John Hayward Posted: 24 November 2010
Yesterday Ofsted informed us that too much teaching 'is dull and uninspiring and this makes it harder for pupils to learn,' and that teaching is 'a big factor in poor behaviour as well as uneven exam results ... Too many schools tolerate pockets of poor teaching alongside good practice.'
Today's education white paper, The Importance Of Teaching, promises to equip, support and free teachers to teach. A broader focus in schools that encourages all students to study English, Maths, a science, a foreign language, and a humanities subject, and that restores attention to basic skills such as spelling, grammar and punctuation has to be welcome. However, in other areas, some of what the paper proposes appears to be a step back.
In recent years, school performance has been assessed using a broad range of criteria, including the need to promote community cohesion, pupil well-being and children's spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. In future inspectors will be instructed to judge schools according to just four key criteria: teaching standards, leadership, pupil behaviour and attainment.
Yet, this appears to treat schools as isolated institutions, rather than as ones at the heart of our communities. Contrary to what the Secretary of State for Education has stated, the principal purpose of schools is not just improving teaching and learning or 'giving every child access to the best possible teaching.' It is, in the words of the US Education Secretary, about giving 'every child the chance to fulfil their tremendous academic and social potential, regardless of their social-economic status' (emphasis added).
'Social potential' means so much more than just 'pupil behaviour'. The best education involves families and the local community as closely as possible and enables individuals to find their place in and contribute to wider society, using their gifts and resources responsibly. If the 'Big Society' project is to mean anything, then it must mean that the culture outside schools needs to be changed, not just that inside the school gate. Michael Gove writes, 'Our schools should be engines of social mobility, helping children to overcome the accidents of birth and background to achieve much more than they may ever have imagined.' In truth, this will only happen if they first become engines of social transformation, but this will not happen if they are simply held to account for academic achievement and behaviour inside the school.
As we observed two and a half years ago, if we accept that schooling should help prepare people and communities for life, then it is surely not unreasonable to use what happens to pupils outside of and after they leave school – including quantifiable measures such as time spent in community service, teenage pregnancy rates, drug problems, and criminal records – as a measure of each school's success. After all, this is all that the best schools are already doing when they proudly announce how many of their pupils have been accepted by the best universities or gone on to the best jobs – and what Gove is implicitly acknowledging when he complains that out of 80,000 children eligible for free school meals, last year just 40 made it to Oxbridge. The point is, though, Oxbridge is but one tiny indicator, not the be-all and end-all of life and education.
Gove begins the education white paper by declaring, 'Throughout history, most individuals have been the victims of forces beyond their control … But education provides a route to liberation from these imposed constraints.' However, if all the cultural forces outside of the school environment continue fostering self-centred, consumeristic attitudes, then education will not free children to fulfil their academic and social potential. Instead, alongside any educational values, it will simply be about offsetting some of the damage caused by the messages they constantly receive from outside the school gates, even if new statutory guidance is to 'extend head teachers’ powers to punish school pupils who misbehave on their way to or from school.' (p.35) Only when we have a clear picture of the kind of society we want to live in will we be able to formulate a clear idea of the kind of life and engagement with that society for which school should be preparing children.