Stephen Ball: The Education Debate

Have you ever wondered how government ministers can keep a straight face while making extravagant speeches about giving freedoms to schools and trusting teachers? If we judge them on their record it seems almost impossible they actually believe what they are saying.

In 2010, for example, Michael Gove proclaimed during an interview with Andrew Marr, “I’m a decentraliser. I believe in trusting professionals.

Was it a barefaced lie or did he mean it? The evidence would seem to speak for itself. When he became Secretary of State for Education the first thing he did was convince parliament to give him fifty new powers and, when he was sacked four years later, he left a profession more demoralized, over-worked, and underappreciated than at any time in living memory.

Stephen Ball’s book on the history of modern education, ‘The Education Debate’, does an excellent job of explaining why politicians and educationalists often see the function of schooling in very different ways and why it is possible Michael Gove and other education ministers might really believe what they are saying is true.

Ball’s main argument is that education policy has become increasingly dominated by economic imperatives over the last twenty-five years. And, as a result, successive Governments – Conservative, Labour, and coalition – have recalibrated the school system to perform at the service of economic productivity and international competitiveness.

These have become the new benchmarks to measure the success of our education system and take precedence over all other considerations. Thus, while certain ideas, topics, and speakers are given precedence, others are marginalised and excluded from the debate.

In the same way as the pigs in Animal Farm justify their new powers and progressively draconian control to be in the best interests of everyone on the farm, so the politicians at the DfE, under Gove’s banner, ‘Decentralisation and Trust for Teachers’, have increasingly turned the screw on performance and accountability, yet claim, at the same time, they are ushering in a new era of freedom and professionalism.

This is the rhetoric of central government management, where every reform and every policy is justified in the name of efficiency and effectiveness, and every voice of opposition, or questioner of authority, is an Enemy of Promise.

To understand how Michael Gove, and the other coalition ministers, might actually believe their own words, we have to understand how they are able to hold two apparently contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time and believe both of them to be true. The first is that schools really have been given new freedoms – that is freedom from local authority bureaucracy – and that the controls of central government, are not the same as the controls of local government: central government, good, local government, bad. The second is that the systems of monitoring and accountability – national tests, league tables, and Ofsted – are a necessary and desirable part of the system and display no lack of trust in teachers. Those that complain are framed as part of the problem, as Gove told headteachers: “If you think Ofsted is causing you fear I am grateful for your candour, but we are going to have to part company… I’m not going to stop demanding higher standards.”

From the standpoint of a politician this is an entirely reasonable position, who, after all, would not be on the side of progress and reform? Schools, they maintain, have been released from the dead hand of LA bureaucracy so they are now free to concentrate and perform on those things that really matter.

What really matters? Those things determined by the Secretary of State to be in the best interests of society, family, and the economy.

On the one hand the politicians can make claims about freedoms, decentralization, and trusting professionals, while on the other they can maintain control and organise the system from the centre.

The ‘Education Debate’ does a very good job of explaining how we have reached this sorry state of affairs. In particular how Margaret Thatcher’s determination to downgrade teacher’s views and to judge schools using national tests and a government controlled inspection service, have very largely won the day. As Ball argues, “there is a crisis of trust, new and overbearing forms of accountability distort the proper aims of professional practice and rest on control rather than integrity.”

What we have left is a system where the covenant between government, society, and schools has largely broken down. To be replaced by a culture of terror, where a regime of accountability employs judgments, comparisons, and targets as a means of control, and where an individual’s worth is measured in terms of their productivity and value to the system.

Not really surprising Gove left this out of his Andrew Marr interview.


This review was first published in Teach Primary Magazine and is re-published here with their kind permission.

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