way, I’ve been asked to do a monthly column for the Nottingham Post. The first should appear on April 3. These aren’t supposed to be very party political in the initial one I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of MPs helping constituents with personal problems.
2. What is the education controversy all about?
A regular feature of Easter is a quarrel between the teaching unions and whoever is currently in government. Governments try to address the perception that British schools are not up to world standards; teachers feel that politicians constantly meddle and want to be left to get on with the job. The public tends to switch off!
Yet, the changes in education do affect our society in important ways especially if you have any children in the family. So I thought it might be helpful to identify the main arguments going on, so you can decide for yourself what you think. I’ll try to be brief, fair, and leave out my own opinions until the end so you can decide for yourself feedback welcome.
The cornerstone of the Government’s policy is allowing groups not connected with any level of government to set up free schools.
But what does “free” mean exactly? The body setting up a school needs Department of Education approval, which will not be given to people who the Department thinks are extreme fundamentalists of any religion or other obviously controversial groups. They are not allowed to be selective (so not grammar schools), though the founders’ children can be given priority as a small perk. The “freedom” does however mean:
Do not necessarily have to follow the national curriculum, so long as they have some sort of “broad and balanced” curriculum
Do not necessarily need to employ qualified teachers
Do not need planning permission for school use
Can be run for profit
An argument in favour is that this could encourage experimentation and innovation and harness the enthusiasm of reformers and parents. An argument against is that children only have one childhood, and it’s dangerous to conduct experiments with them; also, it can disrupt existing schools if some kids are diverted away from them.
Here are two examples, the first of which shows the sort of initiative that the Government has highlighted and the second being the sort of case that has caused controversy:
The Government believes that pay should be set locally, so that even if someone in Nottingham is teaching the same subject in the same sort of school with the same qualifications, their pay will vary according to whether they are in (say) Nottinghamshire or Somerset. This goes beyond the existing system of giving teachers in London a weighting allowance (everyone accepts that London living costs are exceptionally high) and is more intended to encourage local variation and create a more free market in teaching.
The argument for this is that it’s part of greater “localism” and allows salaries to be set according to local supply and demand. The argument against is that it’s inherently unfair to pay differently for doing the same thing, and it will tend to push down relative salaries in poorer areas, making the best teachers move away.
THE NATONAL CURRICULUM AND EXAM CHANGES
It’s difficult to summarise the Curriculum debate but there’s a fair introduction to it here:
The decision not to abolish GCSEs as originally intended by Mr Gove has limited the impact of the changes. Issues remaining include a reduction in course work assessment (focusing instead on the final exams) and controversy over specific elements for instance, the curriculum no longer foresees time for reading for pleasure and the Year One Phonic Check includes the use of nonsense words such as `snemp’ and `thazz’ which some educationalists believe help develop understanding of language. It’s also proposed to focus more on fact-based history (when did Spain try to invade with the Armada and what were the names of the rulers at the time?) and less on discussion of the background (how did the religious schism arise that led to the war with Spain?).
I don’t think it’s helpful that education is such a political football. We all pretty much agree on the objectives to teach children basic skills, give them a broad understanding of life, improve their knowledge and analytical powers and prepare them for adult life. Everyone has an opinion on how this is best managed and it’s jolly tempting for politicians to try to exploit that and push through changes that teachers find hard to implement sensibly.
As you might expect, I don’t agree at all with the introduction of profit-making schools and schools detached from the National Curriculum if we don’t have common objectives then actually we are giving up on the whole idea of a national curriculum. That doesn’t mean that every school must use exactly the same methods, or that we shouldn’t encourage some piloting of new approaches. Otherwise we’d all be stuck with the same approach forever. Where that can harness local enthusiasm, so much the better.
So I’d like to see the Department set a requirement for local education authorities to consider new non-profit initiatives that don’t breach the overall objectives and not to block them altogether. Instead, they could set up pilot trials within or in partnership with existing schools, encouraging gradual evolution when ideas prove successful. But I think we do need to bring back a coordinated system or we’ll just end up with a mess, and there will be two losers:
(1) children and
(2) society as a whole.