North of England Education Conference 2012 Presidential address

Mick Waters

The opening of this conference has expressed the warmth of the welcome to the city of Leeds and we look forward to a stimulating and enjoyable three days of debate. We have delegates from Ghana and Gosforth, Pakistan and Pudsey, Nigeria and Nottingham.

The conference title is ‘Passion, Potential and Performance’ and these watchwords will be explored in the context of the changing world of education.

The North of England Education Conference has a long history. Traditionally, it was a big occasion in the calendar when the secretary of state would explain a policy agenda for the coming year to Local Education Authorities.

I looked into the history of the North of England Conference. When it began in 1902, Local Education Authorities had just been formed to bring order out of the previous chaos of the free market approach created by the Boards of Education established 30 or so years earlier. In our 2012 conference, delegates will be considering a future as the system is deregulated and Local Authorities see their role changing from provider of schooling and the emergence of the free market approach Coalition government.

The North of England Education Conference has the seen the announcement of major government policies: in 1966, Anthony Crosland put forward the case for comprehensive schooling on political and social grounds. 1987 heard Kenneth Baker announce plans for a national curriculum. In 1991 Kenneth Clarke explained that LEAs should become ‘enablers’ rather than ‘providers’ and a year later he announced that teacher training would be centred in schools rather than universities. 1998 saw David Blunkett unveil Education Action Zones and, a year later, his plan to allow private companies to take over struggling LEAs. Today, we hear the policies on a much more regular basis through the media and there is a more transparent argument about the future of schooling.

The 2012 annual conference takes place in a period of unprecedented change and it is in that context that I make my opening remarks as president to throw the first pebble into the pond to provoke debate.

A new playing field or a different game?

I find myself in all sorts of settings discussing the world of learning. From trying to teach a class of teenagers or infants with teachers watching their own classes working with someone different, to sitting with head teachers grappling with their next set of demands and accountability targets in their autonomous worlds, to leading a workshop or speaking at a conference for teachers, parents, governors or employers, to being at a ‘think tank’ with politicians wondering where next, it is all fascinating. (Incidentally, isn’t it terrific when children see their schools as ‘think tanks’?)

In all these settings, over the past few months there has been considerable talk about the changing landscape of learning. The new government’s centralised control approach is markedly different from labour’s managed autonomy. Labour pushed decision making towards interdependent schools but still controlled the policy agenda; Excellence in Cities demanded that specialist school status was sought to meet the needs of the community of schools, Education Action Zones were driven by the community rallying round a set of schools and children’s service agencies. The coalition says it has decentralised the whole thing: free schools, academies and chains are all free to pursue their own agenda released from the shackles of a national curriculum that is being reviewed. The freedom of action, though, is controlled centrally through a set of implicit or explicit targets. The English Baccalaureate is affecting the learning offer in secondary schools and will influence primaries in due course. Teach what you think important locally…to save you thinking, we will tell you it is phonics.

It is fascinating to hear those who have been in the education service for a long while as they grapple with the challenge of their working world shifting on its axis. How do we accommodate change? How do we hold to what we believe in the face of this upheaval, how do we make it work for the good of children’s learning? These are not Luddite questions, just the questions of people trying to work out how to hang on as a tornado of ideology sweeps through the environment they have worked so hard to create.

What I have recognised recently is that there is another group of people who are also talking in this new world and they have a very different outlook. These are the people new to the playing field; the sponsors of academies and the promoters of free schools; the executives, the boards, the trustees. While old school five day test match cricketers come to terms with the modern form of the game, new age cricketers just get on with TWENTY:20. While the school governors of the previous world wonder how to accommodate and moderate the new world, these people only know the new world and are unencumbered by making the past fit. There is no past.

Fascinating. This is the government that also decreed there was to be no future worth building schools for within a month of its arrival. So now there is no past to go with no future. Do the learners appreciate the present we are giving them?

