English education has always failed

The incoming head of Ofsted has yet to be accountable for assessing any school in England  but has gone on record as saying he will change the criteria by which English public schools (that is public, and not “Public” Schools – which in England confusingly means Private Fee-paying schools) are measured.  The classification of “Satisfactory” will be renamed “Requires Improvement” Moreover, he has declared that  a quarter of the schools classified as “Outstanding” are not outstanding at all, and he will be after them. Michael Wilshaw is also trying to correct the remarks he has made to the effects that if staff morale is low, then a Head Teacher must be doing something right; claiming that it was taken out of context.

Meanwhile in The Observer, Will Hutton applauds Mr Wilshaw (despite the fact he has yet to demonstrably any “improvement” England’s publicly funded school system) and castigates the Teachers Trades Unions for their “defensive aggression in protection of the status quo, the default mode of so much contemporary trade unionism”.

To teachers and educationalists in the USA, this rhetoric will seem very familiar; in fact it will probably seem lame and outdated, as US public schools battle widespread attempts to shut down public schools and set up corporatised, profit-based education using “Charter Schools” (called “Free Schools” in England) to create exit paths from public to private sector.

Hutton makes a mighty play at being reasonable in his pleas to the defensively aggressive Trades Unions, but cannot hide the logical fallacies on which his article is based. Underpinning his piece is the economist’s old get-out clause of “ceteris paribus”. Forget for the moment that  the Coalition government is waging austerity on the country, education budgets are being cut, student fees for University have been tripled, unemployment is rising, incomes are being cut and there is soaring youth and graduate unemployment. Just set aside the fact that European governments are also waging austerity on their populations, that what is said to be the “best-educated” generation in Spain is facing over 50% unemployment and in Portugal at least one Government minister is telling young people to emigrate. Ignore the cuts to welfare. Put out of mind the increased social inequality and reduced social mobility of the last four decades.

Perhaps most importantly of all, do not under any circumstances consider the following:

  • Students’ come from different social backgrounds
  • that England already has a powerful,  private,  fee-based school sector whose profits are supported by generous tax-relief (and which, despite the  fact it will not be judged by Mr Wilshaw’s progressive new regime, will continue to supply more than its share of students to Oxbridge, political parties, rightwing think-tanks, and top City jobs)
  • populations can have, statistically, a normal distribution
  • the series of  “reforms” introduced by New Labour and previous Conservative governments
  • previous Ofsted inspections under different Ofsted criteria (no two regular Ofsted inspections are based on the same criteria)
  • the anti-youth rhetoric of popular media
  • the anti-comprehensive school rhetoric of nearly all the media
  • the personal networks with universities (such as Hutton’s Oxford college) available to Public Schools

In other words, set aside every other possible cause because you can then establish that without question the failure of English education is the failure of the teachers.  

What Michael Wilshaw is offering is just more of the same, only tougher. Ofsted’s criteria are now so complex that even a 128-page guide to a single lesson has to be supplemented by yards of advice such as to do a plenary within 5 minutes of the inspection beginning. And this is symptomatic of the whole observational system: take a reasonable idea (in this case, that teachers should check that students are following the lesson) and then mechanise it (do a plenary at least every 10 minutes). With its battery of subjective measures based on loosely- or undefined terms, the snapshot inspection is a trying examination for any teacher.

It’s difficult to believe, or prove, that Outstanding schools are anything other than schools which are outstanding in passing Ofsted inspections. This is a regulatory tool (ironically, wielded for a Coalition government ideologically opposed to regulation) which encourages “teaching to the test” – in this case the Ofsted test.

Meanwhile, the real questions remain unasked and not just unanswered: what, exactly, do we want our children to learn now and in the next 1,3,5,15 years?  Does education have a purpose other than the very limited free-market role of “getting a better job” (a promise which public education is wholly unable to make with any honesty .. unlike the better Public Schools)?  Should the National Curriculum be created by the Examinations syllabi or should it be broader? (The quiet demise of the National Curriculum is another act of a Government relinquishing responsibility for what it is supposed to provide).  How does Education fit in with apprenticeships, and what of vocational training?

Under the direct control of a Secretary of State who believes passionately in for-profit education, can Education produce anything other than greater inequality of access to education and less mobility? Will learning Latin get everyone a job when they leave school?

I defy anyone to find a report in the English media in the past four decades with a headline like

” UK Employers say school-leavers have the skills they need”

or if anyone should want a truly impossible quest,

“UK Employers can state clearly what skills and accomplishments they want school-leavers to have (other than a willingness to do whatever they’re asked without asking any questions and expressing gratitude for having a job)”


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