This is part 1 of my free eCourse based on the Politics in Education Summit on the International Overview, Historical Background and Current Conditions by Tim Oates, Laura McInerney and Bill Lucas.
The International Overview by Tim Oates
Tim Oates is known for advising that we drop ‘levels’ of progress for primary students. This has now happened, so children in Years 2 and 6 no longer receive an end of key stage ‘level’ (reference gov.uk). Here’s Tim talking about the purpose of the new curriculum (14 min):
An Extract from Tim Oates’ Politics in Education Presentation
“To ministers, it must appear overwhelming to get a new brief and to know that there’s something wrong and have an inkling that there are problems with the system that you’ve inherited the management of, and you want to act. So who do you talk to? What evidence do you appeal to? …what are the major jurisdictions that are performing well? What do they have in common? And what emerged from that analysis was that they had curriculum coherence.”
Who is Tim Oates?
Extracts from this Schools Week article, June’15: Awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List for his services to education, he has come a long way from his grammar school days at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury: “I wanted to read what I was interested in – not what the teachers were telling me to read. My initial set of exam grades at 16 were appalling. Bad and weird!”
…his father Charles was “a kind of bohemian artist – but he did all the graphic work for some very large companies during the 1950s and early 1960s”. This included all the box-top art for kit model manufacturers Airfix. But his father, who was very disabled after having contracted polio during his youth, died when Oates was six. “My memory of time with him is still very acute,” says Oates. “The house was always full of models. He worked at home and it was a great childhood.” He remembers “roaming the countryside in a completely unrestrained way, up to my knees in mud chasing crayfish”.
Advised by his grammar school to go to Oxford, he instead chose Sussex University – where he could pursue his interest in contemporary philosophy, as well as literature. He married when he was in his mid-30s: “to a very lovely woman who died of cancer within a year of us marrying. I did not think I would ever have a family.” His partner is Jane and they have two children – a boy of nine, called Alex, and a girl called Erin.
His interest in (film) started early – when he was seriously ill with mumps at the age of 14 and off school for months. “My mother knew I was struggling with a serious infection, so she bought me a small portable television,” he recalls. “What she did not know – and certainly wouldn’t have approved of – is that New World Cinema was on at 11pm, so I watched some incredibly interesting films, including all the Ingmar Bergman films and that did change me quite a lot. I thought a lot about government and revolution and what schooling and the state does.
“So by the time I got to my mid-20s I was not a violent revolutionary – I was suspicious of any form of political organisation. I was interested in evidence.” Oates became an educational researcher after he was asked to help out on a project while still a postgraduate student at Sussex, and subsequently introduced to a “bunch of leading theorists in educational research”.
Official Summary of Tim Oates’ Politics in Education Presentation, Will ‘the best’ always naturally percolate to the surface?
Tim’s presentation was drawn from his uniquely international viewpoint and delivered in his characteristic analytical style. First noting the challenge of understanding the complexities of education systems, he pointed to ‘curriculum coherence’ as a key factor common to high performing jurisdictions. By this he means teachers not being conflicted by different aspects of the education system such as accountability, national standards and curriculum materials. He argued that Governments require curriculum control to influence curriculum coherence, though this need not be top-down control, nor should it be exercised solely through curriculum content revisions. Governments, Tim proposed, must have curriculum control because of their inescapable moral duty to ensure all students access all concepts and subjects they are entitled to. Tim warned against ‘policy borrowing’ while noting election cycles encourage this. He suggested that national discourse and involvement in education, already valued by our politicians, needs to be widely encouraged.
Sharp facts from Tim
- When we introduced a national curriculum in 1988, we were one of the first countries to have one – now most do, but they’re wise enough to name them ‘frameworks’ or ‘standards’
- At that same time events were driving “the system towards curriculum coherence to a point where possibly a national curriculum was not actually necessary”
- The concept of ‘entitlement’ has been highly effective in raising attainment (Chitty C 2004; Colwill I & Peacey N 2003) and ‘curriculum entitlement’ has enhanced performance of girls in maths and science (Machin S & McNally S 2006)
Tell us more about ‘curriculum coherence’
“Whenever there’s a national curriculum, everybody wants in, because they think of it as the (only) legislative game in town.” Other education policy factors affecting ‘curriculum coherence’ are, for example…
- Curriculum support materials etc.
