The Education Bill 2011 – A critique of its underlying themes


Below the surface of the Bill

At first read, many of the provisions of the Education Bill 2011 could be understood simply  as a new government’s clear out of things which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, we don’t really need particularly at a time of swingeing cuts in public sector expenditure.

That, however, is rather too simple.  Any decision to dispose of that which is considered unnecessary reveals a lot about the attitude and state of mind of the decision maker.  It’s not an objective process. It depends rather on the decision maker‘s view of need and value.

It’s important then to look at what Michael Gove does intend to dispose of  to see whether there is in fact some thread, some common factor  which reveals what he values and what he does not.

So for the scrapheap are:

  1. The General Teaching Council for England
  2. The Training and Development Agency for Schools
  3. The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency
  4. The Young People’s Learning Agency for England

What is the common factor ?  They are all champions of educational standards and professionalism in education.

The General Teaching Council for England

The General Teaching Council for England has had something of a chequered history. It probably got off on the wrong foot by identifying itself as a membership organisation for teachers when in fact it was a mandatory registration body managing a licence to teach in maintained schools. The error was compounded by a quite bizarre arrangement for the payment of the GTCE’s registration fees. Teachers were individually required to pay the fee but were supposed to get it back as a special pay supplement. The idea was that teachers would feel a sense of ownership of something which they consciously paid for. However the reality was that many teachers thought of themselves as being forced to pay for something which actually threatened them.  This was certainly the view taken by the second largest teachers’ organisation.  Its antagonism towards  the GTCE was only further provoked  when the government failed to maintain the after-tax value of the pay supplement in line with the fee.

Finally when the GTCE abandoned its perfectly satisfactory ‘teachers must not’  code of conduct in favour of a long and complicated ’must do’ code it stood accused, only a little unfairly, of busybodying interference in teachers’ private lives and personal opinion.  That lost many friends, and it has to be admitted that there would be no shortage of teachers telling Michael Gove that they don’t want nor need the GTCE.

However, these rather superficial problems should not be allowed to disguise the real value of the GTCE’s work and its true purpose. It is actually a body which has enabled teachers to claim the same true professional status which, for example, lawyers  and doctors enjoy by reason of the existence of their professional regulatory bodies.  Despite the impression given by its new code of conduct the GTCE was not in fact the career threatening disciplinary body perceived by its detractors. In fact for most teachers who came face to face with its tribunals, it offered the only  prospect of  recovering their credibility as teachers after being sacked for misconduct or incompetence.  The GTCE’s non- teacher detractors, stirred up by appallingly badly presented BBC documentaries, accused it of excessive leniency towards incompetent teachers, but it was never the GTCE’s role to decide whether a teacher had performed badly in a particular job.  Rather the GTCE had to decide whether a teacher’s lack of competence or misconduct was so bad that the licence to teach ought to be taken away. This was the most extreme penalty applied in only a few cases.  In most cases the GTCE put in place a set of remedial measures with the aim of enabling the teachers’ concerned to regain their standing and restore the value of their contribution.

The abolition of the GTC will restore the position to that which prevailed before 1998. The Secretary of State will regain control over the banning of teachers from working in maintained schools for misconduct and there will be no overall regulatory body in matters of teacher competence. It will again be for individual employers to decide whether they consider a teacher to be incompetent  and by dismissing the teacher from a particular job make him or her unemployable as a teacher and without opportunity to recover any kind of credibility or support from the decision of an independent regulatory body.

Alongside the removal of this professional regulatory structure will go all the valuable work of the GTCE on teaching standards and quality to which practising teacher members of the  Council working with representative from a wide variety of education stakeholders have made an enormous contribution. Though the GTCE  should never have been ‘a voice for teachers’ as it was described  at its creation, it was certainly ‘a voice for teaching’ clearly expressed by teachers and others genuinely concerned with education independent of government.  It is that voice which Michael Gove  intends to silence.

Training and Development Agency for Schools

Many similar features are of course to be found in the TDA.  There is no need to look beyond the TDA’s own website to define its role and values. They say:

The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) is the national agency and recognised sector body responsible for the training and development of the school workforce.

Our guiding vision is: developing people, improving young lives.

Our values are to:

listen

  • to our customers
  • to our partners
  • to colleagues

improve

  • the effectiveness of the school workforce
  • working relationships with our partners and staff
  • the skills of our staff and ourselves

deliver

  • on time
  • on budget
  • on our promises
  • to the highest possible quality

All that goes – to be replaced by a structure in which unregulated teacher training institutions, funded by decision of the Secretary of State, will turn out tomorrow’s teachers.  With the abolition of the TDA, another  overseeing body with a commitment to education standards and quality disappears.

