Educational Politics Part II

In my last post, I referred to a great post by Andrew Old where he uses a quadrant to clarify a common misconception in educational debates.

I have drawn up a quadrant to represent something similar.

As with Andrew, my x axis represents content. But my y axis represents not entitlement, but school structures. The two poles are ‘free’ and ‘dirigiste’. That is, those on the top of the y axis believe in a diversity of people running schools, a diversity of approaches to the way schools are run, and for power to be devolved down to the lowest possible level. Those at the bottom believe more power should remain with state and local government. As with Andrew’s quadrant, there tends to be a conflation of the two. Those who believe in dirigiste structures tend to believe in radical content (typically, the unions); those who believe in free structures tend to believe in traditional content (typically, Gove). But again, this is of course not the whole story. David Blunkett is a good example of someone who was fairly traditionalist on content (although not as traditionalist as people think, I would argue) and dirigiste on school structures. His mechanism for school improvement was command-and-control: Whitehall will decree the correct teaching methods and material and teachers will implement them. The National Literacy and Numeracy Hours are good examples of this. There are also plenty of examples of people who are ‘free’ on structures and radical on content. Some interesting recent research by Civitas on academies shows that many of them achieved their excellent 5 A-C results by exploiting their greater freedoms over the curriculum and getting pupils to sit exams in non-traditional subjects.

I first started thinking about this quadrant when I was reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch would probably be placed near the bottom right of my quadrant. In her book, she analyses at length the way the San Diego school system was taken over by Alan Bersin and his organisation Blueprint in the 1990s. I think some of this applicable to parts of the English education system:

‘the political genius of the San Diego approach was what I call a left-right strategy. Bersin’s instructional reforms employed and empowered the pedagogic left; he directed millions of dollars in professional development contracts to those who were deeply versed in Balanced Literacy and constructivist math. At the same time, Bersin’s accountability reforms and organizational policies – firing principals, demanding higher test scores, fighting the teachers’ union, attacking the bureaucracy and opening charter schools – delighted the business community and those on the right who believe that public agencies, especially schools, are overflowing with waste, inefficiency and incompetence and are greatly in need of accountability, competition and choice.’

I guess my point is that you can want a curriculum that teaches traditional content without necessarily wanting a selective educational system, the return of corporal punishment, the repression of unions, the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities or the immediate outlawing of abortion. These issues are separate. We should discuss them as such.


3 thoughts on “Educational Politics Part II

  1. Syd Egan

    Something tells me that an awful lot of people (thinking of Gove & Co. in particular) are in favor of a free structure only as long as it delivers a traditional curriculum – let’s see how they react when someone tries to set up a free school based on anarchist educational theory.

    (PS – Giggled at the last paragraph… though you forgot to mention brining back hanging. (But perhaps that is just a more permanent form on corporal punishment?))

  2. The Wing to Heaven Post author

    Of course, this is the problem with all liberal approaches to just about anything. You have to defend to the death people’s right to say/do something when you don’t agree at all with what they are saying. To be fair to Gove, I don’t think he has been so unprincipled on this – this free school has been approved and whilst it isn’t based on anarchist educational theory, it is hardly traditional either.

    I suppose supporters of free structures will argue that in a free system, in the long run, the best ideas will win. If you are really confident that your ideas are the best, then you have nothing to fear from freedom, because you know that your ideas will win. As Milton said, ‘Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’ But everyone has their limits. Can you really stand by and watch people saying and doing things that you think are totally wrong when you have the power to stop them? Milton didn’t mind free speech as long as it wasn’t for Catholics. Gove doesn’t mind any method that teaches reading, as long as it’s synthetic phonics.

  3. Pingback: Welsh schools, league tables, and making camera film more efficiently « The Wing to Heaven

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