Another fine mess you could be leading us into…but we don’t have to follow!!!

With each passing release of both government data with commentary from the wider expert community, there seems to be depressing evidence that ‘last year’s innovation’ implementations have become this year’s policy ‘disasters’.  No more so is this true than in Education, and very much across the western, English speaking world, not just the local estate managed by the current Conservative administration.

Across Australia and the United States, in Scotland as well as England, in vocational as well as academic education, national centralised control systems have been implemented, particularly in terms of curriculum coverage and methods of testing, and the outcomes for learners it seems have declined, not improved.

Justin Spanswick, my colleague at Claires Court, is writing in more detail about the amanda-spielman-ofsted_0recent pronouncement by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Children’s services and Skills, Amanda Spielman (otherwise known as the Head of Ofsted) who wrote yesterday (12 October) that “Schools in England are focusing on tests and exams, rather than giving pupils a good grounding in a wide range of subjects”.  She also says a rounded education – or the lack of one – has consequences for social mobility, with less academic children being particularly hard-hit if schools drop subjects such as art to focus on core ones – BBC/news/education.

portfolio-cfeIn Scotland, even worse criticism has developed about their curriculum and the outcomes for pupils.  Known as the Curriculum for Excellence, CfE, it has been seeking (for 15 years since its initial design) to develop the 4 capacities it hopes to deliver for its children: “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors”. The trouble is these outcome measures on their own are almost impossible to measure and unaligned with actually the process of learning in school. As one secondary school teacher has written a damning open letter to Nicola Sturgeon, warning that Scotland’s curriculum is “utterly failing the children in our care”.

One of the main criticisms of both England and Scotland’s systems is that they have been in constant turmoil since the last but one major curriculum change in 2000. Every year, ‘stuff’ is moved.  These changes include the public exams system itself, linear to modular, terminal exams to coursework, then to controlled assessments, now back to linear.  It has been school ownership and government structures, the arrival of ‘free’ schools and academies, the switching of responsibility for oversight between a heinz variety of masters, including Local Authorities, Multi-academy trusts, stand-alone colleges and looser federations.  Here in England, Ofsted might have inspection rights over the success or otherwise of the school in meeting its educational purposes, but until recently no-one has had oversight of the financial and business management capabilities of the ‘owners’, so a new branch of government oversight, the offices of the ‘Regional Commissioners’ have had to be introduced to ensure there is someone actually ‘watching’ on behalf of the tax payer.

rscsEach turn of the ‘change-wheel’ gives rise to further internal exhaustion of the key workers who actual provide the pedal power for education, leading to the inevitable problem of teacher recruitment not matching the numbers needed to meet population increase and teacher departures via retirement or resignation. The latest developments in Apprenticeships in the UK, the new financial levy on employers and the political priority it has become have been met with a colossal 60+% reduction in apprenticeship take-up because…’the salary offered is just so low!’

In undergraduate education, the recent introduction of the £9000 grant for students in England has already had to be adjusted, because the total cost of a 3 year degree for the most disadvantaged students is predicted to be over an eye watering £50,000.  With the graduate population soon to crest over 50% of the population, the sense that there will be a graduate premium for earnings after in employment is vanishing like the polar icecap. In turn this means that the cost to the tax payer, (after the latest increase in threshold to £25,000 before the student loan starts to be paid back) is going to be greater than if we had retained the original system of tuition fees and student grants, deemed to be so much fairer to those at the bottom of the ‘pile’.

What’s remarkable about the successful western systems of education that are doing really well, such as in Finland and Canada, is the almost wholly absent nature of central, federal control. And that’s why they are successful, because when things change, they changes in a socially cohesive way for all schools, not in a dog v cat street fight of who can win ‘outstanding’ at the expense of ‘requires improvement’.  The framework that both countries have adopted is built around attracting and supporting their teachers as leaders of their profession and of pedagogy.  That lack of central control means no politician such as a Baker, Gove or Greening can dive in and ‘change’ the system for the better.

