Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Education Debate: Bun fight with Baker, Benn, rosen & Gibb

A hostile and baying audience, of largely teachers, Nick Gibb (ex Minister for Schools), Kenneth Baker (Thatcherite turned vocational learning evangelist), Melissa Benn (critic of Govism) and Michael Rosen (Gove’s bĂȘte noir). My friend Mathew Clayton organised the debate and we spoke about the need to get the juices flowing, by finding adversaries, he did, and it worked.
Nick Gibb wants facts and more facts
Nick Gibb was first out of the blue corner, with the usual statistics around failure – large numbers of children not achieving 5 reasonable GCSEs and low levels of numeracy and literacy. He was proud that he had freed schools from the stranglehold of the Local Authorities and then brought in that weasel word ‘competition’ which he thinks will sort it all out. He felt he had sharpened OFSTED, raised the bar on teacher entry qualifications and slimmed down the primary curriculum, as well as reintroducing a more knowledge-based curriculum. Oh and he loves Latin. To be fair I did agree with his final point about the teaching profession, when left to its own devices, managed to wreck literacy for two decades or more through the use of ‘look and say’ literacy teaching. I witnessed this ‘whole word’ madness in the primary school my own kids attended in the late nineties. The move to phonics is good. However, he made a serious gaff, that Rosen picked up on later….
Melissa Benn wants reform without rancour
She objected to the ‘tone’ of the reform and would prefer ‘reform without rancour’. Fair enough, but this is England, where parents would eat other parents livers to get their kids into the 'right' school and where the teaching profession has never been short of delivering bouts of its own rancour. That was obviously alive and kicking at this event. She did, however, have a good point about ‘demoralisation’. It’s one thing to criticise, another to kick an entire profession in the teeth. Where she came into her own was on the evidence. Here, she thought, the policies were fraudulent. Academies are not better, indeed often worse. Curriculum changes idiosyncratic and regressive, and free schools downright dangerous. She feared a return to the Secondary modern versus Grammar schools and her final recommendation was the Finnish system, a low test, comprehensive system that produces world leading results.
Kenneth Baker wants vocational provision
Baker has turned out to be a  bit of a rebel in his dotage. He sounded more like a Trade Union leader than Thatcherite. Pupils will stay on until 17 this year and 18 next year. We haven’t grasped the consequences of this, he claims. We need to reset the break point to 14, not 16 and introduce vocational paths, if we are to succeed as a country. He’s right – school leaving exams at 16 make no sense. Read his book. It’s not half bad. In it he recommends four types of colleges, schools, and academies:
1. Liberal Arts Colleges for academic studies;
2. University Technical Colleges (UTCs);
3. Career Colleges for practical, vocational subjects;
4. Sports, Creative and Performing Arts Colleges.
He thinks this will create a coherent range of routes leading to university, apprenticeships and employment. The problem is parity. As long as we refuse to acknowledge parity of academic and vocational qualifications, these will fail. However, to give him his due, at least he has some ideas around vocational learning. He was attacked by the audience for daring to mention ‘empoyability’. But he’s right. Education is not ALL about employability but education and teaching have long ignored its importance. Germany had copied our system after the war and flourished. Blair, he thinks, put a spanner in the works by killing off the Tomlinson recommendations – again he’s right. Interestingly, he was also against the creation of any new faith schools – good man.
Michael Rosen wants pedagogy not demagogy
Michael put the boot into Nick Gibb, when Nick recommended the new SPAG tests at 11, something introduced in the face of all the evidence that shows that teaching grammar is a waste of time, he read back a hopelessly, ungrammatical sentence Gibb had uttered just a few minutes earlier. Rosen’s point was that language changes. Oh how we laughed! He rightly ridiculed Gove, who thinks he’s an omniscient expert on everything. Imagine a Secretary of State for health telling doctors how to diagnose and treat patients, that's waht Gove does in education. This would be fine, but as Gibb said earlier, teachers were teaching 'whole word' literacy not long ago, a technique akin to voodoo. Medicine is based on science. Education is not well evidenced –witness learning styles, Mozart effect, L/R brain theory, Brain Gym, whole word literacy and so on. All we hear about is teaching, he claimed, and little on learning. Then he stuck the knife in on selective evidence, backed up with some knowledgeable interventions from the audience.
I didn’t wholly agree with any of them but agreed with some of what all of them said. In fact, the most impressive speaker was Kenneth Baker, as he, at least, had a clear idea about shaping the future. He was also keen to focus, not on the top 25% but the rest. Baker was not, as Michal Rosen put it, “depressingly utilitarian” but we do need to ask whether these sort of choices should be made at 14 or whether we widen out the options later. Gibb was backward looking and depressing but right about the failure of teaching and education to really deliver on literacy, when it went off at a tangent with ‘whole word’ teaching but he was wholly misguided with his guff on Latin and SPAG tests. Melissa Benn was right to uncover the selectivity of the evidence by Gove but didn’t really seem to have much of a vision beyond copying Finland. I happen to agree with this but in class-ridden, conservative-parent Britain it’s hopelessly utopian. Michael Rosen was right to focus on learning but lacks vision. Bit of a British bun fight but that was what was needed to make us all reflect. The problem is that UK education game has too many vested interests - independent schools, faith schools, universities, unions, parents and social classes to ever sort any of this out. A national perspective around the future for our young people isn't even on the table.

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