By Jacqui Freeman
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A vision for education

This article is over 7 years, 4 months old
There is a growing rejection among parents and teachers of the narrow rote learning advocated by the Tories. Jacqui Freeman looks at alternative approaches focused on engaging children.
Issue 401

In February Tory prime minister David Cameron and secretary of state for education Nicky Morgan declared war “on mediocrity” and “on illiteracy and innumeracy”. Bold words for a government whose flagship Academy and Free School programmes have been shown not to improve standards more than comprehensive schools and which has presided over a 25 percent increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession.

Undeterred, Cameron announced plans for 500 more free schools should the Tories be re-elected, at a cost of £4.6 billion to the school building fund. In a poll carried out by the Mirror on the same day some 85 percent of voters opposed free schools. As Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, pointed out, “Instead of focusing on the need for more primary school places, David Cameron’s government has spent £241 million on free schools in areas that already have enough school places. The result is a 200 percent increase in the number of infants taught in classes of more than 30.”

Yet Labour does not oppose free schools in principal, or academies or the school improvement and accountability regime pushed by Ofsted and the Tories. Hunt denounced as “total madness” Green Party education policies to delay formal schooling to the age of six, end standardised testing and abolish academies and free schools. Yet evidence does not support the main parties’ enthusiasm for academisation. A House of Commons Select Committee for Education report published in January stated that “current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change”.

Henry Stewart’s analysis of the 2014 GCSE data showed that once GCSE equivalents (such as BTEC) were stripped out, “sponsored academies actually performed worse than similar non-academies”. This undermines Nicky Morgan’s proposal to sack head teachers and convert primary schools into academies unless every pupil by the age of 11 knows their timetables off by heart, can do long division, complex multiplication and read a novel.

Such policies represent a continuation of Michael Gove’s ideological war on teachers’ pay, unions and teachers who rejected his elitist, traditionalist approach and racist promotion of “British values” in favour of a more progressive, multicultural, child-centred approach. Morgan was initially viewed as less overtly confrontational than Gove, who was sacked due to the extent of opposition his onslaught on education provoked. But she has shown that Tory education policy remains committed to selection, competition and privatisation.

Children are increasingly expected to memorise facts, are to be subjected to “base-line tests” from the age of four, and the pressure of Ofsted restricts schools from developing a creative, long-term vision for all pupils. Morgan’s ambition is that England becomes “one of the top five performing countries worldwide — and the best in Europe — for English and maths”. Research shows that the single most important factor in increasing standards is the quality of teaching. Yet there has been a systematic downplaying of university-based teacher training in favour of on the job training and fast-tracking high achievers through the Teach First graduate scheme.

There has been a proliferation of non-qualified teachers in academies and free schools. This has led to an 11 percent fall in applications to teacher training programmes. Compare this to Finland where teachers train to masters degree level. Teachers there enjoy a much higher status and have time to reflect on different pedagogies (theories of teaching) and share good practice. They also prioritise socially meaningful project-based learning, rather than individualised memorising of facts. It is these measures and the involvement of education unions which helped Finland to improve school standards in the 1990s.

Little wonder then that there is a growing rejection among parents, teachers and educationalists of this narrow rote learning and high-stakes testing advocated by Morgan. Opposition to Coalition plans finds expression in the successful grass-roots campaign to oppose forced academy conversion, such as at Hove Park School in Brighton and the recent strikes in four Lewisham schools over the same issue; the National Union of Teachers “Stand up for Education” campaign, including Education Question Times; street stalls and several one-day strikes in 2014 with the launch of a national petition and Manifesto for Education plus lobbies of MPs this year.

There have also been one-day conferences, such as the recent Reclaiming State Education event, and a number of websites created, including and Teacher Roar. The last issue of the Education for Liberation magazine of the Socialist Teachers Alliance sold over 1,000 copies, illustrating the audience for ideas based on radical pedagogy.

What all share is a commitment to defend state education from privatisation by corporate sponsors, a number of whom have given substantial donations to the Tories’ election coffers — Lord Harris of the Harris academy chain has donated £3 million. In a recent interview for the Institute of Directors’ magazine David Cameron suggested that schools should become the educational equivalent to The Apprentice. He stated, “Children need to know how money is made, about turning over a profit.” For the nearly 100,000 children who currently go hungry due to benefit cuts, this is unlikely to be their top priority.

Campaigners also reject test-based learning, which restricts the curriculum, robs it of creativity and divides children into successes and failures from an early age. Research conducted by released in March demonstrated what every teacher knows: that pupil progress is not linear. Children do not learn robotically with knowledge progressing in a straight line but can make leaps in cognitive understanding at points and have periods where they do not fully understand concepts, and falter along the way. The study states, “Our evidence suggests that the assumptions of many pupil tracking systems and Ofsted inspectors are probably incorrect.”

Moreover, the researchers stressed that children seen as being “low-attainers” in the first years of school often performed well by the end of secondary, indicating how statistically invalid baseline tests at four will be as an indicator of later educational achievement. Not only does the data achieved from such tests impact on how children are taught in classrooms through which set or stream they are placed in, it affects the curriculum they have access to with less “academic” pupils channelled towards vocational subjects. Since the introduction of performance related pay in September 2014, it also influences how head teachers view a teacher’s performance and whether they get a pay rise.

Consequently, rather than trusting teachers to develop stimulating, challenging lessons within democratically run state schools, where children work together to share ideas and discover the world around them, they are forced to reduce everything to data-crunching. Moreover, this is not the education system that parents want. Child Line registered a 200 percent increase in the number of children contacting them over exam stress in 2013-14.