The QCDA and the YPLA

There are of course similar commitments in the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and in the Young People’s Learning Agency for England.  Both are standards bodies which have made an enormous contribution to public perception of educational values, teaching quality and the professional standing of the country’s teaching force. Their roles functions and responsibilities will pass to the Secretary of State and become subject to the uncertainties of government popularity and political appeal.  Together with the GTCE and the TDA, the QCDA and the YPLA have been independent advocates and lobbyists for resources.  Those voices too will be lost.

Centralising power

There has already been comment on the reconcentration of power into the hands of the Secretary of State. Defenders of such concentrations of power claim the authority of democratic mandate as an authority greater than that of unelected agencies. That however is an argument that assumes that democracy expressed at four or five yearly elections is an entire and sufficient democracy. Of course it is not. The existence of authoritative bodies through which subject discrete views can be expertly impressed upon government is now an essential feature of  ongoing democracy. The abolition of these four education agencies runs directly counter to that developed wisdom.

We have of course seen this before. During Margaret Thatcher’s era, amidst much talk of rolling back the state and the enfranchisement of communities, in fact in education there was a volume of positive regulatory legislation greater than ever before and an extraordinary concentration of regulatory power in central government.  That has actually continued under Labour Governments but at least the existence  of the various standards agencies has had a checking and moderating effect.  Their abolition will remove these checks.

Elsewhere in the Bill

Having then perceived this pattern of disregard for what we may call the standards agencies, it is appropriate to look further into the Bill to see if the same attitude can be detected in its other provisions.

It can.

It is being said of the Bill that it “helps teachers to maintain good discipline”.  Measures which have this purpose cannot be easily opposed with public credibility.  The need to assist and support teachers in school disciplinary matters is really beyond question. However though there may be a general consensus on purpose, the particular measures proposed still need scrutiny of what they really mean and what their effect will be.

One of the heaviest counterweights to the professional status of teachers has always been the tendency to treat them as Jacks of All Trades so far as children are concerned. The idea that teachers can take responsibility for so many of the ills brought upon society by children has continued to run alongside the ever increasing expectation that teachers must be practitioners in the academic skills of teaching and learning.    Now again this is evident in the Education Bill’s reinforcement of teacher’s powers of search. Under the guise of strengthening teachers’ disciplinary powers, teachers are being given powers to investigate criminal offences, and, of course, alongside this empowerment comes expectation. That there is a need to provide for searches of pupils who come to school equipped for crime is clear, but the unquestioning assumption that this is a natural task for teachers once again applies the Jack of All Trades approach.

The Bill also retains a curious provision in the existing legislation which leaves it up to the teacher who has been legally challenged over a search to prove that the search was lawful. Not only must teachers now be prepared to consider themselves as investigators of crime, but they must also bear the burden of proving the lawfulness of  their actions in searching young men and women who naturally will, not have taken kindly to the process. This seems a far cry from the education skills to which teachers are professionally trained.

There is of course also the abolition of the School Improvement Partners, the SIPs. The SIPs program has taken legitimate criticism from educationalists uncomfortable with the policing model of school improvement as opposed to the more supportive “critical friends”. However, whatever model is preferred, again the intention was always to focus on standards of quality and professionalism.  The abolition, without replacement, of the SIPS removes another mechanism for raising the level of professionalism in teachers and teaching as they are commonly perceived.

The Secretary of State may argue, consistent with the underlying philosophies of his party, that all these agencies are unnecessary and a waste of public money. He may say that ‘consumer’ choice is a perfectly adequate means of securing and maintaining quality of delivery in education. This is, of course, a theory already disproved by evidence, both research and anecdotal.

The contrary argument does not undervalue the importance of consumer judgement of the quality of education in our schools, but its does maintain that sustainable and lasting quality can only be achieved if the expectations of consumers are well informed.  Practising teachers report that they face huge contradictions between the educational values  impressed upon them in the course of their training and by their peers and  the demands of parents and others with expectations of the education system. Of course teachers need to acknowledge that they have responsibilities owed direct to the consumers of the services they provide, but there is no doubt also that the recognition of teachers as the highly skilled professionals they have become, is vital to the future of the public education service.

Michael Gove himself professes this view. Speaking in February 2009, he said this:

“The countries which give their children the best education in the world are those which value their teachers most highly. From Finland to Singapore and South Korea the highest performing education systems are those where teachers enjoy the highest level of prestige. These nations have determinedly shaped policy to ensure that teaching is a high prestige profession, attracting the brightest graduates and offering a level of financial reward and social esteem which ensures teachers are seen as members of the nation’s elite.”

The strongest criticism of his Bill is that it removes so many of the mechanisms which help to secure this objective.  Its underlying theme is simply hypocritical.

Graham Clayton

2 March 2011

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