Education and Politics Mk II

I was going to have a crack about the merits of “Great Man” history and the danger of leaving it out of teaching history but recently I have been participating in some discussions on the Guardian site on the recent decisions by Michael Gove the UK Minister for Education. What struck me is that, taking aside that the people who post on these discussions might not be in any way serious in the comments, the discussions very quickly became about people’s political views and not about education or, and this is really shocking, the children. This isn’t about Mr Gove’s decisions but it is about politics and its relationship with education.

Education for All has been intricately tied to the state and politics since its inception in 1870. Not surprising when you consider the circumstances of its birth, the move to support it via local taxation and how, born of the ideals of the liberal movement closely guarded by the conservative establishment and used as cornerstone of the rising labour ideology, education has been at the forefront of political fighting. As such education has defintely suffered from the political swings in the UK, let alone from the various states of the economy over the past 130 years. This has meant that over a century down the line we have a lot of stakeholders all who think they are right, and the one stakeholder that has little impact of control of education is the very people it is designed to benefit – the pupils.

Now many will immediately come back with the argument that because the state funds and supports education in this country and society funds and supports the state and that we make up the society, its important that education reflects what we say it should, and as such it should support the current society and help it evolve into a future, better one. In short the link between society and education is inexticably linked. Hmmm, really?

First we don’t live in a true democracy. We live in a democracy of negative freedoms. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf, but not exclusively for us as many a political scandal has shown. In addition we didn’t get to choose the people who were up for election; we don’t get a choice over what laws and statutes need to be examined, revised or introduced; we don’t even get the choice of chucking a government out when we have had enough, we have to wait for the political process to give us that priviledge. We only get to choose the whats, whens, hows etc when the political system allows us to; and who manages the political system? Not us. So at the basic level, we do not have democratic control over our state, and this is a state controlling our education.

Now the link between society and education sounds very magmanimous, philanthropic and utopian. Until you read work by Paolo Friere and Ivan Illich. You can’t help but feel nagging doubts of familiarity in the words and analysis. When you add in experience, the basic reporting through media, a little bit of reading around and having your own child in the system, you begin to realise that society exerts a control over education that forces the children within it to mould themselves to one of several situations; either they are shoe horned into a system that does not necessarily suit them in every way; they are shaped and moulded by a teachers personal preferences and bias; or they are forced to rebel because the system just does not provide them with the enjoyment and motivation they are looking for. Now most pupils will fit into the first category and will generally do well or ok; question is could they do better in a system truly designed for their needs and development?

We have already mentioned the teachers impacts on a child’s education and how that isn’t just a positive one. In some research for a recent paper the is definite evidence to suggest that as a whole teachers are not a positive, success driven culture ready to embrace change and are as much political ideaologues as the politicians. As such this creates friction, a friction that makes the job harder for the teacher and this will get transmitted to the pupil either through fustration, or through a open or hidden rebellion against the system. Do we really want these pressures on the people who arguably spend as much time with our kids as we do?

And what about us? The Parents? Thanks to the Conservatives and New Labour we are now an additional pressure on the system. The idea is sound, parental input and choice should force schools to improve as customer choice and input does to business, especially as each individual child now has a cash worth. Parents as a whole have always had an active interest in their children’s education. Yet that has also created a tension because not only are parents demanding, myopic and uneducated in the pressures and workings of the education system, but they have also got their own expectations of how the education system should work based on the promises of the government. Parents are also individuals who have their own expectations and demands for their children.

870 words in and nothing about the children’s part in this. Their input, their needs and where they hope to be at the end of their education. 130 years of education and we still haven’t addressed this yet. 50 years of sociology and 100 years of child psychology to draw from and we still haven’t worked out how to link the child to the education, so that the child is the centre of it all and they drive it from the bottom to the top. Why? Is it because children are legal minors? Is it because we do not accept that children are individuals with their own preferences? Is it because we cannot appreciate that children love to learn? Or is it because at every stage of state education, children are the only one without a vote?

Lets get the politics out of education and lets get education to finally be about the child.

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4 Responses to Education and Politics Mk II

  1. UbiquitousRat says:

    Nice article and one that provokes thought. The thing that I would perhaps be interested to explore with your further, however, is the HOW of your final assertion:

    “Lets get the politics out of education and lets get education to finally be about the child.”

    How do we do that? Is there a framework that you could recommend, or are we going to need to create one and then lobby government to implement it? (And isn’t that an ironic thought too?)

    Keep writing, dude, ’cause it’s good stuff.

    • You know me Che, Blue Sky Thinker and all that!
      I think in essence before we start on the how, we have to decide if it is right for society to impose a mould onto developing children, or whether society should be confident enough of its benefits and positives that the products of the education system can be so individually developed that they will realise the good sense of being a part of it. In this case the society that supports the education system becomes just another subject within the school. At least this will then give us the start of the structure as it will define the goal of the education system.

  2. Derek says:

    Given my previous career, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the post Che allowed the link to. I’m sorry that I haven’t actually met you in person and would love to one day.

    My thought on your post is that it’s very Rousseauean. the problem with Rousseau is that he ended-up with a position whereby it was far more controlled by him than the ‘child’. There is just no escaping adult control of a child’s education. Every time an adult tells a child not to do something, it’s education. Every time a child is left in a room to learn by exploration, what the child ‘self-teaches’ is dictated by the contents of what is there, normally decided by the adults.

    the question is then the amount of control, and the level of acknowledged to unacknowledged bias in the person deciding the content of the education. The myth of the unbiased expert is as dead as ‘yesterday’s modernism’. Every person has a bias. being honest is best in this.

