The wreckage of the ‘education revolution’

How the Blairites turned schools from centres of knowledge into social-engineering labs.

Emily Hill

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Topics Politics

After 10 years of ‘education, education, education’, Britain’s teachers are drowning in paperwork, targets and banality – and the very idea of a liberal education is under threat.

For over a decade, New Labour has been awash with soundbites. The party was ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’; there would be ‘an end to boom and bust’; we’d have ‘strong Britain, strong leadership’. And then there was the soundbite that stuck better than any, Tony Blair’s 1996 pledge that the three priorities of his government would be: ‘Education, education, education.’

Nowhere has Blair’s Orwellian approach to society been writ larger than in his translation of that bare word ‘education’ into Newspeak. For what he has achieved during his decade-long reign has been a narrowing of the very concept of education: the abstract ambitions of pupils have been worn down, and the love and passion some teachers felt for their job have been undermined. We are left with a conveyer-belt process of tests, targets, objectives, goals, tickboxes and paperwork. The idea of the liberal education is under threat at the end of Blair’s Britain, as horizons are narrowed and the classroom reduced to a bulletin space for government initiatives. Schools have become a place where the new conformism is taught and enforced.

‘Go to your local school’, Blair urged after his victory in the 2005 General Election. ‘You can see the progress in the buildings, in the computers and in the results.’ To mark 10 years of education, education, education, I did just that.

It’s a dreary morning, in an idyllic setting. The neat school building (which I will not name, in order to protect the identity of its staff) rests on a slope, overcast by a vast country church and next to a plantation with great green trees, some of which have been cleared to make way for a playground. The children play there, building small dens and hanging off the various items of play equipment. Smatterings of pink blossom coat the grass. The church bell rings in 9am, and the children, already a little untidy in their bright, blue school uniforms, rush inside. In one classroom, the kids sit on a mat and poke at a hamster called King Alfred; they chatter above the din of an aerated fish tank.

The children’s poster paint artwork is pasted on to the walls; the room is a jumble of primary-coloured equipment, books, guides and measures. The children are miniature pots of enthusiasm, fidgeting and clapping their hands and shuffling about on their bottoms until called to attention. Filing into assembly minutes later, they get on with singing hymns and learning a new story about Jesus. ‘Team points’ are given when a child answers a question about the moral of the story correctly.

In this school, as in so many others, the various demands of Blair’s Britain have been imposed, by school inspectors, county advisers and the constant tide of new guidelines, new programmes, new initiatives, new glossy booklets – which often contradict last year’s glossy booklets – and new schemes for the betterment of the children within the school walls. The teachers inside tell me they feel under siege: unable to teach with freedom, many distrust themselves and their abilities. They are the fag end of Blair’s education revolution. Let us consider, then, what ‘education, education, education’ has wrought in Britain’s schools.

Non-education education

Under Blair, the public eye has pried into the private world on an unprecedented level. Turning Thatcher’s ‘there’s no such thing as society’ into ‘there’s no such thing as a private life’, schools have become one of the principal instruments for manipulating a new generation into new thought patterns. This week it was announced that schools must foster positive race relations or face closure. Fruit is provided at breaktime in order to improve children’s diet because, of course, parents cannot be trusted to feed their kids well. And, under the new Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning scheme (SEAL), teachers are now responsible for shaping the emotional and social lives of the children in their care.

Increasingly, children are taught the correct ways in which to express their feelings. In some schools they participate in group massage sessions, in which they must knead each other’s shoulders and send their own positive ‘toxins’ into the air to help the emotional wellbeing of those recalcitrant youngsters who don’t want to be group-massaged, or whose parents have denied permission.

This approach permeates a whole new approach to teaching, in which children (especially in the early years) must actually not be taught at all. In fact, in policy circles, teachers are teachers no more: they are ‘practitioners’. In indoor PE, children are not to be taught how to do a roly-poly anymore; rather they are supposed to ‘experiment travelling in and through’. (At the school I visited, one teacher, a worried look flickering across her face, told me: ‘I’m not sure I was ever supposed to teach them how to do a roly-poly….’)

To try to teach a child, via the tried and tested ‘talk and chalk’ method that has successfully educated children for generations, is now considered to be wrong. It is too elitist and judgemental apparently.

Inspections, inspections, inspections

In the school I visited, the early years teacher seemed to have lost confidence in her own ability to teach, following a negative Ofsted inspection. Her paperwork had been found wanting, and then she had been found actually teaching children as she saw fit…which is the greatest crime under today’s inspection regime.