As the headline suggests, I am fortunate as an Independent School Education leader, I don’t have to follow the latest diktat of government.  Stability and coherence are absolutely essential to the development of deep and rich curriculum-based provision. World research highlights that specialist teaching needs is more effective from the age of 7, so you need schemes of work to remain stable so serious domain knowledge about what works with 8 year olds, for example in geography, history, language and science education develops. It’s a truism that all independent schools are unique, and by that definition must be very different to each other. The reality in a global sense is that we believe in very similar core principles, the teacher being the expert in the classroom, children receiving a variety of stimuli from a variety of teachers from an early age, the extended day to broaden and deepen the opportunities for children and an expectation that the learning journey for each child is going to provide both a worthwhile daily experience, and opportunities to take risks and fail without being named and shamed for so-doing.

isc-logo-800This month heralded the important announcement that there are now more ISC independent school children in schools abroad then there are foreigners attending ISC boarding schools in the UK. The growth of ISC independent school  curriculum provision in countries across the globe can almost be described as an ‘explosion’, with Haileybury for example exporting its model into Kazakhstan.  It also no surprise to see such schools making use of the IGCSE, a world version of England’s GCSE system, which has stayed remarkably stable for 30 years unlike its parent, which is changing once again over the current period of 3 years.

The trouble when tests change, is that, initially at least, the teachers and learners both have to focus on the test because that’s the way the output measure of the new subject curriculum is measured.  Once the new model beds in, then trial, experience and professional judgement come to the fore once again, once the assessment tools have been checked and ratified as working. Learning scientists like to look at change of periods of 10 years or more, so they can assess whether real change over time has happened, or is it just a statistical effect brought about by population variation. Since the current government has initiated a whole scale change to England’s state exam system over a period of 5 years, we won’t get the first indicators of that the change is worthwhile until 2025 at the earliest.  As I write, every assessment system from 5 to 18 is changing; that is simple madness.

Claires Court left the National Curriculum in 2006 and so for the past 11 years has been The Learning Scientistsdeveloping a careful implementation of a broad and deep curriculum now for 11 years.  We have aligned many of our more recent developments with work of leading professional bodies across the globe, and currently we are working alongside the excellent work emerging from The Learning Scientists*, a group of cognitive scientists whose mission is to make the science of learning more accessible to us all, children, students, teachers, parents and other educators.  In so doing they aim to:

  • Motivate students to study
  • Increase the use of effective study and teaching strategies that are backed by research
  • Decrease negative views of testing

At the end of any educative process, we need to have effective measures of the success of the ‘Output’. If the only thing we know about are the ‘Output’ requirements, then we have no choice but to teach to the test.  What research-led education developments permit us to do is concentrate on more on the performance during the learning journey, to focus on the micro-steps that will lead to exceptional performance in the long term, but actually aren’t visible per se as output measures. This could be about engagement and striving, about writing skills and keyboard dexterity, knowledge about software, hardware or thoughtware.

I’ll close with the words of our new Chief Inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, writing in the preface of a new Ofsted report looking at the state school curriculum.  Ms Spielman says schools have a duty to develop each individual child and give them a broad education. “However, good examination results in and of themselves don’t always mean that the pupil received rich and full knowledge from the curriculum. In the worst cases, teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed-out and flimsy understanding. A rounded education – or the lack of one – has consequences for social mobility, with less academic children being particularly hard-hit if schools drop subjects such as art to focus on core ones. Restricted subject choice for low-attaining pupils disproportionately affects pupils from low-income backgrounds.

In short, everyone deserves a rich and diverse set of opportunities in schools, and if we want  to raise the performance of all of our pupils, this government should focus its priorities still on ensuring that all schools are funded to provide such a curriculum, with high quality specialist teachers employed for the long term. Causing such austerity cutbacks across the public estate is going to cause the worst damage in communities that have the least to support their own outside of the classroom. Whether in Canada, Finland, Singapore, Japan or Shanghai, this is what the authorities understand – deep, quality provision for all reaps the best results.

*The latest blog from the Learning Scientists highlights the reasons why students need to be separated from their mobile phones – Cellphone presence and cognitive capacity.  Please have a look and read, and you’ll see why I rate them as an advisory group for our school!

About jameswilding

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