    As I left education, it was returning to the idea of skills based education. The problem was that there was less emphasis on content. So the child will have the skills, but not the knowledge to be aware of which information is accurate. A prime example being a pupil handing me a piece of research in which the Nazi use of euthanasia was denied.

    As for teachers being resistent to change, well that depends on what you mean. Change for change’s sake or positive change.

    One of my wife’s friends is a teacher of well over 20 years’ experience, it may be closer to 30 by now, and the one thing of which he is aware is that he could take out some long disused lesson plans and reteach them today, and they would be ‘outstanding’, where 5 years ago they would have failed. That is why teachers are resistent to some aspects of change – because it’s not change, it’s simply rehashing old ideas for the sake of being ‘trendy’.

    from my personal experience, I started my teaching career in London’s east End, and was trained to use the Redbridge model for RE. It was such a successful model that it rolled out across London, the England, and is now the basis of the (non-statutory) National Framework. When I left London, and started in the Midlands, the school there told me to stop using this model, and would accept no reason for keeping it. So I did (change!!). 3 years later I was in a different school and in a ‘high-powered’ meeting – senior management, and Local authority bods – helping to look at new and better ways of teaching Geography. The basis of teaching the Geography was the system previously known to me as the Redbridge Model for RE. After 15 minutes of obsequious praise for this method being presented by an Advanced Skills Tecaher (about 5 years out of Teacher Training), I acidly commented, ‘so it’s back in fashion’. the ensuing conversation left a lot of red faces in the room.

    Many changes in Education are extremely good, but a large number of changes are simply rehashed ideas. That is why teachers are getting the bad press, because they are being honest when they say, “seen it all before” – they usually have.

    Sorry, this turned into more of a ‘rant’ than I intended.

    • Hi Derek, sorry it has taken a while to respond to your comment – summer holidays and all that!

      So what to approach first. Well lets have a look at teachers and their resistance to change. My conclusion was drawn from research into a medium length essay (5k words) on the legislative changes to Primary Education in the past twenty years. To get a good grounding I went as far back to 1870 to get a good feel for primary education and its evolution. Generally the researched showed that there has always been a resistance to change within the teaching profession and that this has not been managed effectively by the teachers themselves, or by the state. A great example of this is the 1988 Education act which brought in the National Curriculum. The initial details of the paper, while defining the what, left the how to the teachers something the anti-NC groups rarely, if at all, acknowledged and the public even now are unaware of.
      Now resistance to change is not unusual at all, Che can tell you have the attitudes in GW Retail back in the day, so its not just teachers. That resistance does however cause issues when change will be instigated whether the groups involved like it or not.
      The first is that old ideas always get rehashed because, in essence, they weren’t bad ideas to begin with. Sometimes fresh perspectives and changes in environment can add new possibilities to old ideas especially ones that were successful. Ideas are evolutionary – the truly bad ones tend to die out. You can see this in supermarkets where their promotional offers are basically rehashed year on year because they worked to a greater or lesser degree. Where the resistance comes in is when people think “That will never work because it didn’t work last time” well maybe, but maybe not circumstances have changed, or it might not have worked for you but did elsewhere; and this leads onto the second point.
      By resisting change, especially enforced change, you end up in a very difficult to defend situation. If you are right, and the project doesn’t work, if you have been vocal in your resistance those who implemented the change can then point to you and claim that it was your fault for not putting in the commitment needed. Or all you need is a few success stories on the same level as yourself, and you are branded as wrong, untrustworthy, lacking judegment/experience etc all because “if others can do it, why can’t you?”. On top of that in a western liberal capitalist system, there is no room for “I told you so’s” either so you are basically stuck with your opinion. You end up having the only recourse to effecting change on the inside, a herculean task at the best of times.
      The problem for me of course is that I am looking in from the outside. It is easier to identify issues than it is to solve them or effect a positive change, but don’t get me wrong the teaching profession is not solely to blame. It works for an executive board which could change every 4-5 years, is respondent to customer feedback based not on sales or effective consultation, but through reactions to promises made by the board members the chair of which is rarely experienced in the market, or position. There are no shareholders with a strong opportunity to influence, but stakeholders divided and with less impacting input. And performance is not based on results but public perception. How can such a profession do the best it can under such circumstances? Hence my argument to get politics out of education and get some stability and confidence in there. For me your anecdotal evidence is yet another small piece of support to that idea.

      Onto child centred education. While my thoughts are Rousseau like, and can be supported by AS Neil’s work at Summerhill I also think that it is a utopia that would be impossible to achieve. I understand little of the structures within state education and, as scary as it might be, this could be the best structure for a state provided free education system – but I don’t believe that. I have only been looking at education in this sort of depth for just over a year Derek, so there is so much more I will learn (Educational Philosophy next year to smarten up these thoughts!). My argument for next year will be that we need to re-examine that link between society and education. Over the years too many decisions about our education system have been taken for political reasons, with those in control trying to design a society that keeps them in control and using the education system to support that (dammit Friere!). This is highlighted by the last government going back to suggestions by Plowden in 1967! Even now the new coalition has dropped Rose’s Creative Curriculum for primary schools. For a change it would be good to see announcements about the steady and systematic development of education based on child development, and not the latest analysis by political spin doctors or a party’s hardcore members deciding how society should look in 20 years.

      As for ranting, thats never a problem as long as it is eloquent and supported like yours ;-). Cheers!

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