Foundations of sand

Over the years, those of us old enough to remember a certain Margaret Thatcher, have learned that the standard methodology for establishing change in education is to rubbish the system first. Frankly it wouldn’t matter if we had won the World Cup for Teaching (and many of our best teachers could, easily) the first line of attack is always that our system is failing. The reason for this, of course, is to try and create an hegemonic discourse which establishes the belief that the only option is to dismantle the existent system. Ever since Keith Joseph’s time, this has been primarily to allow the reduction of The State in favour of private provision of public services. Like many initially revolutionary ideas, claims made are rarely based on the level of evidence that would be demanded for such significant change in medicine, for example – at least up until the coalition. The neoliberal agenda has been promoted and followed by successive Governments (of all colours) and the education system we see today is, effectively, working in a privatised market form, despite the white knuckle death grip of some local authorities and maintained schools.

One of the main concerns about the continued drive to a free market in education is the knowledge that such ideology demands a profit motive (all about wealth creation, remember) and this appears to be where we are going next. There is, in many public servants’ minds, a big difference between state funding for non-profit education organisations and allowing companies to use state funds to provide profit to shareholders. Many people, including myself, find the inherent risks in allowing this to occur unacceptable. The claims that private industry does it better are simply not founded on solid ground – there is just as much evidence to suggest that privately run Academies and schools are no less susceptible to failure than state run ones. Where there are correlations, constant policy and system change negates the likelihood of proving causation. One could argue that, as the primary purpose is to generate profit for investors and shareholders, the most ‘logical’ outcome will be cutting costs, with quality suffering. Simple way to up profits from results – don’t risk inclusion. Kick out the low ability, difficult, disruptive or disengaged and let another school worry about them – I’m alright Jack. A few of Mossbourne’s neighbours may have a view on that. Do I have evidence to support my thesis? No more than the policy makers who claim the opposite to be true.

One problem is that those in a position to promote the privatisation agenda seem to consider evidence a bit of a distraction and rely on polemic and questionable statistics and methods to promote their message. Hopefully you are already familiar with the flawed evidence used by Gove in recent years – any OECD / PISA reference is questionable from the start in terms of validity and method, Swedish Free schools proved less effective than claimed, American Charter schools proving variable in achievement and inclusion and significantly, the coalition have had to (illegally in my opinion) manipulate the outcomes of our own system (rendering it unfit for purpose) to provide them with the evidence they have been claiming for years.

In a recent Telegraph article, a former policy advisor to David Cameron ( Mr O’Shaughnessy) is quoted as saying

“Any objections to the private sector attempting to succeed where the state and voluntary sectors have failed should be dismissed for what they are – ideological prejudice.”

This is, of course, the height of hypocrisy but typical of the approach used by the supporters of neoliberal reform. Not only can the claim be reflected right back, but the continued claims that state and voluntary sectors have failed are simply untrue or at least, not verifiable. The state and voluntary sectors have seen improvements in system effectiveness, efficiency and outcomes year on year by the very measures the policy makers invent and constantly change for their own needs. The constant references to failure always seem based on judgements which have either been suddenly invented (anyone know how the original 5A*-C targets came about?) out of nowhere or have been designed specifically to undermine any possible indications that the system is, while not perfect, successful.

So little policy has been enacted on rigorously developed and tested research that more enlightened jurisdictions must watch us with absolute horror! These could be the far more stable, politically distanced and innovative systems who Gove looks to for evidence, without any consideration of the social, cultural and economic differences that set us apart.

Therein lies another problem in our policymaking method, can you imagine applying the same standards of logic to other industries / areas of policy as are applied to education? George Osborne should be sacked – not because of his obvious inability to realise his policies are failing, but because our economy is smaller than China and the USA! We should be top of the international league table for GDP, surely? Differences inherent in the countries are, apparently, irrelevant if you use DfE logic. How about small Hospitals and GP surgeries? They should all be closed as they don’t process the same amount of patients as the big hospitals. Not comparable organisations…..doesn’t matter and if you say it does we’ll attack you as in some way acting against the public interest, rather than simply accepting your democratic right to hold policymakers accountable to proper standards of proof.

I believe that there is a simplistic and disingenuous tendency for politicians to ignore the fundamental differences within our system – trying to compare the incomparable and denying the reality that the diversity we have makes direct comparison unfair. This results in the ridiculous assertion that we should all be better than average or that satisfactory…isn’t! I think this is resulting in fewer people aspiring to school leadership, particularly in challenging schools or schools with below average prior attainment profiles. We are attempting to use ‘standards’ (arguably) to measure and control a non-standardised system – it’s about as useful and reliable as OfQual…..

Do I have a point? How do we, as a vitally important profession, exercise agency within our own field and, equally important, in the political field too? We need to challenge the shoddy use of evidence and claims set against us by people who are unqualified in our industry. We should undermine the arguments at every opportunity. We need our professional bodies to be brave enough to stand against the policy machine in far more aggressive fashion, when they lie we should tell everyone. There may be more Money and privilege in the coalition cabinet than in the whole Education industry, but I bet we trump them for sheer bloody-minded, get bottom set year 11 through GCSE at all costs, persistence! Although, between you and me, I did hear that evidence shows we are all feckless imbeciles with barely a third class degree between us and distracted by raving communist militancy….I think it was in the Mail just after the latest policy pre-announcement!

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One Response to Foundations of sand

  1. Since 1997, there has been a renewed attempt to define and improve the working relationships between the state and voluntary sectors. The Labour administrations of 1997-2010 introduced the ‘Compact’ that set out the relationship between government and the voluntary sector. It marked a major re-evaluation of the socio-political significance of the voluntary sector, and was intended to give the sector a greater consultative role in the design and implementation of policy. There were also innovations in the machinery of central government, most notably the establishment of the Office of the Third Sector within the Cabinet Office.

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