A system where good people, do bad things, for the right reasons

This morning I read a post on the Guardian website from another ‘Secret Teacher’. The article was a heart-felt groan of frustration and professional angst from someone who was doing bad things, for good reasons, and watching children suffer as a consequence.

Later in the comments section, a contributor (@jadedjogger) asked: Yes. It’s an own-goal by the teaching profession. How did we get here?”

This also sounded heart-felt and made me think.

This is my answer.

I don’t think people in education do bad things for bad reasons, but our education system is poorly designed and built on internal inconsistencies. As a consequence the sad situation described in the Secret Teacher article is unhappy familiar to many of us.

From the late 70s politicians have taken an increasing interest in ‘running’ education.

They have done this for good reasons (generally) – because they believed through their management and guidance the educational outcomes of children could be improved and, by consequence, the economic prosperity of the country. There is some evidence to say they have been marginally successful in this.

However, education turned out to be far more complicated and difficult to manage than anyone knew. For example, some argue the single most important factor in the educational success of a student is the educational attainment of his/her mother. Not something easily changed by government policy. Further, other significant factors – family, peer group, community, and economic background – are also something very difficult to effect through direct intervention.

So, as this realisation grew inside the DfE, they decided the only part of the equation they could directly influence was schools.

At the same time, another well-meaning group of people started to have an influence in government, they called themselves the ‘Delivery-Unit’. The Delivery Unit were made up of mathematicians who believed sincerely and honesty the more data we have, the more we can manage the system and generate effective outcomes. This view has grown in prominence in the preceding years and has had a profound influence on our school system – directly and adversely affecting children’s experiences in school and teacher’s professionalism.

This, let me stress is an unintended outcome. I’ve met Michael Barber, he seems a very nice man. I don’t think any of the people involved in designing the new system of data collection and analysis wanted to make people’s lives’ worse – quite the opposite – but it happened because the system is far more complicated and difficult to understand than their systems allowed. As a consequence, what we are in the middle of is a huge social experiment, the hypothesis being: “Will focusing on raising standards improve educational outcomes for children and the economic success of the country?” We might also ask – “If it does, at what cost?”

To collect, analyse and communicate the new data the system started to invent new procedures and methods of measurement; these were seized on by politicians as tools they could use to influence schools and affect change. A big frustration for a series of education ministers was how ineffective their policies had been, this they blamed, not on their policies, but on ineffective teachers and resistant schools. The new data and their publication as league tables (and later as a main focus for inspections) was seen as the way schools could be forced to follow government policy. This development continues to grow.

At the same time, there were others, within the system who were concerned by the new focus on data and were arguing the department should be promoting a new professionalism with better trained and autonomous teachers. As a consequence many teachers engaged in research and schools became far more interested in pedagogy and cognitive science. There was a growing realisation, among the profession, that many of our teaching and learning strategies where outmoded and in need of reform. Although the situation is still far from perfect, there have been great strides forward in this area over the last 15 years.

Further developments also happened during the 90s and 2000s and by the end of the last Labour government there was an almighty ‘struggle’ happening within the system as the best way to move education forward, between those promoting the ‘standards agenda’ and those promoting curriculum and pedagogical development. It is a mistake to think there is a consensus within the establishment, in fact there is a war, which is why we constantly hear contradictory messages from the DfE, Ofsted and HMI.

So, what has this all got to do with the poor children and teachers in the article above? Simply, they are the ones that suffer. The architects of our education system, whatever their motivations, have through accident and lack of understanding created a climate where good people, do bad things, for the right reasons. And often hate themselves for doing it.

A good book on this is Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching: From political visions to classroom reality

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