Where Did Education, Education, Education, Go Wrong?

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In a speech on 23rd May 2001 Tony Blair made the following pronouncement:

Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people… In the past four years our teachers have achieved outstanding results. They have carried through what Ofsted calls a ‘transformation’ in primary school standards. The best primary test results ever. 160,000 more 11 year-olds reaching the standard for their age in literacy and numeracy than four years ago.

Blair wanted Britain to be a ‘Learning Society’. So what did we learn?

In his excoriating attack on Tony Blair, ‘Broken Vows: Tony Blair, the Tragedy of Power’ the controversial author Tom Bower seems to set out to destroy whatever positive views  one might still have of the former prime minister. I’m not going to get involved in all that here, there is one area, however, that interests me Bower believes that the: “setting of targets… caused real damage to a generation of British schoolchildren.” In an article referencing the book in the Sunday Times 6/3/16 Bower cites the OECD report from January stating that the position of English School leavers as worst out of 23 countries in literacy and numeracy was a: “direct result of the strategies, standards, benchmarks, performance indicators and targets introduced after 1997.” He adds that, thanks to Michael Barber and ‘deliverology’, rigid rules were imposed on teachers demanding what they should teach and how to teach it. “By 2001 teachers were no longer imparting knowledge but cajoling pupils to pass tests.” The dichotomy is between getting through a limited test when pressured and cajoled by teachers or a deep understanding of the subject being studied.

The high stakes nature of the tests, stressing the child, the teacher and all those with an interest in the institution does not help, instead the perceived need for accountability replaces education. Yet all through this time the tractor counting of ‘more children passing tests than ever before’ formed a smokescreen that obscured something that was becoming increasingly obvious to many teachers at the time, whilst education was seemingly getting better, whilst standards were seemingly rising inexorably, why was it that a good number of the pupils in front of them seemed to know and care less?

What mistakes made in that period continue to be made? Do we still have the setting of targets, are we still obsessed with the minutiae of data and tracking and chasing the pupil? Are we obsessed with test scores and tracking? Are we insisting on rigid rules for teachers to follow? Is the Barber/Blair axis alive and well in our schools? Are we seeing ‘results’ whilst the underlying performance of the children is stagnant at best?

There is a problem with setting targets for individual children based on statistics of probable performance for a cohort. Ed Cadwallader has it nailed where, in a recent piece for Schools Week he writes that:

The culture of setting targets and holding people to account is so entrenched that it persists even though the method for deciding those targets is flawed. The very term “pupil targets” is misleading because really these targets are meant for teachers, who face censure when students fail to reach them, in spite of the fact that giving pupils misleading targets that cap their aspirations makes teachers’ jobs harder.

Is there still a culture in some schools that the only way to deliver success is the Blairite way? In the meantime will our children undergoing this form of education continue to satisfy some measure or other but continue to languish somewhat when it comes to actually learning something beyond the rather lowly ambitions of the ‘learning society’?

This is not to say that accountability is a bad thing per sé but that when accountability is too dominant those in the system become so fearful that though all or most of the headline measures might be reached, the underlying performance, ‘education, education, education’ is allowed to decay.

Dylan William is right when he says:

Instead of asking “What level of achievement should we have as a target?” we should ask, “What do we need to do to make sure that this child is ready for Year 4?” As Rick DuFour says, “Don’t tell me you believe that all students can succeed. Tell me what you do when they don’t”.

We could add that knowing more than is needed for year 4 should not be a problem either. The target for all children in your class should be to ‘know their stuff’, do they have the skills necessary to tackle the subject you are teaching them and how do they compare with the other children? If all are struggling, what are you going to do? If one or two are struggling, what are you going to do? If some or many are excelling where do you go next? This is meaningful ‘targeting’ based on what you are teaching and what the pupils are learning.

I have written about targets replacing teaching here.

A true learning society would value the quality of learning rather than just the quantity of it. Measuring should support, not drive this learning, and rather than cajole teachers with centralised diktats and suffocate education with benchmarks, performance indicators and targets the teachers should ‘rise like lions from their slumbers’ and be free to teach.

Education, just say it once.

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16 thoughts on “Where Did Education, Education, Education, Go Wrong?

  1. fsandall5

    It appears that much of what Blair said and did turned out to be empty political posturing. He learned from Thatcher that sound bites get attention not long speeches. Yes education has suffered badly as a result of target driven accountability. All things now are driven by economics. We know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Meanwhile generations of children suffer the lack of learning. We shall all rue the day!

