Month: March 2014

If you’re serious about educational equality, it’s time to bite the bullet.

Britain’s private schools are renowned centres of excellence. They are lauded and endeared internationally. They are central to our culture. And they should be abolished. No education secretary of the last five decades has had the courage – or ideological framework – to suggest this, but the arguments in favour of ending our private, parallel schooling system are powerful.

Before I began my training with Teach First, I had to gain a week’s experience in a ‘challenging school’. ‘Challenging’ meant that over half of the children had to come from homes in the lowest 30% of the socio-economic scale. I duly contacted a primary school in East London that met these conditions and was assigned to observe a year 3 class. On the whole, I enjoy talking to children (who are interesting and hilarious) much more than adults (who are dull and close-minded), and over the first few days I got to know each of the kids. I discovered that most of them lived in the same high rise building across the road, and were eligible for ‘free school meals’.

Michael Gove constantly asserts that there is a ‘Berlin Wall’ between the state and private education systems which must be broken down. A recent summit at the New Statesman gathered several leading educational experts to discuss ways of doing this. Andrew Adonis proposed that private schools either sponsor local state schools, or convert to academy status; Anthony Seldon suggested that 25% of school places be reserved for children from the bottom income-quartile; Laura McInerney argued that the same proportion go to children ‘on a low-income or those of with low ability’.

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Free school meals is very loaded term. It is consistently used as a measure of ‘disadvantage’ as it marks a low family income, which in turn indicates a myriad of obstacles. I had been aware on a theoretical level that the odds were stacked against these children; statistically less than 5 of the class would go to university. Less than one child in front of me would go to a Russell Group university. To put this in context, over 96% of children attending a private school go on to university, half of which are Russell Group. It wasn’t just stats on a screen now, the kids were in front of me.

Adonis’ suggestions are not so much drops in the ocean as drops in the Sahara – no private school would voluntarily convert to academy status except for one fearing financial oblivion, while very few schools have been accepted as academy sponsors. Seldon and McInerney’s proposals deserve further exploration (and in the real world, they probably represent the best we can get), but I want to propose a more radical step.

It was these statistics that compelled me to apply for Teach First. On the third day of the placement, I accompanied the class on a school trip to the Museum of London. Before we set off, it was my job to check the children’s packed lunches and ensure that they contained enough food. I walked around the class, asking the children to open up their carrier bags – few had actual lunch boxes – and topped them up with some fruit and veg that the school kitchen had provided. The museum had a special room for school-children to have lunch, and when we entered we realised that we would be sharing with another school. After settling the children on their benches, I sat in the middle of the room and looked up. I looked from side to side, and saw two utterly disconnected worlds. Already, at seven and eight, the kids knew it. They did not interact with each other. Growing up, I would have been in the class on the left, but now I probably belonged more with the class on the right. I didn’t want to be with the class on the right. They already had too much.

Private schools should go. I am not a socialist and I don’t want to mandate equal outcomes in life. What I do want is for each child to have an equal opportunity in life. Private schools are the biggest block to this: they drive and reproduce inequality.

Most private schools boast far superior resources to most state schools; as a result, their pupils have a far higher chance of getting the best grades, accessing the best universities and landing the best jobs. If your parents cannot afford to pay for these advantages, then bad luck. Private education violates the principles of merit and desert: children are handed opportunities based on nothing other than the lottery of birth. This happens often in life, but when we can control it, we should.

 
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On my right, I saw 30 white children in blazers with floppily styled hair. They were eating, a nearby child told me “salt beef baguettes with root vegetable crisps and lemon cheesecake slices”. On my left, I looked at the class that I was helping to supervise. There were no white children there. Several were wearing stained tracksuit bottoms. I had become smitten with each and every one of them, and we continued to chat about how cool it would be to have a street named after you. If I was completely honest with them, though, I should have told them that the world did not belong to them. University and financial security was not really their path. 

Set against this fundamental injustice is an oft-imagined civil right. The retiring Headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, recently argued that ‘We conceive of ourselves as a free country and parents must have the fundamental right to choose how to educate their children.’ The appeal is stirring, but this claim deserves scrutiny. The vast majority of parents will never be able to choose between private and state education, even with the much-vaunted financial aid programmes in schools (which don’t sum to much in reality: fewer than 1% of private school pupils are on a full bursary). How can we live in a free country – in Mr. Little’s elision – if so few parents ever have the opportunity to exercise this fundamental right?