- National Qualification Frameworks
- Links with Social Care services
- Assessments & Qualifications
- Institution Development
- Teacher Development
- Teaching Methods
Does size matter?
“One of the problematic things, of course, is just we’re big, and we joked – I’m afraid – not maliciously, but it’s not a great joke; if you want to manage the education system in this country effectively, just reduce the population to about five million, because if you look at the high performing jurisdictions, they tend to be small.” – perhaps this tells us something about the importance of social discourse that allows coherence to be managed across the policy factors?
“We were told autonomy is good. Schools need to be autonomous and they need to be autonomous because of course schools in Finland are autonomous and they do brilliantly, don’t they? Because we got off the plane and we asked them whether they were autonomous. They said yes, and we got back on the plane (laughter). Big mistake.”
“The question should have been, “What were your schools like during the period of intense improvement?” And the key point here is that from moribund performance during the 1960s and 1970s, there was wide social discourse in a small country with an homogenous population about the idea of improvement and about what system they should all elect to adopt and pursue – despite potential social differences that might arise, that they should all adopt and pursue in order to raise attainment, improve equity and improve enjoyment in schooling.
And they adopted – they decided to go for a fully comprehensive education system. This was enforced from the period 1980 to about the late 1990s, through what some of the Fins call the iron fist in the iron glove. Inspectors in every classroom. National testing of every grade. State-approved textbooks. Is this a picture of Finland that you’ve heard about? That you’ve read about? It surely ain’t.
Now I’m not saying that that’s the way forward, but unless we understand the true historical record of how curriculum coherence has been obtained in particular jurisdictions, we’ll be fooling ourselves by going for sloganistic top line generalised statements, like autonomy is good, collaboration will do it all, the good will always percolate to the top.”
Shanghai & Japan?
“…yes, very often the teachers are all on the same chapter of the maths textbook in different classrooms on the same day, but the content of those textbooks have been refined… there are teacher research groups in the schools. The ten best lessons and best learning activities identified by those teachers go into competitions, and from those competitions, they are selected and included in the next round of state-approved textbooks. So yes, it’s top down but only through bottom-up extraction using criteria, and then it’s an instrument for affecting control.”
“When Nick Gibb said this in 2010 it caused an outrage amongst civil servants and educationalists, and I thought it was one of the most finely balanced quotes from a minister of many decades, ‘Apart from the Key Stage 2 test results and GCSE outcomes, I have no interest in the assessment carried out by schools’ (Nick Gibb, 2010).
And there was a sharp intake of breath by the civil servants and the teachers, and they said, “That’s appalling.” But of course, this comes from many teachers who were actually very concerned about the extent to which the state was reaching down too deeply into classrooms. This was a very careful balancing statement between the interests of the state in entitlement and the importance of schools in determining rich, engaging and motivating learning which occurs in the context of the classroom. The balance between the national curriculum and the school curriculum.”
Politics in Education?
“I think we need to take education out of the political cycle, but you can’t take education out of politics, because education is about knowledge and the apportionment of knowledge in society is about power and authority, and that is politics.”
The Historical Background by Laura McInerney
Laura McInerney is known for her work “Slaying Dragons” i.e. getting school news into the National Press via Schools Week.
Opening Statements from Laura McInerney’s Politics in Education Presentation
“I’m going to think about to what extent politicians have the right to interfere, and how has it changed over time. I recently interviewed Nick Gibb… in which I said I wasn’t very happy between 2010-12, being in a classroom while he was in minister, and he outlined why this debate was so important, why the discussion matters, how he feels that everybody should be a stakeholder in what’s happening and that we only get to better solutions by having discussion and debate. And it suddenly felt absolutely fine… But it doesn’t mean I don’t still go back to this feeling of, blimey, who is this guy who thinks it’s aright to just have a whack at people in the national newspaper for the sake of a debate? So is it okay? Should politicians interfere?”
Who is Laura McInerney?
Laura became a teacher through Teach First and taught in London for several years before studying Education policy in the US, then joining Schools Week in 2015. This video was uploaded 2011:
Official Summary of Laura McInerney’s Politics in Education Presentation, How much control does or should Government have?
