Presiding over chaos

By David Lambert.

There is a famous apocryphal moment when the Soviet delegation, visiting New York City, asked in wonder and amazement, who it was that was able to organize the bread supply chain so brilliantly: everyday, without exception, fresh bread is delivered in extraordinary varieties to thousands of individual shops, cafes and supermarkets!  Who manages that? The answer, of course, was no one. It is the invisible hand of the market at work.

So powerful is this idea these days it has dulled our ability to think. And it enables the UK Secretary of State to get away with murder. That is not an overstatement: the government is presiding over the murder of a national education system. Unless we think that providing education is nothing more complicated than supplying bread (and that is complicated enough!) then we do need a system, not just a free for all ‘market’. Why? Because education is very expensive (it cannot afford lots of waste, unlike the food industry); it is a form of sustained, social engagement not a form of individualized consumption (you cannot chop and change your education supplier on whim, or on a daily basis); and it is one of the best means we know to develop human potential – and we know that this takes community effort and collective will (it is of no great consequence if a bread shop is goes out of business – that is the game – but if schools are undermined, weakened or are closed it has dramatic effects).

Even as I write this I can predict the rude and dismissive counter charge from some quarters that I am simply part of the problem – a kind of neo-Marxist, statist, ‘reactionary’ who needs to be stopped, put down, circumvented or simply ignored. But I am none of those things. Indeed, I am on record as cautiously welcoming the ‘knowledge turn’ that followed Mr Gove’s appointment as Secretary of State. I am intrigued by the possible long-term impact that may result from the government’s enthusiastic endorsement of Teach First. I am utterly sold on partnership training of teachers so that the majority of their training in conducted in schools (as has now been the case for twenty years). I am even in favour of ‘academies’, because ‘comprehensive schooling’ is a brand so damaged after sustained attack from successive governments that it cannot be retrieved.

My issue is that you can introduce all the above, and reform the national curriculum,and restore rigour to the examination system (again, I am in favour) without dismantling the system. For that you need a kind of blind ideology: just look what is actually happening.

The national curriculum, which we are told will restore knowledge and rigour in schools, does not have to be taught by free schools and academies (that is, by nowmost secondary schools in England). The inconsistency here is breathtaking. Can we conclude that Mr Gove, having introduced a radical curriculum review, is actually not interested in the curriculum? Probably not, although we might ask why should he be? He is after all only the Minister. The Minister does not need experience or specialist knowledge of curriculum matters – he should leave that to the professionals. But we know full well that he does indeed lay down what he thinks should be taught in schools – particularly in some subjects like English and history. He is extremely hands on. So why, in effect, undermine his own national curriculum? We are told that, in effect, it is because teachers need the ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by New York bread shops. This ideological position is contributing to the destruction of a national education system.

There is a view, which I also have some sympathy for, which goes something like this. ‘Curriculum’ is one of the central ideas in education. As such, it should be owned by educationists – which means the teaching profession supported by academics, scholars and researchers whose job it is to continually critique and redesign such key ideas, so that what happens in practice remains fit for a changing world. It is, definitely, not for politicians to get too close to this (just as they should stay away from the detail in law, medicine, engineering and other parts of the social, economic and cultural infrastructure). I suspect Mr Gove would agree with this.

But why then abolish, in the so-called ‘bonfire of the quangos’, the various agencies that were set up to handle the detail of the curriculum, at arm’s length from government? One of the first acts of this government was to dismantle the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – so that for the first time in over 40 years England had no independent agency of experts overseeing the curriculum. None.  Thus, matters of teacher training, curriculum design and so on are conducted by civil servants inside the ministry.

Why attack universities and teacher training establishments, so that research and scholarly endeavour in the field of education is undermined, ridiculed even? It’s not just about deregulation and ‘freedoms’, for ironically education policy making is now possibly closer to a Soviet model than it is to Singapore or Finland, those ‘jurisdictions’ whose PISA results we are so encouraged to emulate.

What it has achieved is the destruction of the education system. Collective effort – and responsibility – is undermined and weakened. All markets have winners and losers, and as the market is given freer rein Headteachers are hired and fired like football managers, expected to ‘turn thing round’ in weeks or months if the results have been poor. The infrastructure of local democratic governance, university departments of education, curriculum quangos and so forth was established collectively to moderate its worst effects of teaching to the test. But we are going right back there. With no national system, warm words about social justice emerging though the market is just nonsense.

Ok. What’s this got to do with geography education? That will be in my next post.

This post was originally published on David Lambert & John Morgan’s Impolite Geographies blog.

Photograph used under creative commons license from here

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