Monday, 26 October 2015

Austerity Education (Freedom Is Slavery)

Benjamin Franklin: An austere sort.
All around, the debates rage on.  Can you even call them debates?  Arguments, rows, skirmishes, battles.  All may be better monikers for what I read daily.  Little importance seems to be attached to conciliation, let alone synthesis, and the underlying causes for this clash of cultures remains unspoken, perhaps even unnoticed.  There is a distinctly austere flavour to the rhetoric.

Like those you know who thrive on misery and drama in their lives, educational thinkers and engaged practitioners seem to thrive on conflict for its own sake.  Maybe it sells books or earns you Twitter followers.  Maybe it makes you feel vindicated in the face of your hearltess and misguided leadership team.  If you're a leader, maybe it helps you feel your policies are validated. One thing's for sure, it doesn't lead anywhere nice.  There is an austerity of outcomes.

It's no good blaming Gove's legacy.  He only exploited what was already latent in the education community, what we began to accept the moment performativity became the yardstick of school improvement - namely that we are all in competition with each other. Teacher has turned against teacher for performance pay, school against school for parent choice, local authority against academy trust for real estate, and thinker against thinker for mastery over the pedagogical realm.  The latter's rank-and-file foot soldiers are battle-ready in every classroom to defend to the death their right to teach this way or that, poised to invade their neighbouring classrooms to impose their practice upon others.

No, it's no good blaming Gove.  We really only have ourselves to blame for this situation.  Sure, he exacerbated things. Granted, he was divisive.  True, his language was of the cheapest type of rhetoric.  But boy, did we lap it up.  By we, I mean everyone in the educational community, those who were insulted by and those who found solace in his assaults.  Frankly, if anyone believes any of it was for the betterment of teaching and learning, of schooling and education, they need to question their level of critical reflection.

Was there a dominant 'progressive' culture before Gove?  Perhaps.  Was education best served by reversing that imbalance by incentivising a dominant 'traditionalist' culture? No.  Did the policies serve an economic and political ideology?  Yes, yes, and yes again.

With school budgets set to shrink by up to 12% over the course of this parliament (BBC News), it is little wonder that a progressive culture finds itself out of favour with the authorities.  To explore, to try and to make errors, to experiment and to research are expensive, especially when they entail investing in technologies, in training, in staff and pupils.

Imagine Nicky Morgan saying this: "I believe in adapting education to a changing society, but we just can't afford it.  As a result, we will have to return to a more traditional curriculum and pedagogy, knowing that this will be damaging to the prospects of this young generation's future." Well, of course not.  If you believe in something, you fund it.  And if you can't fund it, you don't believe in it. That's politics, baby.  Politics for winners, in any case.

This may suit you.  Like me, you may have always looked on with deep scepticism at some of the measures brought into your school by an over-zealous leadership team.  Few teachers haven't.  Like me, you may have always felt more comfortable with chalk-and-talk than with cooperative learning.  Few teachers don't. Like me, you may resent being left to deal with the behavioural consequences of poor leadership.  Again, you are not alone.  Does this make you and me traditionalists and others progressives.  Like Hell it does.

Is education perfect? No.  Does it need reform? Yes. Should that reform be focused on improving schools for all teachers and students? Yes.  Should reform be based on research? Yes.  Should it abandon the lessons of the past? No.

If you agree, and I've met very few who don't, then by any definition of progressive, you are one.

To continue to be divided along the lines of trads vs progs is to continue to lose the argument for investment in schools. And if you work for a school, then to continue to be divided along these lines is to continue to lose the argument for investment in you.

Make no mistake that the reforms of the past six years, just like the six that came before, and the six before that, are not serving you.  What we are getting is not a traditionalist education system.  What we were on course for before was not a progressive one.  So what is it?

It is a marketised system in which your classroom will never again be yours, in which you are a resource, and like any other resource, must bring the most value for the least cost, with no say in what value means or what it looks like.

Your traditionalist practices may afford you some safety at the expense of a freedom to experiment that you neither wanted nor needed, but if just one of your colleagues wanted that freedom, then you have sacrificed it for your safety, and deserve neither.

Your progressive practices may feel undermined by new priorities and pressures, and you may rue a freedom you have lost, but if you blame traditionalists for that rather than realise that you have joined their ranks, then you never deserved yours either.

Austere? Perhaps, but in the words of Franklin Roosevelt: "In the truest sense, freedom can never be bestowed; it must be achieved."  Freedom for all teachers can only be achieved by all teachers.


  1. "Performativity". Quite so. And to argue against use of performance criteria opens one to the accusation of being mediocre or less. I now want to write about the obsession with 'attainment' in schools and the fact that it is not the same as 'education'. One of these is very much part of the OECD agenda. I'm not yet sure about the other.

    1. While even the OECD seems to be backing away from it, the UK government remains fixated on it.
      However, I'd love to read the blog you propose. Share it with @flipthesystemuk.
      Thank you for the comment.

  2. devil's advocate here:

    teachers are state employees. Isn't it their job to produce most value for the lowest cost? Don't we demand that of almost every other state employee? There's a social consensus that state employees should be reasonably well paid - in fact on average they do somewhat better than the private sector - but we also demand that they don't waste taxpayers' money.