The kids on the other side of the room, they are the ones who will go on to access higher education and financial success. Although they are no cleverer than you, nor work any harder, they will get better grades than you. They will achieve more because they will get more. You literally have almost no chance. It’s already been decided. There is time to reverse it, but we won’t. Suck it up. I imagined this conversation. I’ve imagined it since. Only 5 of you. All of them. They would ask why. I don’t have an answer.  

I may be cynical, but portraying a move to ban private education as an assault on deeply-held liberties seems the prerogative of the rich and powerful. We are prepared to place social limits on the lengths that parents can go to in order to protect their offspring, in order to uphold a just society. Why should we preserve a right which most people can never exercise, to protect the few who can?

How to know when you’re doing philosophy – and why we should teach it in primary school.

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The subject of philosophy is notoriously difficult to define. A couple of hundred years ago, the term was used for almost all areas of academic pursuit; a hangover over from this is evident in our current nomenclature, the top accolade in graduate study is to receive a Phd, or to become a Doctor of Philosophy.

These days, the term ‘philosophy’ on its own is pretty meaningless. To exclaim that philosophy is basically just thinking or considering, and “Oh you’re reading this article so wow, you’re doing philosophy!” is as vacuous as it is irritating. Of course it must (at least) involve a systematic and analytic method, with a premium on questioning fundamental beliefs and values.

Whilst studying the subject at university, I viewed what I was doing as a sort of mental training; I was equipping myself, not unlike Batman, with a very particular method of thinking and analysis. There are core tenets to the discipline, I suppose: logic (the study of reasoning), metaphysics (the study of the nature of reality), ethics (the study of morality) and epistemology (the study of knowledge). But philosophy has suffered losing a multitude of its arms to its own bastard child: ‘science’.

Its greatest strength is also it’s Achilles heel, you can put ‘philosophy of…’ in front of pretty much anything, and what you’re left with is ‘let’s think critically about [subject] and form logical arguments’.  But empiricism has kind of stolen philosophy’s mantle in most areas. Philosophy of the mind: psychology and neuroscience. Social philosophy: anthropology and sociology. Philosophy of football: Becksistentialism. And on and on.

For a while, I became hugely disillusioned with my chosen degree as I discovered this divide. I had picked the wrong side, I thought. The only intellectual arenas philosophy still has an authority in are arenas that can’t involve a research project, and such arenas and their associated arguments are by definition unverifiable and therefore meaningless.It was for these reasons that I avoided all philosophy of religion modules, and focussed on philosophy of mind and philosophy of science, hopelessly trying to convince myself that I was basically doing an BSc.

These days, even traditionally ‘unscientific’ areas of philosophy like ethics are becoming claimed by neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists and cognitive psychologists. And physicists surely make a far more meaningful contribution to the subject of metaphysics than philosophers, especially since quantum theory. Armchair philosophy is all that is left, and that’s just ivory-tower-navel-gazing with no end point. Just big words and slightly amended definitions.

Since completing that damned degree, however, I have fallen back in love with the subject, and even challenged my plucky undergraduate self. I was, of course, nailing my flag to the ‘science’ mast, not ever really thinking about questioning precisely what science was. It was then I realised that to unravel science and its method – to explore its boundaries, claims and conclusions – I had to do philosophy. I had to define my terms, lay out my premises and see what conclusion followed. I had to challenge my previous beliefs based on rational thought and logic.

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These skills, few would disagree, are exactly the sorts of skills that we should be teaching in all of our schools. Wherever you stand on the core knowledge debate, An ability to critically analyse is, and always will be, well…critical. Philosopher Stephen Law notes that the common factor in people who sheltered Jews during Nazi occupation was not their religious affiliation (or lack thereof) but their philosophical upbringings, which taught them to question authority if what was being asked violated evident principles and morals.

Why do I drag up all of this nostalgia, I hear you ask?

