The Hunt For An Education Policy: Do We Need Less Creativity?

Today Tristram Hunt addressed the question: “Who Should Have The Power To Create The School Curriculum?” His answer was, as I remember it,  that it should be teachers working together in schools, clusters and chains. He reiterated his stated policy that all schools, regardless of what type of school they are, will have freedom to innovate and create their own curricula and will not be beholden to the national curriculum. The current National Curriculum will remain in place and will act as a guide, schools might take it as a starting point rather than see it as top down prescription.

I agree with this, I’d prefer teachers and schools to have autonomy, institutions should have a responsibility over what they do. By going through the process of developing its values through its curriculum a school will enable profound staff development and I think schools, teachers and pupils will flourish as a result. If the primary school nearest to me decides that in order to best meets the needs of its children they should design a curriculum with a heavy focus on literacy and numeracy because it feels its children arrive at the school needing a lot of support in these areas then that is all well and good. If I feel that my child is already pretty strong in literacy and numeracy and I want her to go to a school where the arts, competitive sport, foreign languages, are to the fore I could look for a school that, with its freedom to innovate, provides a curriculum in which children can study these subjects in more depth whilst still studying English and Mathematics but not as much, then I would send her to that school.

Only I won’t because in our far from ideal world I don’t have a real choice.  

A system of choice is only really fair if there is massive over capacity in the system allowing parents to a) have a choice and b) get their first choice. With the current system this is likely to occur less and less as we are not building enough new schools. It is also only realistic in urban areas where schools tend to be closer together, in rural areas the choice is far more likely to be based on which is the closest. The choice that parents have if they don’t like the school allocated to them is this: if they are rich enough, they might choose to privately educate their child or even, if able, to home educate. They might try to get on the governing board to ‘change the school’, though I don’t think every parent will be able to do this. They might move house to an area in order to get their child into a school of which they approve (which can be costly). They might resign themselves to the school they get and hope for the best… maybe get tutors, pay for extra curricular classes (again financial considerations)?  

If we are to only have enough schools with one place for one child then, if the system is to be equitable, we really need to send our children to schools that all teach in exactly the same way. The world of medicine is frequently compared to schools and a postcode lottery in health provision indeed occurs but, generally, you don’t get homeopathic care instead of major surgery because a GP has the freedom to be creative. Most of us would prefer a GP to know what they were doing and all do the right thing in pretty much the same way. In an uncreative school system it would be easy to ensure that all teachers taught from the same text book and that if a child moves schools they can pick up where they left off. The other advantage of this system would be that instead of asking teachers to be creative, which is all right if you have a creative teacher but a downright disaster if your teacher lacks the required skills to innovate, you can expect teachers to be proper public servants and do as they are told by teaching the lesson plan provided by central government or as near as dammit to the national curriculum provided. 

This then is the problem: creative curricula designed by creative teams of teachers will only work fairly if parents have a choice. If they can’t have a choice then it is fairer to have less innovation and demand that all schools stick to the national curriculum, including academies and free schools. It seems to me that the schools policy of both the Government and the Opposition lacks the nerve to pump in the necessary money to do the former and the will power to do the latter. Innovative schools are great if they innovate the way you want them too, if they innovate in a way that you think is no good for your child, what then? 

10 thoughts on “The Hunt For An Education Policy: Do We Need Less Creativity?

  1. artboy1

    Well argued, and I agree with your basic premise (and particularly your pertinent comments regarding ‘choice’), but I doubt that a simple either/or option could ever be the reality or even desirable.

    Please excuse the cliché but, since teaching is an art not a science, whatever ‘set texts’ and rules are laid down by any central authority it is up to the individual teacher in a classroom to bring them to life and enthuse real children in all their diversity. While it is obviously right to expect an agreed central core of subjects and skills to be taught, both teachers and children also need the opportunity to extemporise. This is vital if schools are to be environments where children (and those teaching them) can grow, rather than turning schools into sterile training facilities. It should be remembered that many, if not most, of the developments in education in the past came from the shop floor and not the board room, and were then taken up by leaders and politicians. To use your example of medicine, how far would it have advanced if practitioners had been made to stick to Ancient Greek texts, in spite of knowing their basis in superstition and seeing from experience that they did not work, or were directed how to treat illnesses by politicians and patients? Of course there has to be accountability and public oversight of both medics and teachers, but that’s very different from ignoring their professional expertise. They need enough autonomy to make decisions based on their knowledge and experience.