    Furthermore, isn't it reasonable that the government gets to set the framework within which its employees operate? If the state provides the money, it also gets to set the targets. That's usually how it works; your boss pays for you X, therefore you do X. If you don't like X, you are free to leave. It's a rare employee that gets to evaluate their own performance or set the metric by which they are to be evaluated. The boss determines the ends, and usually the means also.

    In a market, you can experiment, and if your product works out and there's demand for it, then you cash in. Education is not a market; it's an almost entirely nationalised industry, a few high-end private boutique curiosities apart. Such industries tend to be heavier on standardization, not innovation, which is a signature of free markets. I agree that Tory policy has been a curious mixture of liberalisation and standardization, but this probably reflects the conflicting personalities of the people running the show (Gove & Gibb are quite different types in many respects, to name but just one obvious example).

    It's pointless saying schools should have more money. They aren't getting it. The government has its mandate to cut spending as they see fit and schools just have to live with the consequences. The current framework is "do more with less". Don't like it? Quit for the private sector or another career entirely. Or go on strike. We live in a country where education is a nationalised industry. The government of the day is the boss and what they command, you obey. They pay your salaries, don't they?

  3. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Andrew, and I'm sorry it's taken so long to getting around to a reply.

    Your points are all valid. As much as no public sector worker likes to hear the "I pay your wages" argument, it has weight and reminds us of our responsibility to society as a whole. However, this doesn't justify a state of things in which we have no voice in our daily work.

    The above post wasn't arguing for more pay for teachers, and so I'll avoid that discussion here. Broadly, I agree with you about the teacher pay settlement, though there are important questions about schools now being able to circumvent that settlement by employing unqualified teachers, the budgetary pressures providing a rationale for that to become commonplace, and the resulting impact on the quality of teaching. De-professionalisation is the main thrust of my focus in this blog, and so I'll respond to your points about frameworks, markets and budgets (but with a focus on impacts other than teacher pay).

    In the first instance, the government has, until recently, required teachers to be qualified professionals in order to perform their duties. The very notion of professionalism carries with it an implied trust in appropriately qualified individuals to make decisions about their practice and to have developed, or be developing, a broader understanding of it in a wider context. As such, to argue for a more inclusive policy-making process that takes teachers' voices into consideration isn't only fair, it is arguably the wisest course for the development of a robust education system. Teachers (and I include middle and senior school leaders in that group) know classrooms and schools. They know their communities because schooling doesn't stop at the school gate.

    The comparison you draw between the education system and a private-sector company is portentous. Yet your following paragraph provides the very limitation of its usefulness, and you seem to have missed the dissonance inherent in juxtaposing the two.

    The state provides the money, and it gets to set the targets, just like a company. But education isn't a market, so it must veer towards standardisation and away from innovation. The problem is that companies can't be perceived as acting independently from markets, and, in a market, companies compete for the best employees. They are therefore incentivised to take a realistic approach to the terms and conditions of work they offer, because to be competitive in HR increases the chances of being competitive in the marketplace. In the case of education, there are no competitors that pose a threat to the nearly monopolistic employer. This is a problem not only for employees, who have few jobs in the sector to go to. It is also a major problem for the employer, who doesn't have a ready pool of qualified individuals to draw from. The growing recruitment and retention crisis is entirely caused by having failed to foresee the impacts of this false analogy (unless it's deliberate, but I'll come back to that). Politicians are not CEOs. They are not accountable in the same ways and so their aspirations are not checked by the realities of competition and market forces.


    1. For the same reason, I agree with the latter part of your argument, on the tendency for standardisation over innovation as a normative experience of public-sector education. That's why, once myths become commonplace parlance, they are so hard to remove. But I believe that innovation is desirable, not only in respect of the cliche terms of rapidly changing norms, values and lived experiences, but more generally with regards to solving persistent problems. 6,000 pupils left school in 2009/10 without any good qualifications*.

      Innovation carries risk. When a Secretary Of State takes a risk, the potential ramifications are for every pupil, and thus they are unlikely to do it (even with the best advice and data at hand). All of that seems to me to further justify the need for well qualified professionals to be given the freedom to practice, including to take what risks they feel are necessary and warranted on a personal and/or local level. Rigorous accountability is of course a necessity, but flexibility is required so that the disincentives that exist at the national level are not passed down wholesale onto the regional, local and person-to-person levels of the education system.

      Finally, on the point of budgets, I wouldn't necessarily argue for more money for schools. I understand the dominant narrative of deficit reduction and I withhold from making a judgment here. When I argued for investment in teachers, I wasn't thinking about pay. I recognise that I juxtaposed that with talk of cuts to schools budgets, and that this undermined my argument. What I was trying to point out is that what is being justified is more than pay freezes and fewer pencils to dish out, but an increase in the democratic deficit between teachers and all tiers of employers through de-professionalisation (while we merrily argue about which pedagogical practice we'd like to impose on everyone else).

      As argued above, a democratic policy-making process informed by qualified professionals is both desirable and wise. What I campaign for is investment in the ongoing professional development of teachers, and I can think of many ways that this can be done very affordably, especially given the short-term returns on better productivity and lower costs associated with staff turnover and Initial Teacher Education, and the longer-term returns of more young people leaving school with the knowledge and skills relevant to their aspirations.

      Once again, thank you, as always, for challenging me. We may not change each other's minds, but you improve my ability to vocalise my arguments, and for that I'm grateful.



Thanks for engaging. I aim to respond to all the feedback I get because that's why I write: To share ideas.