The New Politics and Education
Public Servant Magazine, 01 July 2010
And so it came to be, that in May 2010 the world changed. The voters had spoken and as a result the dawn of a new political age had begun. A world that we are told will spell the creation of a progressive new approach to the management of our county; greater openness, trust, communication and cooperation; a Government that reflects the challenges and times in which we now live.
It strikes me that the greatest challenge facing David and Nick and their bluey, orange dawn is to create a Government that is proactive rather than reactive; able to anticipate and prepare for the future, a future that is developing at an exponential and often unpredictable rate. To do that, they will have to lead people in such a way that they empower and entrust, rather than control and mistrust.
In many ways, their challenge reflects that facing the future of education and the ways that they will need to shift their thinking if we are to be able to create the new paradigm our children and society deserve and desperately need.
It is true to say that over the last thirteen years, we have seen unprecedented levels of funding in the state education system in the UK and let’s hope that as much of that as possible can be protected during the financial famine we now find ourselves part of. We have also, however, seen huge levels of wastage; often borne out of mistrust and a central government obsessed with micro levels of accountability and control. This has lead to an over complex and confused system that has seen millions of pounds, that could have been spent on schools and children, being spent on systems of control and accountability.
In principle, education is a simple concept; we have a moral imperative; to prepare our students for the challenges of their future. The good news is, we are incredibly well placed to meet that challenge; we have the best trained, highest quality teaching staff in the world. Sadly years of political interference and constant policy changes have left many in the profession exhausted, lacking confidence and frustrated.
There is no denying that we are all facing challenging times in the public sector and I would suggest that much of what I have to say to the new Government about education will be similar to the issues that need addressing across many areas of public service and thankfully marry to the themes expressed by the newly wedded coalition.
Firstly our schools need to be given space and time to evolve; we are still working in a system that was constructed in Victorian times, at the heart of the industrial revolution; much of how we function is out of date and in need of transformation, but transformation takes time and must be allowed to evolve. Many schools are currently revisioning and redeveloping their curriculum offers in order to create more holistic learning opportunities that will broaden experiences and allow for children to develop their unique skills and abilities. Schools and colleges are focused more than ever before, on developing the ‘whole’ student; emotionally, physically, intellectually and socially but they are still being pushed through narrow funnels of accountability which make real progress difficult. The new Government needs to realise that quality can only be delivered if we focus on the of process of education and not be fixated by data driven outcomes; you see, children are not products, they are not all the same and they don’t develop in the same way, at the same rate and because of this we need the new Government to realise that schools are not production lines to be measured against quantity rather than quality. It is also therefore true that on size does not fit all, for example; it is simply not the case that one type of phonics teaching or one set of historical dates, universally implemented, will produced better educational outcomes.
Secondly, that if we are to ensure sustained economic growth and stability in our country, we must appreciate, that as Sir Richard Branson has reflected, we need to develop a greater spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship. To do that we must ensure that our education system is designed to reflect that, which means an end to such an intense academic bias; we must continue to develop more three dimensional routes and experiences for our students. We must realise that creative thinking, communication, flexibility, team work and emotional intelligence are as important as ‘amo, amas, amat.’
Finally and perhaps most importantly in this brave new world; educators must be allowed to manage and develop education without undue political interference; Politicians don’t tell surgeons how to perform complex operations but they are happy to tell teachers how to teach; this must stop. The Government must also realise that education policy that is designed to keep certain factions of the media happy rather than to meet the real needs of children is substantially hampering progress. I remember not that long ago, when the media was calling for truants to be hung drawn and quartered and their headless corpses to be dragged through the streets with those of their irresponsible parents, it was the Lib Dem MP, Sarah Teather who sagely reflected, that perhaps the right question to ask was, how do we create a system they don’t want to miss out on? She was right. We must focus on our constituents, our customers, our children and meet their needs first, even if at times that doesn’t appear to be populist.
In its first few weeks the signs have been quite encouraging; the academies programme, should in principle, allow schools greater freedom and control; we must ensure though, that the people running these new schools are educators first and businesses a very low second, we must also ensure that the academies focus on children and their needs, not on the needs and whims of the people who fund or control them. Most importantly of all, the Government needs to be mindful of the fact that who runs schools and who funds them is not education, they must also remember that shiny new building do not create lifelong learning; the only way to equip our children for the considerable challenges facing them in their futures is to develop outward facing, expansive approaches to curriculum that are a preparation for the future not a throwback to the past. The greatest challenge facing this Government and education is yet to come; do they have the courage to allow educators to get on with their jobs and to really develop greater levels of trust in the profession.
© Richard Gerver