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  3. Pat Stone

    Yes. We are training children for the high jump and then entering them for the long jump event that is life.
    An aside: Although I agree with what you say here, I am reminded of a very wise old head telling me years ago that a school year is not a prep for the next. Year 4 is year 4 and it is what it is. Each key stage is what it is. This constant fuss about what is coming next, as if all classes and teachers are mere servants of year 6 and then of year 11 reflects the target setting culture you write about. Let 11 year olds be 11 and learn and do what 11 year olds ought. They will be 16 soon enough, and the best 16 year olds, if we do our jobs properly, and don’t prevent them. We don’t need to be always shoving children towards the end point with no enjoyment of the stations along the way. They can’t go back to revisit the foothills of year 1 etc, and it’s not fair of us to whizz them past.
    It’s not fair.
    I’m scared to think of the psychological effects on children of being told that everything they do could have been better. Imagine life outside of school if adults were treated in this way at work every day. More more more. Better better better. There’d be nobody left standing. Teachers are treated in this way – they are leaving in droves. Children can’t leave nor complain to the bursar. Yes, be aspirational, but aspiring to what? Shouldn’t we be helping our children to be the best they can be right now, not in 5 years time?
    We need to teach our curriculum imparting fascination, enthusiasm, awe and wonder (remember awe and wonder?) of what it is, what it is now, today. Then turn up tomorrow and do it again.

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      Hi Pat, thanks for your comment. I agree entirely that you shouldn’t spend the time preparing kids just for ‘what is next’, it is why I have come to dislike the idea of schooling as a ‘journey’. I much prefer the idea propounded by Oakeshott that it should be seen as an ‘adventure’.

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  4. Ed Cadwallader

    This is a great post for capturing the difficulty of treating Education as a simple process of inputs and measurable outputs. I think that accountability is like gravity, the right amount keeps our feet on the ground, too much bends and distorts us out of shape. I would like to see schools account for themselves outwards, to the communities they serve, rather than upwards to Westminster. That way they could justify their performance in terms of the intangible, or immeasurable, fruits of learning to an audience that could inspect evidence of these beyond the platitudes of a mission statement. Sadly, this flies in the face of the centralising tendencies of New Labour and its Conservative successors.

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  5. mmiweb

    I have been in “dispute” with my daughter’s school over the different between assessment and tracking. In parents evening being told my child has made “x levels progress” or “is now exceeding expectations” is actually no use to me or to her – this is something that the school might want to monitor but I would argue that for children there are only three important questions:

    – What was it I was supposed to have learned?
    – What evidence do you have that I have (or have not)?
    – What do I need to do next?

    Now, there of course will be debate over the first one if it is too rooted in “pass the test”

    So we need to get back to thinking of assessment not as an external function which meets the targets of the school (or the government) but an internal process that focusses on the development of the child. This does not solve the problem of what they should be learning but I do think tackles one of the reasons that they are often discouraged or disenfranchised.

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  6. julietgreen

    Yes, I have also written, at least a couple of times, on the distinction between an attainment culture and an education culture. I’m less convinced that we need ‘accountability’ (at least in any of the forms that we have it, currently). It appears to be doing much more harm than good. I love the idea that education is an adventure and that’s precisely what it no longer is. I find myself stopping the interesting discussion we’re having in class on a subject in which I have some expertise, because I know it ticks none of the boxes by which I will be ‘measured’ at the end of the year. How desperately sad is that!

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  7. teachwell

    I’m with you on a number of fronts but you know full well that the current crop of SLT/HT are part of the dumbing down culture and asking them to change to a system where learning is still paramount is not going to be easy. Also it hits at their own failures in the past which far too many would rather cover up! So the autonomy is not going to be exercised by those who will push an agenda such as yours. It will be used to keep the system the same – hence triple marking – or even worst slip back to the quagmire of the 1980s.

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  8. teachingbattleground

    I didn’t start teaching until 2001. And the most obvious trend in the years that followed was the repeated attempts by politicians to reduce testing. Science SATs were abolished. KS3 SATs were abolished. KS1 sats replaced with teacher assessment. Non-exam subjects like BTECs grew. Even recently exams in year 12 have ceased to be compulsory. Schools fought back, introducing multiple resits and opting for modular exams until the politicians acted against this. The real question has got to be why schools like giving kids exams so much more than politicians do.

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  9. Rodney

    Thank you sir. Great piece on where we are right now. I have bookmarked this to revisit as I am sure this will still be the position in a year from now.

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  11. Mike Tyler

    The problem with ‘education, education, education’ is the problem of having all of one’s eggs in one basket.

    Blair essentially preached here (whether he believed it or not) that education was the solution to the ills of wider society, and many teachers eager to see great and far-reaching value in the profession nodded in agreement. But we did so without considering the consequences of such a position, or the burden that we were accepting.

    The consequence has been the public/common-sense embedding of the idea that any social problem stems from problems within education, and that all social problems must henceforth be tackled ‘at root’ (i.e. in school). Thus we get the Prevent agenda (tackling ‘extremism’ at root), and the Building Character nonsense (tackling ‘unBritishness’ at root), and the Healthy Schools drive (tackling obesity) and so on.

    Schools are therefore now the playground of politicians of all stripes who, buying into the ‘education-will-save-us-all’ mantra, chop and change policy at will thinking they will effect change in wider society. These aforementioned issues however are far more complex, entrenched and change-resistant than our schools can be expected to deal with. We’ll play our part, but we’re suffering from being expected to do it all. In the meantime, we should be released from this social engineering and get back to teaching kids to love reading, writing, singing and thinking.

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