‘Changing Schools: Perspectives on Five Years of Education Reform’: BOOK REVIEW

Janet Downs's picture

There’s a telling comment by James (now Lord) O’Shaughnessy in Changing Schools: Perspectives on Five Years of Education Reform (edited by Robert Peal) .  He says when he became Director of Policy in Number Ten it was his ‘ambition’ to make sure the ‘academy reform programme would be so embedded that it could not be reversed’.   Perhaps this is what the Chair of the Education Select Committee had in mind when he complained about the Department of Education’s approach to school reform as being ‘act first, think later’. 

O’Shaughnessy’s essay is one of the less effective in this collection which too often descends into uncritical admiration for Michael Gove’s education reforms and repeating myths about local authority ‘control’ and how choice and competition will improve standards*.

This is a pity because the book contains perceptive observations.

Two of the most valuable essays are about assessment.  Dr Tina Isaacs warns current examination reforms ‘lean too heavily on accountability’.  Assessment, she argues, should be more about feedback.  She recommends abandoning GCSEs – accountability would better be served by a core set of National Curriculum tests at 16.  Fewer tests would save money while returning the focus to the curriculum rather than on qualifications.  

Daisy Christodoulou reminds readers about Goodhart’s Law: when a measure becomes a target, it loses value as a measure.   Teaching to the test degrades what is taught.   Pupils should study subjects in the round and not just concentrate on satisfying the examiner.  Effective exams should test pupils on a sample of what they know and can do – the results would then be an indication of all the pupil knows about the examined subjects. 

Doug Lemov and Joaquin Hernandez also criticise teaching to the test.  It can reduce curriculum choice.  Schools are ‘first and foremost cultures’, they write, but then imply it is only in US charter schools that ‘perseverance, respect and compassion’ are found.   Incisive comments, therefore, are undercut by the assumption that only US charter schools and UK academy chains are successful.

Jonathan Simons asks ten questions which need urgently addressing. These include the role of schools in wider social issues, teacher supply, reform fatigue and the ‘learned helplessness’ of many teachers.  This last question particularly saddened me.  When I began teaching in the late 70s I was allowed to decide what and how I should teach. The only restrictions were the flexible CSE requirements and the content of the English stock cupboard.  But now it appears many teachers are stuck in what Simons describes as a ‘destructive pattern’ of waiting to be told what to do from above.  Simons is right – this needs to change.

Less effective essays are those with a whiff self-promotion.   In ‘Social media: Did Blogs break the Blob?’, the author lists the many times, with quotations, Michael Gove mentioned him.  Katharine Birbalsingh describes her Michaela Community School as a trailblazer which will be an example to all.  She’s right about the uselessness of performance-related pay but the claim she trusts her teachers is undermined by her list of Do’s and Dont’s.    And she won’t recruit staff who don’t conform to her ideas even if it means subjects such as Art and Music remain untaught.  She’s waiting for the right candidates, she said.  But this argument wouldn’t wash for English or Maths.

 *These two myths are among those debunked in our book, The Truth About Our Schools.  Our publishers Routledge are able to offer LSN readers a 20% discount on The Truth About Our Schools. To claim your discount, please use the promotional code LTSN6 when ordering online here via the Routledge website.




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