Education Reform - Out with the old and in with the new.

John Mountford's picture
The fact that another package of reforms is being foisted on the education system, in the absence of a genuinely open debate, may explain the siege mentality experienced by many teachers. Unlike the mood among professionals at other 'crunch times', on this occasion, it's different. To an outsider, there is an overriding impression that teachers are being wilfully undervalued by ministers. In what should be an open debate over change in education, it is clear to the casual observer, the professional voice is being systematically ignored. This is not a healthy situation to encounter when, if it is to succeed, the major reform under consideration will require the cooperation of the very professionals being marginalised. The increasingly hostile environment is demotivating many teachers, adding to uncertainty about the future, and that future belongs to the young.

We may only speculate about their fate in the face of uncertainty over what that future holds. It's not unreasonable to assume that the capacity to respond to rapidly changing circumstances is likely to become an abiding feature of their lives. Opportunities for them to flourish in such uncertainty and live hopeful futures, will depend on those occupying key positions of power today being able to take the long-term view of what needs to change. As things work at present, this is unlikely to happen. The system needs transforming.

The ongoing climate of political/professional wrangling has the capacity to damage young people's life chances well into the future. It is clearly diverting public attention away from the need to generate a broad consensus about the values and the process that should underpin future education reform. The benefits of changing the present system to secure longer-term objectives in education need to be articulated. Why aren't professional bodies doing this more persistently? The challenges young people face will call for attitudes, skills and knowledge that are not being systematically developed in the present stop-go approach to education planning. If we are about to embark on further change, it would be better if we were able to work together.

In future, if they so choose, people are likely to directly influence decision-making at every level. Ordinary citizens already have the means to do so via mobile communication technologies, as we have repeatedly witnessed happening in other countries. Dictatorships and democracies alike, will be similarly affected in future because of this development and governments will find themselves having to listen to the voice of the people or face the consequences. The old ways will no longer deliver what we need.

Put simply, decision-making in our education system is out of step with what is required. The task of preparing learners to meet the challenges of greater participation in a changeable future is threatened by the short-term agenda of politicians under current arrangements. Tragically, the option that exists to change strategic decision-making isn't even being discussed.

The first priority, therefore, must be to take this debate forward. The objective of doing so initially being, to re-frame the reform process. Re-defining responsibilities, clarifying roles and agreeing an appropriate balance between central and local decision-making, all require our urgent attention.

Evidence clearly indicates, decades of education reform have failed too many of our young people. Were this not the case, there would not be the present clamour for further hurried changes, at the expense of alienating the very people responsible for delivering reform.

In a changing global environment, decisions about education can no longer be coupled to the existing system of parliamentary power recycling, where parties need only a simple majority at the ballot-box to entitle them to determine the future direction (for a few years) of a crucially important service like education. The process we have, has consistently failed to deliver lasting, longer-term benefits to the service and to its users. Also, in recent years, successive governments have vastly increased their own powers at the expense of local democracy, despite their blatant denial of having done so. Too much quick-fix reform has proved to be economically wasteful, systematically demotivating for many working in education and ineffective in creating genuinely equitable opportunities to improve life chances for all pupils. Short-term solutions are no solutions at all.

To further illustrate the point, information and communication technology (ICT) is set to change the face of education. Considerable attention is already being focused on making individualised learning a viable option. Teachers understand the importance of this but they know that such a transition cannot be achieved over-night. Game-changing approaches of this kind require time to develop, to evaluate and to deliver. How, under the present system could there possibly be a commitment to the long-term success of such an important initiative? Politicians, quite obviously, do not have the time to commit to the long-haul; quick-fix and move-on has been disastrous so far in reforming education.

As new generations of educators expand their expertise, adapting tested ideas in their own domain to deliver real results (not tests and league table results), politicians should concentrate their energies on the strategic task for which their mandate is actually best suited. They should set global levels of funding for education in line with the wishes of a better informed electorate and guided by balanced input from highly committed professionals. Interestingly, it has been felt for some time that the first nation to transform its education service along these lines will accrue considerable lasting benefits for its citizens.

As to the past, it would be wise to preserve only what benefits the future, as seen from our present perspective. It is time to change the very culture of change in education. We owe it to our descendants.

A comprehensive review of decision making in eduction under strong and independent leadership is long overdue. The current stand-off reveals the bankruptcy of existing procedures. Governments have the power to have their way but it is a raw power, unsuited to the considerable challenges that lie ahead if we are to serve coming generations wisely. To break the deadlock, everyone, not just politicians, must contribute to the discussion about how education policy is decided in the future.

To this end, politicians of all parties are called upon to support the establishment of a small national commission. Its task would be to draw up proposals outlining how responsibility for national policy-making for education may be decoupled from the machinery of party politics.

Get a flavour of what others in education are saying at Michael Bassey's thought-provoking site.
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