Well, the feature article in this week’s TES is Tom Bennett’s defence of RE in school. Before the release, in a shameless attempt to piggyback off Tom’s success, I joked over twitter that my confirmation bias would read a defence of philosophy, and not RE. I know that Mr Bennett was formally trained in philosophy, and so the omission of the term even once in the article surprised me. Especially when the article’s strongest arguments were deeply philosophical in nature. Indeed, there is even a subtle epistemological distinction drawn between ‘learning about’ and ‘learning to’.

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Sidestepping the powerful argument of which religions we should teach, it is argued that because we live in a democracy, whichever religions are most prominent should take the focus. Unlucky if you’re a humanist or a Taoist, majority rules I’m afraid. It is interesting that most people would abandon this line of thinking when it comes to actively promoting other minority groups. Few agreed that we should scrap Black History Month or LGBT+ History Month, for example, because they felt that these minority groups should have a guaranteed place in the curriculum.

Mr Bennett argues that if we scrap RE, we will lose the subject that explores  “the role of reason and the senses in appreciating truth: where else are these subjects explored in the curriculum?” Examining role of reason and pursuit of Truth is as close to a definition of philosophy that you”ll get, and it is startling that the subject is not even mentioned as an afterthought. RE does not have a monopoly on free thinking or critical analysis, these are philosophy’s domain.

It is for these reasons that, in my year three class, I have taught more philosophy  this year than RE (although still not as much as I’d have liked to). Do issues of religion crop up? Of course – philosophical thinking naturally lends itself to topics of belief and existence. But it is, by and large, topic-neutral – a strength that RE lacks. Issues around “Darwinism, quantum mechanics, the Iraq War, homosexuality, superheroes and the causes of the Reformation” which all feature in Mr Bennett’s RE lessons would be better explored via philosophy, although I have a sneaky suspicion that these lessons were just philosophy by another (national curriculum, check) name.

Tom is right. Religion, and the study thereof, does indeed “wrestle with aspects of human existence”. To an extent, it wrestles with the whys and whats. But only if it is studied philosophically. And to gain a fuller picture, it has to be studied alongside questions of reality, knowledge and perception. If our kids can do that – which they should – then, well “Wow, you’re doing philosophy!”

Never mind Gove, why not scrap the whole DfE?

In 1997 the Labour Party returned to office after nineteen years in opposition. Almost immediately they placed the responsibility for monetary policy – the setting of interest rates and the supply of money – in the hands of the politically independent Bank of England. At a stroke, they shed their reputation for financial indiscipline, a reputation which had hung around their necks like a silver albatross for nearly three decades. (Of course, this albatross is now back and pumped full of steroids, but that’s beside the point here).

In 2014, as Michael Gove pushes his educational reforms with the zeal of a robotic dog stuck inside a cartoon, the state of our schools is as big a political issue as it has been for many years. Talk to the imaginary person in the street and the chances are that, if they are a Telegraph or Mail reader, they’ll tell you that Gove is the star of the coalition government, a no-nonsense crusader against the suffocating ‘blob’ of special interests which holds back our children. If they prefer the stylings of the Guardian, you’ll probably hear that Gove is unfit to hold office, or indeed to exist. 

Surveying these bilious debates between almost completely entrenched viewpoints, it’s tempting to wonder whether an Education Secretary of the future might propose such a bold parallel to Labour’s 1997 economic reform. Creating a non-partisan, independent body to devise and implement education policy would be an enormous departure from our political traditions, but is it an idea whose time has come?

The benefits of a politically independent education policy could be enormous. If designing a society from scratch, would we want to leave the responsibility for education in the hands of people who have no experience within the field and are liable to be booted out in every tabloid-appeasing reshuffle? Where is the sense in tying educational policy to the electoral cycle, even loosely? Why does policy design, implementation and reform need to go through a partisan political process at all? When we trust educators far more than we trust politicians, why do we as a country not have the faith to put our best educators in charge of their domain?

An educational policy centre staffed by highly respected experts from within the field would undoubtedly be a sea change in British society. But think of the possibilities. The ministry (or whatever ugly bureaucratic term could be dreamed up for it) would have the sole responsibility of designing and implementing the best-quality curriculum, exams and support structures for teachers. No rapid-fire turnover of educational leaders, no pressure to bow to any party political line. No need for teachers to become disenchanted at the constant meddling with curricula. Simply the opportunity to concentrate on producing lasting reform.

