UK at education summit for high performing countries – why no publicity?

Janet Downs's picture
Somewhere there is a parallel universe – one where the United Kingdom joined an International Summit of high performing and rapidly improving educational systems (based on PISA results 2009). UK is not “rapidly improving” since its PISA scores remained static between 2006 and 2009. So in this parallel universe, UK must have been one of the high-performing countries.

But Mr Gove and Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, are always saying how the UK, or rather just England, needs radical reform in its educational system if it is to be among this group of high achievers.

In the report about this summit, there was even a photo of a Mr Gove lookalike as he gave a speech which captured Mr Gove’s fondness for patterns-of-three, high-sounding phrases and imparting misleading information.

Mr Gove’s double said that Government policy in England was “tight on knowledge, loose on school context, and tight on measurement” which makes it sound like an ill-fitting pair of gym knickers. His twin then said that giving more autonomy to schools would “unleash greatness” and seemed to take credit for a “new program”, Future Leaders, which actually began in 2006.

So, UK attendance at a summit for high-performing educational systems must be in a parallel universe, right? The truth is the summit was not in a parallel universe – it did happen. It was in New York City on 16-17 March 2011.

But surely the appearance of a UK Secretary of State at an international conference would be newsworthy? Apparently not. There is no record of a press-release on the DfE website and no speech published on Mr Gove’s website. Could this be because admitting that the UK had attended a summit of high-performing countries would undermine Mr Gove’s assertion that the UK is not among the best?

Or could it be because not all of the summit’s findings would have pleased Mr Gove? The finding that “tough-minded collaboration beats tough-minded confrontation”, for example, would not appeal to politicians who talk of free-school shock troops crashing through complacency. The recognition “that teachers are experts in teaching and learning” is likely to be ignored by non-teacher politicians promoting their pet theories whether it’s synthetic phonics, “our island story” or the non-use of calculators. The advice that education reform needed to be approached cautiously within a realistic timescale which might extend over several Parliamentary terms had already been discounted: the Government railroaded the Academies Bill through Parliament with the speed usually reserved to terrorism legislation and the Secretary of State boasts about the rapid pace of his “reforms”. The stress on the importance of teacher morale in raising the quality of teaching is brushed aside as irrelevant by a Minister whose recently-recruited Ofsted chief inspector told the TES that “if anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you will know you are doing something right.”

Perhaps there is a parallel universe – one which separates England from the rest of the world.

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Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 10:13

"The recognition “that teachers are experts in teaching and learning” is likely to be ignored by non-teacher politicians promoting their pet theories whether it’s synthetic phonics, “our island story” or the non-use of calculators."

Can we not have the myth that progressive education came from the grassroots, please? If Michael Gove wants to oppose some of the things forced on teachers, then that is not in any way inconsistent with the idea that teachers are experts. It wasn't classroom teachers who demanded that 11 year olds be tested in calculator use, that the "real books" approach was the next big thing despite having failed for decades in the US, or that history was about skills not knowledge. It was politicians, bureaucrats and educationalists. Teachers have any number of reasons to object to Mr Gove's policies, mainly centred on pensions and working conditions, but the howls of outrage about his scepticism of trendy teaching methods aren't coming from the classroom, they are coming from the people who have had power to impose their ideas.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 13:33

You are correct, Andrew. It wasn't teachers who wanted pupils tested to destruction; it wasn't teachers who wanted schools ranked in league tables, it wasn't teachers who pushed for only one method of teaching reading. Yet far from opposing these things, Mr Gove wants more of them: reading tests at age 6, schools ranked on how many pupils go to Oxbridge, EBac subjects restricting what is taught in secondary schools, schools told by law how to teach reading (and I'm be just as concerned about that if Mr Gove had mandated "whole words", "real books" or the Initital Teaching Alphabet).

Mr Gove has said, "'The Government is genuinely committed to giving schools greater freedoms. We trust teachers and headteachers to run their schools." But his actions bely his words.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe that any Secretary of State has passed an Education Act which actually made it a legal requirement to teach in a certain way. All teachers should be worried about that, whether they be traditional or progressive or use a range of techniques.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 14:41

Official methods of teaching were introduced with the National Strategies in the late 1990s. These covered almost the entire curriculum and while the content of the methods changed completely, the use of OFSTED to enforce particular methods of teaching did not. The National Strategies have only just been abolished.

