Independence in Schooling, Except from Gove!

Est. read time: 11 min
Prime Minister David Cameron and Education Secretary Michael Gove open the new Perry Beeches III Free School. <br/>Credits: Number 10/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Prime Minister David Cameron and Education Secretary Michael Gove open the new Perry Beeches III Free School.
Credits: Number 10/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There is a stirring in the soul of Michael Gove that does not augur well for the nation’s children and the schools to which parents are legally bound to send them. The Secretary of State appears to want to bombard the schooling system with at least one new policy initiative per week. It would not surprise me, therefore, if his next target is ante-natal clinics and the monitoring data they could produce on children yet unborn.

Michael Gove is clearly fixated on the role of schooling and education in determining Britain’s economic competitiveness in the global market. The view of schooling he projects, therefore, is of children who should be regarded as economic units from birth, whom schools should process into products that can guarantee the nation’s economic competitiveness. The ‘independent sector’, as reconfigured by Gove to include academies, free schools and state maintained schools that would mirror the traditional independents, is clearly considered to be better at honing those economic units than local authorities and the voluntary aided sector could.

But the one issue Mr Gove seems determined not to pronounce upon, other than the market oriented utilitarianism of schooling, is ‘what is education for’?

My starting point as an educationalist and a teacher is that the Alpha and Omega, the primary and ultimate purpose of schooling and education is to humanise society. The education and schooling gospel according to St Michael is forever preoccupied with what children are learning and should learn, how and what teachers are teaching them or should be, how excellent their schooling outcomes are and how competitive our schooling and education system is by global standards. Its focus is hardly ever on ‘how children are’ in this society and should be.

Consequently, learning is about doing and achieving and not about ‘being in the social world’. Every child has developmental needs as a person and as a learner. Giving that child their educational entitlement and making sure they are treated as if they matter just as much as the other person who might be automatically validated and not marginalised by the system and the society is, for me, the task of schooling and education.

‘Diversity and Inclusion’ in education means therefore that the individual capacity for self expression and self development of every child must be nourished and developed. It means that the schooling and education system, society itself no less, must be seen to do two things.

First, to abandon notions of ‘normal‘ and ‘abnormal’, see each child as having needs that are as unique as their DNA and educate society to understand and accept the uniqueness of each individual. Whether in mental health or physical ability, we all sit along a spectrum, we are all on a journey, each contributing to what makes us all human and capable of realising the best in ourselves, while yet remaining capable of the complete opposite. Second, we need to stop seeing children as economic units in which we invest through schooling and education (inputs) so that they could emerge at the other end as economic actors (outputs) with the capacity to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness and secure its place in the global market.

The commoditisation of schooling and education based upon that model will see it as futile and wasteful for society to invest in and give their entitlement to those whom the society deems incapable of performing in a manner that would enhance the nation’s economic competitiveness. This means that those who are considered to be surplus to requirements, or incapable of becoming high performers would be a lower priority in terms of education spending, pupil premium or not, than those who are expected to end up at the top of the totem pole.

"Michael Gove at Chantry High School" by Regional Cabinet (Flickr - CC BY 2.0)

“Michael Gove at Chantry High School” by Regional Cabinet (Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

People with disabilities, underachievers, school resisters and those who challenge and set their minds against a curriculum or school regime they consider irrelevant are all likely, therefore, to disappear from the radar, or be pushed to one side as being of less societal value and more of an economic liability than the rest.  In this sense, Ofsted mirrors the agenda of the likes of Michael Gove and those who, at least by implication, encourage schools to rid themselves of that latter category of student, never mind their education entitlement.

Current education reforms are logical and consistent, given the type of society the government is seeking to build. It is one of rampant individualism, greed, xenophobia and a shameless attack on the poor and marginalised that are grouped as a grabbalicious (wonderful term that is much in use in the Jamaican vocabulary), scrounging, amoral, feckless and socially irresponsible section of society.

It epitomises the model of schooling and education I described above.

Those of us who see ourselves as facilitators of children’s learning and holistic development (physical, emotional, cultural, social, spiritual) see childhood as a period of intense socialisation. Early years is a time when children learn how to be; how to share; learn the value of play; the joy of self expression and being able to communicate with others and get a meaningful response; the joy of discovery; how to develop insight and to know that actions have consequences and that some of their actions can cause them and others great harm; how to understand the impact that what they do has on others and that others could hurt them, or love and cherish them.

This is all part of becoming a socially adjusted human being and reining in the instincts we have as human animals and the behaviours that potentially flow from them. In short, learning how to be and learning the values that make us fit for living in civil society; learning how to live those values in all aspects of our daily being in the world.  All of that should ideally be punctuated by the learning that is derived from books and formal teaching, etc.

Sadly, the current government wants all of that informal learning, learning through play, learning by doing and learning in sharing environments to be measured, with God knows what baseline and what benchmarks. What is worse is that it is assumed that whatever you measure and test at the age of two or four, or even in the amniotic fluid, would be a reliable predictor of what a child will become, or the level at which they will be performing at 11.