Teachers, like every other public sector worker under New Labour, now drown in paperwork. There is an incessant flood of forms that need filling. They are given ‘PPA’ time, cutting out half a day’s teaching, in order to help them cope with the forms and documents. In 2006, the Education and Inspections Act revolutionised the inspections system: it brought in a system where schools have to be prepared for an inspection at any moment (only two days’ notice is given) and where schools are assessed on their own internal assessment systems.

It is now all about the paperwork. Like a Soviet Five-Year Plan, if it’s down on paper, it happened – if it’s not, it didn’t. So this school was hauled up for a ‘culture of bullying’ – not because it had a bullying problem (it didn’t), but because it did not have a government-advised system of ‘playground angels’ and ‘buddy benches’ to deal with any potential bullying that might arise or have already arisen without the teachers noticing.

The sheer detail in which a child’s education is now charted is breathtaking. As Helene Guldberg has shown elsewhere on spiked, under New Labour infants now have ’69 early learning goals’ (see A tick-box attitude to toddlers, by Helene Guldberg). In this school’s classrooms, as in most others, there are now 44 goals in the teaching of literacy. One teacher tells me that striving to achieve such goals often detracts from fundamental lessons that teach children how actually to read. These days while they read, young children have to explain whether a particular character is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and why they are good or bad. ‘Instead of concentrating on what really matters, they’ll be given a target, something specific, that’s disembodied from enjoying reading. It doesn’t lead anywhere’, the teacher told me. What New Labour seems to have done is to break down reading into a set of meaningless facets, effectively ‘quantifying the unquantifiable’, as the teacher put it.

An Ofsted report cited recently in the Daily Telegraph outlines the new teaching culture that Ofsted wishes to inculcate in our schools: ‘Too often, the teacher does most of the talking. It is frequently restricted to explanations and predominantly closed questions which ask for recall of previous learning.’ Teaching in such a way (explaining a principle, demanding ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers to questions) is now looked upon as heresy. Instead ‘Ofsted prescribes “lively debate”, “buzz groups”, exercises in “empathy”, “scope for pupils to make choices”, working in groups, and “drama techniques” such as “hot seating”, in which teacher and pupils exchange roles.’

As Ofsted says: ‘A key characteristic of the best lessons is the opportunity they provide for pupils to talk and collaborate.’ This is not just a silly PC idea that we can laugh off; it fundamentally undermines the idea that teachers have something important to impart to children in favour of allowing children themselves to set the agenda by talking and playing and thinking out loud in class. It is little wonder that some teachers feel devalued.

Advisers who won’t advise

If a teacher asks for advice on how they are supposed to do all this new stuff – how they are meant to reach their targets through drama and buzz groups – they are not likely to find any officially endorsed answer. The paperwork and the new ideas are foisted on schools from on high, and the schools are expected simply to get on with it all by the time of their next inspection.

This imposition of new rules and methods distances children from their own education. Learning programmes for individual kids are now planned out without the adviser who does the planning ever having met the children in question. ‘I get certificates for going to all these seminars’, a teacher explains to me. ‘I’ve got them all for my portfolio. But what do they mean? We go, and when we have listened to all the new ideas, we ask for specific methods. And the advisers turn to us, and they say, “You can just do it. You’re the professionals – you know how.” And yes I did know. Or I thought I knew.’

Children are supposed to be au fait with all the terms their practitioners now use. So instead of ‘letters’ and ‘sounds’ they are encouraged to talk about ‘graphemes’ and ‘phonemes’. ‘Tricks’ that help young children to learn how to read are definitely out. Today explaining about the magic or silent ‘e’ – which many spiked readers will understand from their own childhood education – is held to be detrimental because ‘you’re giving them a trick to use instead of getting them to understand how various graphemes can make phonemes’, the teacher explains. Imagine how baffling it must be for a young child instantly to learn about graphemes and phonemes rather than about magic letters that do certain strange things to words? ‘Children understand “magic” things. It’s part of their world. It’s much more understandable to them to see a magic thing coming along and changing a sound rather than a phoneme holding hands and pushing a grapheme out of the way’, the teacher says. But no ‘magic’ is allowed in classrooms these days.

Teachers’ scepticism about new teaching methods is not appreciated. As in so many other professions today, bureaucrats have been trained up to counteract doubts among those at the frontline of teaching the nation’s youth. Legions of school advisers, in every county of the land, come up with a succession of great new examples from other schools that have better Ofsted outcomes, schools that have put all the New Labour theories into practice and achieved great results: the advisers hold these schools up as models in order to force other schools to change and accept the new way of doing things.