A 2011 poll showed 81 percent of the public trust teachers as compared to 14 percent who trust politicians, suggesting that teachers and educationalists should have far more say in how the curriculum is comprised and ways of teaching it to create an alternative vision of education.

The growing movement in the US against the Common Core State Standards in Maths and English and the aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a fruitful example. Previous articles in this magazine have described the city-wide strikes by Chicago teachers against standardised testing. Parents, educationalists, teachers and students in other parts of the US have also organised boycotts of the tests and developed a national coordinating organisation called United Opt Out.

As the US Teacher Solidarity blog recently reported, students in New Jersey and New Mexico have organised walk-outs and marches in protest at the tests, and thousands of teachers and public school activists protested in New York against the state governor’s pro-privatisation and anti public school plans. One Colorado teacher said, “I believe that refusing PARCC is the first step in taking down the Common Core boondoggle…and in saving our profession, which is being hijacked in numerous ways by those who know a lot about increasing profit, but who know nothing about teaching children.”

Opposition to Common Core has led to a wider questioning of current educational practices with a small number of schools abolishing homework. Hamilton Elementary School in Chicago and KIP Bay elementary in New York have replaced homework for young children with PDF — play, downtime and family time — with an encouragement to read for fun. As one parent reported, “This week my kids have been outside until it’s time for bed, just playing, being kids.” This approach is supported by educationalists like Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, who states, “Let’s be clear, there is no evidence of any benefit of any kind of homework before high school.”

Studies have shown how active, group-based learning aids achievement, particularly for lower-attaining students, develops more complex and abstract thinking skills and promotes engagement and self-esteem alongside helping students to develop leadership qualities, a sense of responsibility and appreciation for different perspectives.

It also improves social interaction between students. In contrast, according to a DfE study, “In ability-based grouping, pupils in lower groups are vulnerable to making less progress, becoming de-motivated and developing anti-school attitudes.” Equally, studies of inquiry based learning projects have shown how very young children can develop a meaningful understanding of the world around them.

This is described by an Australian parent whose daughter participated in such a project: “Children do not sit in traditional classrooms. They do not learn en-masse. Instead they are involved in leading their own learning, by making choices about how they want to investigate a particular inquiry. The investigation can take the form of an animated film, a documentary…while it doesn’t suit everyone, and sometimes panics certain families because they struggle to quantify their children’s learning, the very notion of instilling a passion to learn in children as young as five is remarkable.”

The project began when a parent and refugee lawyer was invited in to talk about the lives of refugee children and pupils considered how it would feel to be denied the space and freedom to play. The children were tasked with making toys for refugee children and later presented their work in an assembly:

“Some children spoke about creating felt birds because they were the symbol of freedom… Others spoke of designing a toy similar to one they had at home, because they thought it would mean more. Another group of children stood and read from the cards they had made — messages of hope and friendship.”

This is the kind of project children will remember for years and the type of learning that inspires people to become teachers, particularly within the current climate of daily anti-migrant outbursts from UKIP. It represents on a small scale the kind of child-centred, socially meaningful and transformative approach to learning embodied in the radical pedagogy of the Russian educational psychologist and revolutionary Lev Vygotsky, who became well-known posthumously for his work on how children learn.

In a range of books and essays written in the 1920s and 1930s including Educational Society, Thinking and Speech and Mind and Society, Vygotsky used a Marxist method combining social, historical and cultural factors to explain how children acquire language, and the centrality of play in their development.

His work was both theoretical and practical, with the aim of educating all to have the confidence to challenge existing ideas and be part of creating a different society. Vygotsky placed great emphasis on the educational role of play during which young children use “pivots” (eg a stick to represent a non-existent horse they might want to ride) as a transitional stage to imaginary and abstract thought. Through play children also learn social rules and self-regulation.

He wrote of how: “In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour. In play it is as if he were a head taller than himself.” Imagine his response to the sidelining of play in the Early Years curriculum in favour of formal writing and tests.

Through his idea of a Proximal Zone of Development, Vygotsky showed how much more a child can achieve with adult guidance, collaboration or peer support than they could independently, called the Actual Level of Development (ALD). Tests that focus on the ALD orientate learning to yesterday’s development, which leads to demotivation and disillusionment among learners. This was particularly the case for children with Special Educational Needs where an assumption was often made that acquiring abstract thought was too hard for them, leading to teaching methods focused on concrete, “look and do” methods. Vygotsky argued that precisely because of the difficulty they experienced in acquiring abstract thought, these children needed a supportive push in that direction at school.

Educationalist Terry Wrigley takes this up when he talks of “pedagogies of poverty” — how the poorest children may be given a “dumbed down” curriculum with an emphasis on the vocational. Not only does this reinforce a sense of shame and futility among working class students but the lack of cognitive challenges or wider horizons bores them so they disengage.

A wide chasm exists between Vygotsky’s radical pedagogy and the current emphasis on memorising facts, individual test scores and being educated to know your place within the social hierarchy. He wrote, “Pedagogical movements that have emphasised formal discipline and urged the teaching of classical languages, ancient civilisations, and mathematics have assumed that regardless of the irrelevance of these particular subjects for daily living, they were of the greatest value for the pupil’s mental development.”

This is not to say that working class children should be denied access to classical languages, ancient civilisations or maths, but that prioritising these over subjects such as music, art or drama, as the Tories would like to, does not represent an intellectually engaging or balanced curriculum.

This is why it is crucial that parents, teachers, students and educationalists join together in community campaigns and through trade union action to fight for one that does.


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