I really can't see any recent developments that are anywhere near as prescriptive as these.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 16:43

The strategies were only ever recommended, not compulsory, and skilled teachers were able to adopt a "pick and mix" approach. In any case, the strategies were not "abolished". The contract was always planned to end in 2011 as an Ofsted report (link below), published in February 2010 (before the Coalition came to power) makes clear.

The report made recommendations arising from the implementation of the National Strategies:

"The report recommends that the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and National Strategies should prioritise fewer school improvement initiatives and identify those that are demonstrably effective, give schools and local authorities more time to implement, consolidate and evaluate these, as well as opportunities to tailor them to the specific needs of their schools [and] increase the emphasis on intensive periods of school based, high quality professional development."

It appears that Ofsted recognised that fewer initiatives were needed and schools needed leeway in which to tailor methods to the needs of their pupils. Mr Gove's interference in the curriculum may not be as wide-ranging as the National Strategies, which were not compulsory, but he has gone a step further. He has enshrined in law one way of teaching reading. He has taken professional judgement about which strategy is best for each child away from the teacher. It is a dangerous precedent.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 17:18

You appear to have mistaken "statutory" for compulsory. The teaching methods in the National Strategies were enforced by OFSTED and schools were compelled through the threat of special measures rather than through the law, but there was little choice.

I'm still not sure why the government's views about the teaching of reading are more prescriptive to you than the previous situation where teaching methods were regulated in almost all of the curriculum. Perhaps, it's this "enshrined in law" thing. What exactly are you talking about with that?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 18:21

"A new, statutory phonics screening check for all pupils will be introduced in Year 1 this academic year. The check will be administered during the week commencing 18 June"

A "statutory phonics test" means that all schools will be expected to teach phonics and that their pupils will be tested on how well they have mastered them. Statutory means "laid down by law".

But this discussion about whether the last government was worse that the present in interfering with education is beside the main point: the DfE did not publicise the attendance of the Secretary of State at a meeting of high-performing countries. Why? Because the DfE would have had to admit that the organisers of the conference considered UK to be a high-performing country. That is something that the Government is at pains to deny. The reason for Mr Gove's reforms is seriously undermined if England's educational system is not portrayed as "failing".

Neither does discussion of whether Labour was worse than the Coalition at interfering in education (and I would agree that interference in education has got steadily worse since the National Curriculum was introduced in 1987) absolve Mr Gove of the accusation that he is imposing his views on education and not letting teachers use their professional judgement. Whether its statutory phonics tests, or the EBac, which even a Government select committee has condemned, or telling schools that they will be judged on how many of their pupils go to Oxford or Cambridge, irrespective of whether these two universities are the best places for individual students, Mr Gove is interfering far too much.

What's next? Statutory testing on multiplication tables, perhaps? Or a ban on the use of calculators in primary schools mandated by law?

Interference in teachers' professional judgement was but one criticism mentioned in the original post. There were other concerns - rushed "reforms", teacher morale, a confrontational approach - all of which run counter to the findings of the summit.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 18:38

You are doing that thing where, having been challenged on a point you got wrong, you just go into a long rant about something tangential to what you are being challenged on.

Your claim that Mr Gove is passing laws about teaching methods, is actually only a claim about what children will be tested on. This is not the same thing. Also, this is not unprecedented. Most of all, this still allows more flexibility regarding teaching methods than the National Strategies which actually sought to dictate everything down to the structure of the lessons.

By the way, I'd be quite happy with statutory testing of multiplication tables, that would be far more useful than the current Key Stage 2 maths exams which are so vague and woolly that secondary schools invariably end up retesting in the first term of year 7.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 15/12/2011 - 13:26

Andrew - I suggest you read the original post. The point about Mr Gove's prescriptive interference is but one small point in a much wider criticism. I have already repeated them once for your benefit only for this to be dismissed as a "rant". Perhaps you could address the main question: why did the DfE not publicise Mr Gove's attendance at a high-level education summit for high-performing nations? I suggested two answers:

1 The DfE does not want people to know that the UK was present because this would undermine the Coalition's contention that UK state education is mediocre.
2 Mr Gove did not like many of the summit's findings.

In any case, you seem to be arguing that because the last Government interfered in education then Mr Gove is also entitled to do so.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 16/12/2011 - 22:09

You are always doing this. You get something wrong, and instead of addressing that properly you simply repeat whatever other points weren't shown to be wrong.