Laura, with her journalistic flair, treated us to an engaging talk by setting up all kinds of awkward juxtapositions within our education system. There’s a paradox, for example, where political rhetoric around increased school freedoms is developed alongside increasing powers of the Secretary of State that mean laws can now be made, linked to a schools capital funding, effectively ensuring state control over operations at school level. Moving this further, while the Secretary of State holds those powers, advisors share them and Laura described how rapidly advisor groups have rotated over time and whenever a Secretary of State is replaced. While this is in no way ideal, she explores alternatives to central political control; locally elected control or soft power. Local control -LEAs- lead to inconsistency across the country, which has moral implications meaning Government is obliged to step in. Soft power -teachers, universities, charities and other organisations- lack the implicit accountability of an elected central Government. Which group ought to have power?
Politics in Education?
“So we end up in this weird situation as we go throughout the day when we’re talking about politics and education, where we have to think about, if it’s not one of these groups, who else is it? Do we come up with some kind of middle quango where there might be a middle way? What does that mean for accountability? What does that mean for inconsistency? And what does that mean for implementation and any negative issues? And only once we know who it will be and what the consequences are do you actually solve this problem of politics in education.
But ultimately you’re never going to get around the fact that when you take people’s taxes and when you take people’s children, you’re going to have to answer to somebody. Someone has to be in charge. It’s simply going to be a case of who.”
The Current Conditions by Bill Lucas
Along with Guy Claxton, Bill Lucas is the creator of one of the biggest teacher researcher groups in the world: the Expansive Education Network. Bill Lucas is the on the right in this short video:
An Extract from Bill Lucas’ Politics in Education Presentation
“At the general school level, there’s a new idea on the street. It’s the idea of a core academic subject. I think this is one of the most linguistically and politically and semantically toxic concepts I’ve come across, personally. The idea that there is a core academic subject is silly. It really is, especially if you don’t have any of the arts currently mentioned there. If I were Ruby (the granddaughter of Rita from ‘Educating Rita’) in the education system, I would recommend that intelligence is that ‘Intelligence is whether or not you can achieve A*-C at GCSE in certain subjects’ …I don’t think that’s good enough, do you?”
Who is Bill Lucas?
“My dad was an inspector when it was the DES and science was a word in there. He was the first in our family to stay on at school after 14 and then 15, then 16 and 19, so it became pretty important as a route out of poverty for the Lucas family. It’s Department for Education now. The fault line is around relationship with work and skill, and relationship with home and community. I think we have to have both of those in the heavenly trio that has to be a country’s education department.”
Opening Statements from Bill Lucas’ Politics in Education Presentation
“Our expansive education network is the answer to Tim’s question about autonomy as it’s about disciplined inquiry led by individual teachers and collaborations of teachers and whole academy networks and across phase and across sectors… I think governments really need to focus on two questions. One is, which I’m further focusing, academic or practical/vocational; what really counts. And the other is the bigger purposes of education.”
Official Summary of Bill Lucas’ Politics in Education Presentation, A critical look at politics in education
Bill brought wide-ranging questions to the table: What do we value? What is the point of school, and of education? What would ‘the best’ in education look like? Can we distinguish between education, a vision of what young people need and school, a system to fulfil that need? He argued in favour of an independent education body to lift schools out of their current vulnerable position under the influence short-term party politics. In essence, he calls for a wide conversation with the aim of reaching a nationally agreed, stable set of broad outcomes that we’d like, as a society, to progress towards. The main tragedy with politics in education, he suggests, is how quickly we can fall into blame and gap analysis, rather than proactive support and appreciative enquiry.
Concluding Statement from Bill Lucas’ Politics in Education Presentation
“Knowledge or skills. STEM or humanities and the arts. Didactic or constructivist. Formal or informal. All technology or no technology. Character developed at school or at home. We’ve got to get rid, I believe, of the ‘or’. It has to be an ‘and’. And one of the means of doing this, I think, is unambiguously to take education, with a capital E, out of the realm of party politics and certainly out of the realm of a certain kind of party politics, of which we’ve seen a fair amount in the past.”
Thank you so much for caring enough about education to read these summit contributions. What has most surprised you from this content? What frustrates you about the messages shared? And, how do you now feel about the place of Politics in Education?
In part 2 of this free eCourse, we introduce voices representing the teaching profession, the marginalised, businesses and academia.
If you would like to go into this, the full original transcripts and power-point slides are available. To request more information on this just ask from this contact page.