Be careful what you wish for…

Any one who knows my views about education knows they are not jaundiced. I am one of the most relentless and ruthlessly optimistic people I know. Posterity never voted for us to be miserable about the future, and I should know, because I have every hope of being there in that future, being brilliantly wise about the past, because that’s what 20:20 hindsight brings.  And actually, what I like about the ‘memory’ blogging brings, is that I have been true to my beliefs since I started this writing process.

Data is all-pervasive in the current world, and if you can manipulate data – analytics – then you gather “intelligence”, which wisely deployed helps you plan for the future, stay ahead of the competition, lead the field and/or make a fortune.  Governments make huge use of data, indulge themselves in the political version of data analysis and come up with the number they first thought of.

Consider the current situation in the business within which I work – Education.

  • Over half of schools failing in RE
  • School Maths results disappointing
  • Too many pupils failures at 7
  • England lags on young adult literacy

Now you’ll get my point before I make it.  Government tells us it has spent billions of tax payers money, introduced entire new layers of curriculum and ways of measuring it, demonstrates with its own flawed political tools that results have never been better, and celebrates its successes by beatifying its stars in the field with gongs and medals and Queen’s birthday honours.

How can this be, I hear you ask – how do we reconcile irreversible signs of significant progress and an irreversible slide to the bottom of the western world’s literacy and numeracy performance tables?  Are we really to believe the independent data from the OECD that the literacy of our 16-24 year olds is actually no better than those aged 55-65? Perhaps more worryingly, it appears that 8.5 million adults in the UK have the reading age of 10 year olds, or so the relevant BBC report states:

The major leading western world countries in education have not set out to raise academic standards through a selection, target-based and league-tabled assessment system. The current coalition government continues to chase this tale to the nth degree, now focussing on real teaching for nursery children and a back-to-the-future approach to terminal exams at 16 and 18. What the leading countries have done, is determine that all children will learn to read, write and count, been inclusive and child centred about the settings (in which the more advanced aren’t held back, because they become the teachers of their peers, and the teachers aren’t being judged whether they are good teachers.

In a variety of reports and reports, including Pasi Sahlberg‘s book “Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn about educational change in Finland“, it becomes startling obvious that if schools concentrate on improving schools, and build teams of experienced and well qualified teachers to support each other and the learners, and have an incorruptible view that children will learn to read, write and count whilst in their care, actually that’s what will happen. Keep it simple, but organised by experts, and good stuff happens. It is extraordinary that across the pond, Canada’s rise to the top of the table is in complete contradiction to the US’s slide to the bottom for the same reasons. And here in the UK, the current chair of the HMC group of private schools, Tim Hands of Magdalen College, Oxford, arguably the country’s best academic school, makes an informed challenge really as coherently as any: I quote from the BBC report Mr Hands, speaking last Monday, criticised political interference in education – “the long interfering arm and dead restraining hand of government” – and said that the “principles of commercial accountability” had been applied to schools in a way that was “flawed”.

The DfE in its own defence (yep, beyond party politics, we have been really badly served by the civil servants who really ought to have known better) has this to say as retort:”Our rigorous new curriculum, demanding GCSEs and high-quality A-levels involving universities will raise academic standards for all children.”

Well, given the track record of government over the past 50 years on education, the easiest of political footballs to kick to death, I feel a dose of Harry Callahan coming on “do you feel lucky punk?” The failure of Education policy to rectify the failure of previous generations  is because the civil servants and educationalists alike have introduced an extraordinary gamification of school progress measures. You can’t nationalise and/or denationalise professionalism at whim in the way you can state industries such as railways and the Post Office,  even though bitter experience tells us it hasn’t worked in industry anyway.

Tim Hands went on to say in the same speech “The story of the last 50 years is the intrusion of government and the disappearance of the child. More radically put, it is by extension the intrusion of the state, and the disappearance of love.” And therein lies the truth, as I see every day in my own and other private schools. It’s about the school as it is about the subject, it’s certainly more about the people than the processes, but the latter better be right, not because if they are not, the children won’t learn their tables, but because if the children can’t play their sport or their arts, the children will give the adults ‘hell’.

Dan Pink, the american writer, talks about the need for learners to acquire Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, whilst educationalist Sir Ken Robinson talks about the importance of ‘finding your element’.  In holistic schools such  as ours, we can’t focus on the specific at the expense of the generic, because all the evidence of the past 200 years keeps confirming that it’s about all of it, little detail and big picture.  And it’s the holistic schools that build better people, who actually don’t think that learning stops at 18, and carry on learning for the rest of their lives.

And so to the title, I am deeply troubled that international tests set out to confirm with precision the imprecise. In my lifetime, the number of English words has undoubtedly doubled, and we now have well over a million. In Finnish, because of the way they concatenate them, the number is infinite. But the latter is phonetic, logical, sequential and additive, unlike our illogical mess of the polyglot. It is so much easier to be logical and ordered, than creative and slightly scruffy. I am not happy that our country is on the bottom table for spellings and sums, but so much happier that our suicide rate is not in comparable poor form. If you fancy competing in that arena here’s the list,

In the meantime, I am quite comforted to learn that I know as much if not more than the 18 year olds.  It’s rather proven my other point that learning doesn’t stop when you leave school. Be careful what you wish for.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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