This may seem like woolly idealism, but there is reason to believe that partisan political interference in education is one of the main threats to the health of a national school system and its pupils. Complaints about the politicization of education have been surprisingly widespread across nations and eras, from colonial India to present-day Moldova. Some nations have achieved astonishing educational results in the context of a heavily politicised system. Notably, revolutionary Cuba achieved improvements which are recognised as amongst the most sharp and surprising in educational history, even within a system whose textbooks were stuffed with absurdly politicized and patriotic material. However, others – for example Pakistan and Kenya – have arguably almost self-destructed because of political interference.

A major study published in 2010 by Mona Mourshed, Chinezi Chijoke and Michael Barber (all globally reputed education advisors) hammered the point home. The authors found that, while the majority of educational systems worldwide were not improving – even those with massive levels of investment – a select few were progressing well. Continuity in leadership, and the active development of future leaders from within the educational system, were pinpointed as two of the most important factors. The authors did not suggest that non-partisan bodies were ideal or desirable, but they did argue that constant electoral changes which usher in philosophical and pedagogical changes can disrupt any schooling system. 

Singapore, for example, can boast one of the most rapid and extensive improvements to its education system. All but two of the posts in its Education Ministry are professional posts, filled by former teachers who have been identified and provided with opportunities for professional development. To be clear, I am not worshipping their system: the country does benefit from the political stability provided by the utter dominance of one party, and is hardly a model of democracy. Nevertheless, it would be stupid to discard any lessons from their incredible success.

Flying in the face of widespread ideas about our own educational degeneration, England was identified as another system which had performed well. The consistency of leadership on education policy under Labour over a thirteen-year period, if not consistency of personnel, apparently provided the necessary stability for this improvement. (This finding is a hornet’s nest which I do not feel qualified to prod, not here anyway.)

Of course, it is one thing to conduct hypothetical utopian experiments, and quite another to imagine how this idea would unfold in the real world. There are numerous problems with the idea of a non-partisan system. Firstly, education is an inherently political subject; witness the fiery ideological debates currently being conducted around academies, unqualified teachers, curricula (history in particular), and even the aims of education.

In light of this consideration, it would be almost impossible even to agree on the composition of such a large and diverse body. Reaching agreement on the dozens of policies required to support a successful education system would be an insuperable challenge. In particular, the idea that we might give birth to a ‘non-partisan’ history curriculum, devised by educators and supported by a majority across the spectrum of popular opinion, seems about as plausible as Russia and Ukraine tactically voting for each other at the next Eurovision Song Contest.

Even if agreements could be reached, the new body would find it almost impossible to defend against the sure-fire charge that they were imposing an elitist, unrepresentative dogma in an undemocratic way. For all its flaws, our current system at least ensures that elected representatives have the final say on legislation. It also boasts a parliamentary, cross-party Education Committee, which has teeth; in 2013 it made some fairly savage comments on proposed GCSE reforms. And although Gove has been roundly criticised for failing to consult enough experts, it would be foolish to think that any Education Secretary is going it alone; of course teachers, academics and education reformers have a role to play in the current system.

So, is the idea of a non-partisan educational body destined to remain a beautiful, but flawed and unrealistic, hope? It takes a truly great politician to voluntarily reduce or limit the scope of their powers – this is why, for example, George Washington beats George Bush – and there are numerous problems with the concept. It would not win support from important groups, it could be construed as undemocratic, education is just too political to be left to the experts. But what if a future politician did decide to put their faith squarely in those who are already trusted to educate our children, and asked educators to run the entire school system? It could be the best thing that ever happens to British education.

All change: If Twitter Got The Big Job

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Teachers do what they do because they believe that they can change people’s lives.

Very often, they believe that an inherent change is necessary from within education. ‘It’s not working,’ they say.

Teach First has struck a chord with the masses and become the biggest graduate recruiter in the country by promising its followers that they will lead a transformational change of the educational system. Future Leaders follows a similar rhetoric.

And yet, people (not least those very same teachers) get very cross when change is dictated from up high. Tristram Hunt got in trouble yesterday when he said that he wouldn’t change the change; a potential change of the change would have been better than the perceived change of not changing.

So, to change…or not to change? I asked twitter what they would do, in 140 characters, if they got the education secretary job tomorrow. Thanks to all of the wonderful contributors.

 

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What would you do?