    Of course this will mean continuing variations between schools, but I’m afraid that’s just life, and those with the power will have to work hard to even this out where possible. I also think that too much of the education argument hinges only on schools. Children spend far more time at home than in school, so parents have to accept far more responsibility for their offspring’s education. As I’m sure you know, it’s not just about money, it’s also about spending time listening and talking, encouraging children to take an active interest in books, museums, sports and the world around them.

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    1. SurrealAnarchy Post author

      I think you’re right. It still leaves us with a problem about choice if a parent doesn’t think that the school on offer is the best for her child. What to do? Yes, home environment is important, though many schools are trying to take children away from home as much as possible to allow parents ‘to work’.

      Allowing teachers to teach in different ways is one thing, but freedom over the whole curriculum is another. This is why Hunt argues for local ‘directors’ to oversee schools to ensure standards and that they offer a broad curriculum. I wonder how they will judge whether it is broad enough? Maybe they will, in the end, judge breadth by using the national curriculum as a template which means there will be a national curriculum in all but name.

      My preferred outcome in a system of choice is to ensure there is over capacity though I am also thinking about other possible solutions that I may blog about if I can convince myself they are any good!

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  2. gfrblxt

    Excellent points, and ones I see no clear path to resolving. I especially appreciate your acknowledgement of rural areas and the lack of choice that will likely accrue to them. I grew up in the rural Midwest of the US, and the idea that there could be “specialty” high schools for science and mathematics, my areas of interest, was as remote to me as the idea of climbing Everest. One thing I notice, teaching as I now do in a densely populated area, is the idea of “choice” as a panacea is almost taken as a given in many conversations. Thanks for reminding people that realistically, much would have to change in order for that to be practical everywhere.

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  3. Andrew Sabisky

    Interesting post. I think it highlights the lack of a basic pedagogy across the system, because this stuff just does not seem to exist in teacher training (from what I hear). Nothing fancy, no reinventing the wheel, just a basic, off-the-shelf pedagogical package: this is how you teach X subject at Y age for Z exam at ABC different levels of ability, these are the useful textbooks (& those are the duffers), these are some tried and tested behavioural management techniques, yada yada yada, 6 months basic training, off you go.

    Ideally, teachers should not be constrained to this standardized package, but should be liberated by it to go out and experiment on their own knowing they have a robust, research-backed template to fall back on if something new they try goes tits up. This would alleviate some of the problems you discuss here; even if a school or teacher is trying something creative not to a parent’s taste, the parent can at least be reassured that underlying it all is a well-tested method.

    That does not entirely square the circle, but it helps. I do think homeschooling is a great option that the middle class, for whom private schooling is increasingly unaffordable, will start to adopt in greater numbers.

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      Might it be something to do with the, sometimes unstated, aims of a school? In other words if the desired outcomes are different for schools then the curriculum to deliver those different outcomes will also differ. In order to have a stable approach to the curriculum would schools have to agree to have the same outcomes? Is that possible in a system based on competition with such a wide variety of different schools? Can a Harris Academy agree to the same outcomes as a Muslim School, a Steiner School agree with an ICT specialist Academy etc? And if they can will the outcomes be so bland as to be meaningless?

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      1. Andrew Sabisky

        this is going to sound really mechanistic, and I am not suggesting the aims of a school are or should be limited or this aim, but I’d assume (almost) all schools, at the minimum, share the common aim of seeing as many of their pupils as possible get high grades in good A-levels and go on to university or profitable employment? Or am I just being hopelessly naive?

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      2. Martin Robinson Post author

        I expect most schools don’t teach A levels. An interesting point though should schooling be predominantly about a smooth linear journey from school to further study/work is certainly a view or even a myth as to what schools are for.

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      3. Andrew Sabisky

        I don’t think schools should primarily be about the journey from ignorance to university/work; education has a holistic value – the cultivation of the mind – beyond that. However, as part of that project, schools should certainly assist their pupils to be in a position whether they can either continue that cultivation at university, or go off to earn some money. Money can also be a significant aid to the development of further knowledge – look at all the independent gentlemen-scholars of the 19th century. Darwin got nothing out of university, but travel gave him the experiential basis for his later work, and financial independence allowed him the time to develop it.

        Part of my problem is a lack of perspective – I come from an upper middle-class bubble (to a degree) and work within that bubble (undeniably). Within that world there’s a fuzzy understanding, even when the child is quite young, that that linear pathway has to be trod and trod it will be, one way or another. To paraphrase every Tory politician as of late, there’s a Long Term quasi-economic Plan in parenting (and schooling also, of course).

        Outside of my bubble, does that exist, particularly on the schools’ side of things?

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  4. Pingback: Education Panorama (August ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

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