If the child isn’t at the centre of education, then who, or what, is?

Janet Downs's picture
Child-centred education has taken some battering lately particularly from Civitas which has published not one, but three, books all saying the same thing: child-centred education is a problem. But child-centred in this context is misrepresented as child-led where the child, stepping in the footsteps of Rousseau, follows his own inclinations without guidance and discovers what he needs to know. I say “his”, because Rousseau’s views on the education of girls emphasised how to make herself pleasing to her husband which isn’t quite so “progressive”.

Child-centred is not child-led. It is placing the child at the centre of education. Those who attack such education fail to say exactly who, or what, should be the focus of education if not the child.

Are parents the centre of their child’s education? Should education be constructed to meet parental demands? But what if these demands conflict with a child’s needs?

Is society the centre of children’s education? Certainly education has a part to play in preparing children for their future roles as citizens, parents and workers. But should society’s needs be paramount? How far does, say, encouraging pride in country become nationalism and xenophobia? When does society’s need for stability morph into the encouragement of unthinking conformity?

Should the Government be the primary focus of education? But this brings risks of squashing genuine dissent, of moulding children into unquestioning obedience to the regime.

Should education become focused on the inspectorate? The last decade has seen schools trying to second-guess what inspectors judge as outstanding or, at the very least, good. This has led Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief HMI, to publish a letter reminding inspectors there isn’t one preferred way of teaching.

What about results? Should they be the focus? But the OECD has already warned that England has an excessive focus on exam results which risks negative consequences. These include brushing aside, or downgrading, anything that can’t easily be measured. As education secretary Michael Gove said, “If it can’t be externally assessed, then it’s play”.

Should business be at the centre of education? As I said above, education prepares children, among other things, to have the necessary skills to enter the workplace. But should business actually drive what happens in the classroom? Education is a growing market and profits are made through the sale of goods and services. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit from selling, say, stationery and teaching materials. But schools risk becoming “conduits” for taxpayers’ money to find its way into shareholders’ pockets if the education market is manipulated to provide an enduring and lucrative customer base. What do I mean by manipulating the education market? It is when edu-businesses lobby governments to pass laws which make it easier for business to profit from education*. When private equity firms and global giants such as News Corp get involved in education it might be promoted as altruism but it’s anything but. It’s investment.

My question, then, to those who don’t believe the child should be at the centre of education is this: if not the child then who, or what?

* See Debra Kidd’s blog for “connections between this neo-liberal noise and the dominant market forces lobbying education”. For one specific example, see Phonics: the sounds that letters make. Kerching! here.
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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 30/04/2014 - 22:21

I've got 'Progressively Worse' here Janet. Have you seen it? An name as it accurately describes the trend of the quality of publications by Civitas.

It's the first time I've every heard someone who's actually been inside a classroom write with conviction about the idea that there are two methods of teaching - letting kids do whatever they want (which is promoted by everyone in HE) and the right way which is opposed by everyone except Michael Gove. Blimey. Who funds the writing of this guff?

agov's picture
Thu, 01/05/2014 - 07:27

From what I can find it seems to be funded by do-gooders who pay to be told what they want to hear.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 01/05/2014 - 08:02

Rebecca - Robert Peal taught for two years through Teach First, the scheme which launches graduates into school with the minimum of training. And he's going to join a free school in September.

But look on the bright side: at least it's more teaching experience than fellow Civitas author Toby Young has had.

Peal draws on the "knowledge of the education debate" shown by Katharine Birbalsingh (who mocked one of her pupils at a Tory conference to great applause) and Daisy Christodoulou (another Teach Firster with minimal teaching experience). Christodoulou's Civitas book nevertheless makes the sensible point that knowledge and skills can't be unscrambled but then, oddly, spends several chapters doing just that.

And the foreward to Peal's book even recommends Birbalsingh's "To Miss with Love" as an "influential voice" in the educational debate. There are some nuggets of truth in the book (Ofsted redefining satisfactory and unsatisfactory; the divisive effect of league tables), it's mostly self-promotion (she really, really, cares) as I pointed out in my review:

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 01/05/2014 - 08:15

I don't see the obvious reality that it's possible for someone to actually go through teacher training and come away with such a flawed understanding of aspects of some of the key standards as being a positive Janet.

Q19: Know and understand how a range of factors can inhibit a pupil's ability to learn, and how best to overcome these.
Q22: Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of how pupils learn and how this impacts on teaching.
Q26: understand the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs, those of high ability, those with English as an additional language and those with disabilities and be able to use evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.
etc. etc. etc.

"Well we shouldn't just let the kids run wild and do their own thing and we should purge all people involved in HE because that's what they teach teachers to do" isn't and answer which really show a deep enough level of understanding of the variety of teaching styles good teachers use to pass.

I wonder if he did pass his teacher training?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 01/05/2014 - 12:39

My understanding of Teach First is that the recruits have six weeks of intensive training at a Summer School before undertaking two-year on-the-job training (first year as a trainee teachers, second year with NQT status). When this is complete Teach Firsters are awarded a PGCE.

It appears, then, that a former Teach Firster who spent only two years in school would have been in training during that time. According to Teach First website, only 54% of Teach First "Ambassadors" are still teaching. The other 46% enter other careers which may including influencing "change in business, the third sector and government through alternative careers." All that after only two years.

Some of them join a think-tank which publishes books on the same subject in rapid succession and which say much the same thing: the child should not be at the centre of education because "child-centred" (misrepresented as child-led) is bad. In which case, as I ask above, who are what is at the centre of education?

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 01/05/2014 - 22:24

Janet, I will take the liberty of sharing my response to Debra Kidd's excellent piece 'Progressively Predictable' (see your link). She reminds us:

“We seem to be living in a time and a world in which it is becoming common place to ridicule those who hold on to the belief that they are there for the benefit of children; that community is important; that happiness, relationships and skills matter. And yet this is the view that the majority hold.”

My comment was as follows:

"I am about to step down as a community governor at my grandson’s small primary school for reasons that are hard to explain to governor colleagues. This is because they have been told by others what the school should be doing. They are hard-working dedicated individuals, some of them new to governorship, and Ofsted told them just last autumn that the school required improvement so that is what they are engaged in doing. Two HMI visits later and some ‘input’ from one of the few remaining LA advisors and targets abound. How can they afford to question in the face of such unflinching certainty? Surely, this is what the school’s data tell them!

I do not blame them for their reactions. People under the cosh are indeed “losing confidence in the face of the baying crowd”. Never have we been so devoid of moral leadership and I fear where this may lead us. Someone has to prioritise the child’s needs over the needs of the market and the whim of governments. Ideally, it should come from local communities led by professionals working in the best interests of young people to help them achieve full personhood."

Thank you for posting the above comment. I would like to offer my response to your question, "If the child isn’t at the centre of education, then who, or what, is?"

The child has to be at the centre of education because nothing of greater significance or value can displace them in a democratic, forward-looking nation that wishes to seize upon the rich variety of childhood potential to educate the whole person. As you point out, any other focus, is contrived to bring advantage to some external instrument or organisation and is done at the expense of building a cohesive, equitable society.

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