It really gives the impression that you are just venting; that as long as you have said something to slag off the government then you are happy even if some of it turns out to be nonsense.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 15/12/2011 - 14:03

Andrew - you say that you would be happy with the "statutory testing of multiplication tables". What you seem to be saying is that it's OK for something to be statutory, ie mandated by law, as long as it is something of which you approve. I'm sure you wouldn't be so supportive if, say, a future government made it a legal requirement for children to be tested on those things you regard as trendy. And I would support you on this - because a government has no business in making certain teaching methods a legal requirement. It is a dangerous step to take, and Mr Gove has taken it. This is in the Education White Paper:

"4.6 [We will] Ensure that all children have the chance to follow an enriching curriculum by getting them reading early. That means supporting the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics and introducing a simple reading check at age six to guarantee that children have mastered the basic skills of early reading and also ensure we can identify those with learning difficulties."

It doesn't matter whether synthetic phonics work or not. Making it a legal requirement is unacceptable interference in the professional judgement of teachers, akin to a Health Minister making it mandatory for doctors to treat, say, cancer patients in a certain way because s/he, the Health Minister, thinks one method is better than another.

And as far as Key Stage 2 Maths tests are concerned, your criticism of them has been upheld by the Maths Report chaired by Carol Vorderman. The report recommends scrapping these tests. It seems that you and I agree on this.

However, as I also said above, the point about testing is a small part of just one point in much wider issues: the Government keeping quiet about something which contradicts what it repeats about the dire state of English state education, and the non-acceptance of many of the findings of a summit which the Secretary of State attended and to which he contributed.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 16/12/2011 - 22:17

I do object to the dictation of methods. I just don't object to requiring particular important content to be learnt and testing to see that it has been learnt. It seems ludicrous to object to tests as "dictating methods", particularly when actual teaching methods were dictated across the board just a couple of years ago. I also don't object to promises to "support" sensible methods. Providing resources, if they aren't rubbish and aren't forced on teachers, is a good thing. I still use some resources produced by government in the late 90s not because they are officially approved but because they were good. By contrast some things like A.P.P. which were forced on so many teachers, just a few years ago, are now being binned in great quantities.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 17/12/2011 - 12:47

Andrew - we are both in agreement on the undesirability of a government dictating methods and we both think it is desirable that governments (of whatever hue) support teachers in their work. However, you seem (perhaps unwittingly) to be taking this one step further when you say that you don't object to promises to support "sensible methods". That brings us to the crux of the matter - what are "sensible methods" and who is to decide? The Education White Paper explicitly said the Government would "support the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics". Note: the Government is not saying it will support the teaching of reading (see Eurydice report linked below for suggestions about how many countries do this). The Government is saying that is will only support one particular method ie synthetic phonics. It is doing this by promoting the method at every opportunity and by offering match funding for chosen teaching materials (and in cash-strapped times, few heads are going to turn down the offer of this).

You'll need to explain what A.P.P is - google just turns up stuff about apps. As I don't know what it is, I have no idea whether it was "forced" on teachers. Was it mandated by an Act of Parliament in the same way as synthetic phonics is?

Andrew Old's picture
Sat, 17/12/2011 - 13:47

You keep claiming that synthetic phonics has some kind of statutory support that other teaching methods didn't, but when pushed you ended up claiming that it was only tests which were statutory. Can you please clear up what you are claiming? If the complaint is that the government is spending money on the method of teaching reading that works, not ones that don't, then that is a ridiculous complaint, particularly for some one who shouts the odds about "evidence" at every opportunity.

With regard to "sensible methods", it is a matter of political judgement as to what is sensible and what is a flight of ideological fantasy, but it should be judgement informed by evidence. Synthetic phonics is a good example where the evidence supports it strongly, but it takes political will to make it happen as in the past it has been undermined without political debate.

I'm not sure whether I should be the one to tell you what A.P.P. is. I like the idea of you being forced to speak to teachers rather than just telling us what we want, but you can find it on my blog if your really want to find out from me. But I really would much prefer it if you went onto a teaching forum and asked. It would be great if you actually talked to teachers before forming your opinion on an issue related to teaching, rather than the current process by which you form your opinions first, cherry-pick official sounding people and reports that agree with you, and then argue with any teachers who try and tell you the truth.

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