A big buzzphrase today is ‘outdoor learning’. The teacher tells me that at one seminar she attended, ‘An early years adviser was raving about how wonderful a certain class of children had been, because they had a lesson outdoors in which they were picking up sticks and making graphemes out of them. I couldn’t help thinking it would be far better for them if they had done that on paper, with a pencil. It’s almost like going back to cave-man times….’

Of course, there is nothing wrong with learning outdoors, investigating and getting to know more about wildlife and the natural environment. But words and language and grammar are surely better taught indoors, in a classroom – unless that, too, is too old-fashioned an outlook for the constantly churning education system.

Behaviour

Attendance is paramount in New Labour’s new education system. You can find the attendance stats for any school in the land, simply by typing the name of the school into a portal on the BBC’s education website. Under the Blairites’ target-obsessed learning system, parents are constantly warned not to take their kids on holiday during school time or to allow them to have many (if any) day absences, because the child might fall behind and prevent the class from reaching its targets.

The obsession with attendance can lead to a culture of snooping. At the school I visited, one of the pupils had a condition called ‘slap cheek’. It is infectious to other children, but it is not very debilitating for the child who has it and it is easily cured. The child’s mother took her daughter out of school while she had the affliction, and on one of the days off school mum took her daughter to the supermarket; there was no one else to look after her at home and the shopping needed to be done. In this sleepy rural town, the child was spotted by a Community Support Officer, who reported the mother to the school. The school was instructed to keep a special eye on the child in future.

Behaviour has to be managed within schools, of course. And as you might expect, new approaches have also been brought in for this area of school life. Today teachers are advised never to be negative towards children; they should not tell a child off, but rather encourage him or her, through incentives, to behave well. In some schools, there is a new behavioural system called ‘golden time’: this is a period of time at the end of the week where all the good children are allowed to do fun tasks but those who have been naughty are excluded. So instead of reprimanding bad behaviour when it happens, and explaining why it is a problem, schools are encouraged to reward all children except those who have done something bad.

In certain schools, ‘golden time’ actually plays into the hands of children who misbehave. After all, the only thing that happens to them is that they miss out on golden time. In schools with big behaviour problems, it is apparently now cool to miss golden time. In this rural school, Year Six children (10- and 11-year-olds) were rewarded with a golden time of ‘hammer beads’, which a teacher described as a ‘glorified colouring-in exercise, fine for Year Two children but not Year Six’. Any self-respecting 11-year-old, especially of the naughty variety, would not be overly concerned about missing out on such an exercise.

Not only are teachers discouraged from teaching children in certain ways; they are advised not to chastise or reprimand children. Again this contributes to a feeling among some teachers that they are neither masters of their subjects nor of their own classrooms.

Targets, targets, targets

The targets-based approach encapsulates the government’s suspicion of teachers, who apparently cannot be left to their own devices. The targets obsession also masks a central problem with Blair’s education revolution. New Labour is unable to articulate what a good education should consist of, and thus it simply draws up lists of things that children ought to be able to do or say or write by a certain age. The Blairites have sapped out all the richness of the liberal tradition and erected abstract hurdles in its place, which teachers and pupils jump over together. Education has become rather like an obstacle course; it’s about getting through things rather than children exploring things, learning about them and enjoying them and having their thinking ability improved in the process.

Children have been set on the conveyor belt of education. They have become, as the former employee of a government quango said last week, ‘widgets on an assembly line’. Yet they’re on an assembly line to nowhere; they will be equipped with a clutch of awards and grades and they will be able to articulate their feelings in a government-endorsed manner, but will the new generation really understand things and be able to think critically and independently?

After a decade of ‘education, education, education’, it is surely time for the government and its myriad minions to get out of the classroom. Government should fund education and direct it, but it should not interfere with absolutely every aspect of school life, teacher-pupil relations, playtime, and children’s eating habits, behaviour, weight and so on. Teachers must be allowed to refer to themselves as ‘teachers’ again, not practitioners – and they must be allowed to ‘chalk and talk’ if they want to. In short, they should have the freedom to teach in ways they see fit, and to invigorate the young minds in their trust with enthusiasm and ideas that are not rigidly defined by government targets and health, social, emotional and wellbeing messages.

To paraphrase another New Labour motto, which they borrowed from pop group D:Ream and danced to, excruciatingly, in 1997: ‘Things in teaching can only get better.’ And they will, once we teach ourselves to trust our teachers once more and allow schools to go back to being centres of knowledge and learning rather than outlets for government posturing and social engineering.

Emily Hill is staff writer for spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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