Why is it, people ask themselves time and again, that after years of conventional teaching do so many youngsters appear to have little personal initiative, seem so unwilling to accept responsibility… after all, at the age of eleven so many of them left their primary schools alert, excited, inquisitive?1
By the mid 1980s an increasingly self-interested society was seeing in state schools a soft target to blame for just about everything. “Education is too important to be left in the hands of educationalists”, complained the Director General of the Confederation of British Industry2 (C.B.I.), and Margaret Thatcher appointed her key-economic guru, Keith Joseph, to be Minister of Education3. It would be Joseph’s job to put a bit of stick about, and reshape the education world from top to bottom, ridding it of what Conservatives saw was all the muddled thinking, lethargy, and senseless compromises of the previous forty or so years. Joseph’s admiration for free market policies, left many a dedicated teacher questioning why, in their own understanding of teaching as a vocation, they had spent a lifetime working hard, more for the love of the job than for any negotiated reward4. consequently, teachers and their leaders failed to see in Joseph a Minister who very seriously desired to find out what was wrong, and what remedies might be available. Joseph constantly questioned the rationale for the curriculum earning the nickname of “the mad monk”. The very thoroughness of his questions enraged local authority officials who chose to confuse, rather than influence him5. An ardent admirer of Samuel Smiles, Joseph wanted to create a robust, responsible society that could look after itself through the endeavours, not of government, but of competent individuals. By failing to transmit such a vision to teachers it has set government and teachers in conflict to this very day.
During the 1980s several groups of teachers and private individuals, sensing that education was in a blind alley from which by itself it couldn’t break free, attempted to pioneer ideas that might influence public education. One such was “Education 2000”6, which in 1987 graphically described schools as being like worn-out vintage cars, traditionally-designed, lovingly crafted and maintained, heaped with past honours, but unfit for a modern motorway. It was an image that endeared itself to teachers, as did the vision of a town7 in the United States described as “functional literacy, that is a community where young people have mastered four key skills: the ability to think, to communicate, to collaborate and to make decisions, and who realise that they must continue to develop these skills long after they’ve left school”.
Education 2000 believed that real reform had to involve parents and community as much as the schools and that, in the new technologies of information and communication, there was a mechanism that could get youngsters far more engaged in their own learning8. Education 2000 raised several million pounds to demonstrate this by putting in at least one computer to every seven children across all the secondary schools of a single town (at a time when England as a whole averaged less than one computer to 100 pupils). So bold was this project that it antagonised both local and central government who reverted to the “not invented here” syndrome9. “It’s not any of our responsibility”, said the local officials, “as you claim this is a model for national replication”. “Nor is it our responsibility”, said the Department parrot-fashioned, “for you’re working with an individual LEA”.
The C.B.I. then invited the author of these Theses, who was then Director of Education 2000, to address the 1,800 delegates at their annual conference in 198710. He asked the audience if they recognised the child who, going into secondary education, lost all sense of personal involvement and responsibility in education. Many of them grinned, for this had been them years before. “The clue is in the word teaching”, he exclaimed, “Good primary schools encourage children to want to learn, to explore relationships, to treat the world as their expanding oyster… the child becomes excited — and motivated”. He then paused for a moment to let that sink in before continuing, “Secondary schools have been saddled with the artificiality of single-subject disciplines, each with a heavy load of content — the teacher takes control, and the pupil does as he’s told… “It’s the only way to cover the syllabus”. The integrated view of knowledge is easily lost…very many pupils loose interest, they do as they are told because ‘teacher knows best’ not because they any longer feel responsible. A vital attribute, that of responsibility, is destroyed; many never recover — learning is associated with failure, and this bugs them for all time”11.
In a quarter of an hour the whole story was unpacked. Sitting in the front row was the new Secretary of Education, Kenneth Baker12. “That was very neat, Mr. Abbott”, he said, “I think you and I ought to talk”. He explained his own thinking about the importance of technology, and was fascinated by the way in which private business had been persuaded to support such a programme. But he had little interest in the community part, and was sceptical about trying to draw the primary and secondary schools together which he saw as ‘a nightmare’ to be avoided. He said he had a better idea. Certainly technology was going to be increasingly important, and the country needed some pace-setting projects. He was fascinated that Education 2000 had attracted such sponsorship from the private sector and then went on to set out his plans for what he called inner city technology colleges. He wanted these to be totally separate from the LEAs, partly, he explained, because he wanted to show people just how awful local authority schools were, and how much better organised schools could be if they were run by business people13. Here was an articulation of the expanded conservative agenda.
Thesis 73: 25th August 2006