Since we haven’t really got an Opposition at the moment, I thought I’d make a few observations about a speech made today by a Conservative education minister. Sometimes, if you want something done well, you have to do it yourself.
Lord Nash is a Conservative peer and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools. He is also the founder of a charity called Future, which runs academy schools. He and his wife have donated £300,000 to the Conservative Party. A lot of people wonder why all this doesn’t add up to a political conflict of interest but the government say it doesn’t and I have no specific legal basis on which to argue with them. He is co-chair of governors at Pimlico Academy, a primary school in central London that made headlines a few years ago when they appointed an unqualified teacher as their head (she resigned after four weeks in the job.)
Today Lord Nash was speaking at the Challenge Partners National Conference in London about a number of issues including the chronic shortage of teachers in the education system. For a profession still angered by some of the perceived “anti-teacher rhetoric” of Michael Gove, many of his comments will seem somewhat provocative. At one point he insisted that in education there is “the tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt too often.” This comment will receive a hollow laugh from most teachers I know, held rigidly accountable through flawed assessments over whose outcomes they have only partial control and an inspection regime against which they have no right of appeal. What jumped out at me even more, however, was a comment he made slightly later: “I think too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism.” Standardisation, he said, was important.
I haven’t heard many people say that standardisation doesn’t matter at all in schools. Clearly what pupils learn one year must build on what they’ve learnt in previous years. Clearly schools need consistent policies on certain aspects of pupil behaviour expectations that the whole staff strive to follow. Ideally, we should have standardised measures that allow us to compare and monitor school performance in a fair and even-handed way. I’d be surprised if Lord Nash really believes there are many teachers who dispute these basic requirements of the education system, even less that they “mistake” these things with attacks on their “professionalism” when they’re done well.
Another strange aspect of the context in which these remarks were made is that, at least on the face of things, Nash seems have been broadly supportive of a monumental erosion in standardisation across schools in ways that I think would concern the public more than anything merely pedagogical. As the academies and free schools agenda that he helped pioneer has reshaped the landscape of England’s schools, systems for financial accountability have diversified greatly, and the result has been a number of high-profile scandals involving the misuse of funds, disproportionately prevalent in these new types of school. Systems of governance have also become far less standardised, with local and parental voices often significantly weakened as chains like Nash’s seize control of local educational assets from democratically constituted governing bodies. Admissions, too, have become much less standardised during his government’s time in office- and will become even more so if new grammar schools are approved.
Even when it comes to the curriculum, we’re often told that the advantage of academisation is the “freedom” it gives academies over what is learnt in schools (we’re never told why local authority schools couldn’t simply be given this freedom too.) I’m all for giving schools more freedom over the curriculum (beyond some basic expectations, especially regarding maths and English) but clearly this isn’t an example of standardisation. The plot thickens- where is this standardisation that teachers are apparently “mistaking” for an attack on their professionalism?
If Nash isn’t talking about standardisation in terms of how schools are governed and he’s not talking about what is being taught in them, I can only assume the one thing he wants to standardise above all others is how content is being taught. This is where, surely we can agree, there is room for said standardisation to conflict with a teacher’s professionalism. Teachers in Finland are required to follow a school curriculum, which draws on a national framework- in both cases these are significantly shorter than the equivalent documents than in the UK. But, whoever you speak to in Finland, at school or government level, they seem to agree that the famous success of their system is mostly down to the way teachers have been empowered and freed up precisely in the matter of how content is taught. Exceptionally good teacher training and teacher autonomy is the order of the day- not detailed, prescriptive, minute-by minute teaching strategies imposed from above. Most teachers I know feel they have been most successful when they have been able to adopt their own individual style- to bring some of who they are outside the classroom into it. Learning and teaching is primarily about a relationship, and ignoring the indivduals in that relationship is an odd thing to do.
All of this leads one to an uncomfortable suspicion about what Lord Nash really meant when he made his speech. Standardisation over how the curriculum is taught in institutions such as his is controlled by bodies over which powerful individuals such as Lord Nash himself have significant control. It seems, therefore, that what he is actually doing is seeking to take control over matters that should be decided by teachers and democratically-appointed school governors, and hand those decisions to unelected figures such as himself. This is worrying, and it runs contrary to what we think we know about how schools improve. If I have misunderstood Lord Nash’s intentions, then I would be more than happy to hear him clarify his remarks.