Thursday, May 10, 2007

Education and the revolution

All democracies in the developed world are facing a common set of policy challenges, including health care and education. While health policy appears to change very slowly (if at all) and debate is rarely about fundamental policy choices, education policy seems to be constantly changing as new ideas are in vogue and as soon as the next great innovation supplants yesterday's shining new ideas. It is in this policy milieu, that Emily Hill ponders the possibilities for educational reform in Britain in the wake of Tony Blair's departure. As she explains, under Blair British schools changed from being knowledge centres into social-engineering labs:
  • ...schools have become one of the principal instruments for manipulating a new generation into new thought patterns...This imposition of new rules and methods distances children from their own education.
  • In the school I visited, the early years teacher seemed to have lost confidence in her own ability to teach, following a negative Ofsted inspection. Her paperwork had been found wanting...Teachers, like every other public sector worker under New Labour, now drown in paperwork. There is an incessant flood of forms that need filling.
  • It is now all about the paperwork. Like a Soviet Five-Year Plan, if it's down on paper, it happened – if it's not, it didn't. So this school was hauled up for a 'culture of bullying' – not because it had a bullying problem (it didn't), but because it did not have a government-advised system of 'playground angels' and 'buddy benches' to deal with any potential bullying that might arise or have already arisen without the teachers noticing.
  • The targets obsession also masks a central problem with Blair's education revolution. New Labour is unable to articulate what a good education should consist of, and thus it simply draws up lists of things that children ought to be able to do or say or write by a certain age.
  • Children have been set on the conveyor belt of education. They have become, as the former employee of a government quango said last week, 'widgets on an assembly line'. Yet they're on an assembly line to nowhere; they will be equipped with a clutch of awards and grades and they will be able to articulate their feelings in a government-endorsed manner, but will the new generation really understand things and be able to think critically and independently?
There are many excellent new educational ideas extant, including teaching initiatives based around instructional intelligence, the increased use of emotional intelligence to inform teaching practices and the development of new software for classroom use. The problem does not lie with these innovations but, rather, with their imposition within a state-mandated, state-enforced and ideologically driven agenda for the purpose of education -- as the primary form of stasis social engineering and not as a means for individuals to learn self-responsibility, awareness, citizenship and life skills.

Sadly, what Hill describes as the wreckage wrought by Blair's Orwellian approach to society is a pattern other jurisdictions and sectors of education have emulated. At all levels of education, forms, grades and paperwork are in danger of supplanting real learning.

Teachers are either good or bad: no inbetweeens.

Good teachers are, first and foremost, enthusiastic and passionate -- they are genuinely interested in those they are teaching and they work to improve their craft on an ongoing basis. These are the teachers who will adopt best professional practices and have little or nothing to gain from persistent, intrusive and bureaucratic oversight.

Bad teachers are those will little to no enthusiasm for those they are teaching, little or no innate teaching craft, little passion to invest time and energy in developing their craft and minimal engagement in learning objectives. For these "teachers", bureaucracy is a wonderful shield behind which they can obscure their failings, lack of desire for learning and/or their pompous, self-righteousness.

Little wonder then that the Blair years have been so detrimental to the British school system despite their avowed goal of the opposite effect.

  • and then, of course, there's always the situation where bad teaching and bad administration become synonymous: no education is better than bad education