This crude input and output/outcome model further assumes that the school will be the only major influence, or the most powerful influence in the child’s development between the ages of 4 and 11. Nothing is said about how you would measure and test the other influences outside school (often much more powerful, whether positive or negative) on the child’s early development.

And what if, by virtue of where a school is and its determination to give its sporadic intake of sizeable groups of children who join as a consequence of migration, refuge and asylum seeking, etc., its outcomes at 11 fail to correspond to what was expected/predicted for it at 4?

All of this arises from a philosophy which says that children’s worth and the quality and extent of their learning at any age are to be judged only in terms of their preparation for academic excellence to drive economic competitiveness, irrespective of how hedonistic, selfish, individualistic, intolerant and uncaring the society becomes in the process.

The commoditisation of schooling and education that the current reforms represent is inherently divisive, particularly on the axis of race and class. Academies and free schools do not ensure that there is a good school for every child in every community. Well heeled middle class parents are able to establish ‘free’ schools and guarantee places for their own children, irrespective of a local authority’s ability to meet its statutory responsibility to ensure that there is a school place for every child. State funding enables such parents to provide ‘free’ schooling and tuition and preparation for ‘the common entrance’ for their own children and others like theirs without having to fork out the usual £50 to £60 per hour for private tuition. Meanwhile, like the academies, they are answerable only to themselves.

There is a symbiotic relationship between them and their governing bodies or advisory councils and, like the police, they investigate themselves. Independent Appeal Panels, once the only forum of redress for parents, can no longer compel them to reintegrate excluded students.

In order to guarantee such schools plain sailing without the irritation and diversion caused by having to meet the needs of disrupters and non-conformists, a set of intermediate providers have been factored into the system, namely Pupil Referral Units and others making ‘provision otherwise than at school’. For too many students, those simply serve as a staging post between the mainstream schools that rendered them surplus to requirements and the young offender institutions and adult prisons that are ever creating more spaces for them. A number of studies, including those conducted by the Children’s Commissioner, have noted the number of students with special educational needs, with disabilities and in the care of local authorities that are excluded and placed in those units.

There are some 135,000 young people of school age who are not in mainstream provision and for whom the government is commissioning all sorts of providers to cater. This is the equivalent of 135 secondary schools with a roll of 1,000. Schooling outcomes for that section of the schooling population will never match those of the improving comprehensives, let alone be ‘as good as independent schools’. This two track system is compounding social exclusion and sowing the seeds of social unrest. Yet, an increasing number of  parents appear to find this ‘dog eat dog’, everyone for themselves, individualistic approach to schooling provision rather beguiling.

What else does the totally unfettered Michael Gove have to do before the nation’s headteachers and teaching staff, let alone parents, tell him they will not sit by and let him recklessly take the nation’s schools in that direction by remote control from Whitehall?

For almost 50 years of campaigning for children’s rights and educational entitlement, I have been driven by hope and belief in collective action to bring about change, rather than being overcome by despair. I have to say, though, that in the last couple decades or so, I have been struggling.

I was director of education in Hackney in the 1990s when there was a massive movement across the land against the spread of grant maintained schools and the whittling away of LEA’s powers and responsibilities. Since then, academies have created not just a massive democratic deficit as far as public accountability for the provision of education is concerned, but an illogical imbalance in what constitutes state education. State schools must follow the National Curriculum, with all the dictats from the Secretary of State. Academies and free schools don’t have to.

The sad thing is this. Such is the woeful state of political education in schools and of collective resistance in communities, that students themselves have bought into the tiering and grading business and have not organised their collective voice. They forge ahead in their various silos, disengaged from one another’s struggles and are increasingly adopting the same rhetoric as the likes of Michael Gove.

It seems to me that although students are no more a homogeneous group than parents are, the only thing that will stop any of these hopeless political parties in their tracks as they seek to mess with the nation’s youth and lay the foundations for a turbulent future is the self organisation of school students up and down the country, with progressive parents and teachers acting in solidarity with them.

This is evidently a more urgent imperative than registering young people to vote, or lowering the voting age, for it is not just a matter of how the nation elects Gove or Tristram Hunt, David Laws, or whoever, and who elects them, but who holds them to account for what they do with that mandate before the next opportunity presents itself to mark a ballot paper, hoping that by electing the same or a different lot you won’t be equally done for.

Despite the impact that successive waves of education reform have had on the life chances of school students, at least since the Education Reform Act of 1988, there is still not a national association of school students, let alone one with an agenda to reclaim schooling and ensure that it serves the interests of all the nation and give every child their educational entitlement.

It must surely be crystal clear by now that setting one’s hopes on a Labour Government to dismantle that schooling mosaic Michael Gove is creating is futile. Continuity, if not building upon the divisions the current government is creating, is already signalled as the direction of travel. As the Black Parents Movement famously said as long ago as 1975, it is when students and parents organise independently their own movement for change in education and schooling, in alliance with progressive teachers and teaching unions that we are likely to see schooling and education serve the needs of all children and particularly of the marginalised and written off.

Picture (home): “Friday at the Festival of Education” by Wellington College (Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

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