What is education for? Time to briefly consider the "woods" and not the "trees".

Helen Flynn's picture
I am reading a wonderful book, "Radical Education and the Common School" by Michael Fielding and Peter Moss, which acts as a healthy reminder that our focus--and particularly the focus of our politicians--should be on the "woods" and not the "trees". System-wide reform is the only way we can get genuinely sustainable education policy that serves our young people.

Our tendency is to home in on the almost daily policy announcements and disturbing news stories about individual cases of free schools and academy conversions. Though individuals are right to express concern over what is happening in their local areas--and the LSN website is a marvellous insight into the chaos that lives in our education system at the moment---it does also make me think that the Government has got us just where they want us.

Squabbling on the ground over individual school cases contributes to and swells the hysteria first generated under Thatcher, where we were taught that if you look after yourself and your own child and generally maximise opportunities, everything will be OK across the system. Thus competition and choice became the double mantra that still dominates our civic life.

This is, of course, a recipe guaranteed to create a sink school in every neighbourhood. How successive governments have continued to throw away human potential so cavalierly and get away with it is nothing short of scandalous, and it is up to us, ultimately, to hold them to account for having such narrow aims for education.

This Government is spending money like water on converting schools to academies or allowing free schools to emerge, when what is needed is whole system reform, such as has taken place in Alberta, Canada, and is being trialled in five states in the USA .

We cannot be nostalgic about the old LEA-run system, as some schools failed then, and gave policy-makers such as Thatcher, Baker and Blair the ammunition to start to break the system apart and create a market in types of school.

What we need to emerge from Government is a convincing and on-going narrative that addresses system-wide reform that should be underpinned by the question "what is education for?", rather than structural reorganisations and political posturing.

Going back to the book I am reading, here is a wonderful quote from radical educationalist, Alex Bloom: "Perhaps what is needed.....is a larger faith in the natural fineness of the child and in his inner potential".

Michael Gove would do well to use this indisputable "natural fineness" to inform education policy, throwing away any initiatives that do not serve individual children, wherever they live and whatever their family's means.
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Thetis's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 12:28

So glad to read about this book, Helen. It's described on amazon as: 'radical democratic education and the common school' - do you know about the Phoenix Trust?http://www.phoenixeducation.co.uk/democratic-education-schools/demo-edu-schools.htm

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 13:58

I've become increasingly "conservative" in this regard; we need incremental reform rather than sweeping everything away again. I think it's useful for teachers to ask this question every day: "what is education for?" because it helps sharpen your lessons. I feel that Dylan Williams' work shows that you bring a "child-centred" approach into the classroom which achieves results.

Helen Flynn's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 14:20

I do agree with you, Francis, that it is possible to have a child centred approach in the state school system (and indeed I have seen many good examples of this, particularly at primary level).

But if that state school system is so designed that it will always produce winners and losers, and 'consumers' can manipulate their options to maximise 'outcomes' for their children, a child centred approach, applied in an ad hoc way, will not produce equity at the whole society level. It is only by going back to the drawing board and underpinning all education reform with a fundamental question such as "what is education for?", and using that to guide processes, that we can create a system that is fair for all.
I agree with you that there is too much change.

The problem is that the change starts from the wrong point and is more politically driven and for the short term, than equity-driven and sustainable.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 14:28

I think we both agree that education needs to look beyond the narrow confines of academic achievement. For me, schools should be places where the whole of a community comes together; admissions have a big part to play in ending social segregation. Reform of our assessment system is needed as well so that children don't feel their achievements are reduced to what amounts to a somewhat absurd letter or number. I think a lot of state schools do a very good job at educating the whole child, even this current fevered environment. My son's primary in Tower Hamlets is a case in point; pupils call teachers by first names, there are loads of trips, lots of child-centred activities, a sense of joyfulness about being alive pervades the place.

Helen Flynn's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 18:48

Yes, I have often thought that secondary schools can learn a lot from primaries. What is the great change that takes place, after all, when a child hits age 11? It is remarkably arbitrary, and it seems it is often from this point on-- when a child has changed from primary to secondary--that things can begin to go wrong. People think that is because children are growing older and are becoming more 'difficult'. Maybe it's because they don't feel as individually valued in the school setting anymore? Simplistic, I know, and in no way the answer. But we do owe our young people respect at all ages, and I am not sure our current education system is set up to offer that respect in its processes--assessment, as you rightly point out, being a key process.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/03/2011 - 11:19

I don't agree with Francis about teachers on first-name terms. I was Miss, sometimes Mum in a slip of the tongue. But I do agree about the importance of education being child-centred at whatever age. Who else should be at the centre of education but the child? The child is the ultimate beneficiary, not the parents, or the state. How else can it be otherwise?

Thetis's picture
Fri, 11/03/2011 - 13:37

Helen - I think you have a point about the division between primary and secondary. I was surprised to learn from my daughter how much the children at her state primary are involved in decision-making and am going to ask more questions about this at the next parent evening. It would be great if her positive experience continues into secondary school, although I'm sure the primary school has given her the confidence to navigate this transition with ease. As with Francis' son's school her school is a joyful place, where every child is valued.

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