The difference in outlook between the new and old players on the pitch will lead us to some challenging considerations in the coming months and years. The major difference is in the perception of what is on offer. The new arrivals grasp their challenge of running schools as units to deliverer required outcomes. Much as a retailer or cinema would measure sales or footfall, so they set their targets for their schools. The experienced players seem to think they are running education and schools are part of a bigger set of outcomes. This leads them to consider and question the very heart of their working world; the notion of being a public servant that many have lived with throughout their careers.

This brings to a head the unspoken debate of the last few years when Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ really meant ‘schooling, schooling, schooling’ as the target driven approach beat the Every Child Matters agenda to a pulp. Whilst we larded it up with the use of ‘learning’ as a cosy word, the league tables, the floor targets and the inspection judgements saw the emphasis on how well children were schooled rather than how well they were educated. Pupils became a currency as test results grew in importance…and nobody is saying that reading, writing and number are not vital.

The archaic examination system which fails sublimely to properly consider technology in this era of connectedness is a prime example. How can the exam system congratulate itself on being able to do on-line marking, through scanning hand written papers, as if this were some sort of achievement?  As a society, we persist with the rite of passage experience for young people, archaic in nature, a sort of trial by ordeal. When else in life would we enter a room, sit a metre away from everyone and work in silence for two hours? In real life, presented with a problem at work, most people immediately contact others, ask opinion, test solutions, seek information, pool knowledge and construct solutions that others critique. If we to have this annual harvest of the exam season, could we not set the question and invite the student to conjure the best answer within three hours by connecting with whatever source of help they can?

The door to examination scrutiny is ajar and shedding light on the system that has evolved over time. What the light falls upon might be still the gold standard but it is slightly tarnished because there is something toxic in the air. The high stakes testing regime that drives diligent and professional teachers and examiners creates toxicity in the system that leads many young people towards a lacklustre, as opposed to a golden, learning experience as they move towards the achievement of their schools’ targets.

The school performance in tests and exams carries so much weight in inspection and inspection carries so much weight for schools and individuals that there is little wonder that schools feel the need to push on the tolerance in the system to achieve the best results possible.  If exams and testing are one part of the corrosive effect on learning experience, so the school inspection system is surely the next.

The need for a determined assault on schooling failure has been cited by ministers for many years. Just last month, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said that ‘figures reveal on a school-by-school basis the high academic standards achieved by thousands of primary schools in this country.

“But 1,310 schools are today shown to be below the floor – and about 150 have been languishing with poor standards for five years in a row. “It is these schools that we will pay particular attention to in the year ahead, whether through conversion to a sponsored academy or other measures.”

The coalition government has extolled the virtue of choice and competition. In speaking to civil servants soon after taking office, the prime minister asserted, ’One way we can bring in real accountability is through choice.  Wherever possible, we want to give people the freedom to choose where they get treated and where they send their child to school – and back that choice up with state money. Because when people can vote with their feet…it’s going to force other providers to raise their game – and that’s good for everyone.’

He continued, ‘Another tool we must use is competition. By bringing in a whole new generation of providers – whether they’re from the private sector, or community organisations, or social enterprises – we can bring in the dynamic of competition to make our public services better.’

The Education secretary, Michael Gove, today has stated, ‘The same ideologues who are happy with failure – the enemies of promise – also say you can’t get the same results in the inner cities as the leafy suburbs so it’s wrong to stigmatise these schools.’ Because of the frustration of the ‘enemies of promise’, the new players are being encouraged into the game.

Typically, the new players simplify the task; no bad thing. They respond to the centralised control and deliver the required outcomes through their pupils and they do it in the most attractive ways they can muster. Collectively, they might miss a bigger picture of an element of English education which is at the heart of the system, though rarely realised; that education, rather than schooling, is part of the democratic fabric of society.

Of course, there are people caught in the middle of the pitch as the game changes; the true public servants who find themselves in the market driven team. Some adapt and accept the new game. Others wonder whether going along with it is fine but there might be something more sincere and honest about the old game. Is education about results and measurable outcomes? Or is that schooling?

In her fascinating book, ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System’, Diane Ravitch, a former presidential adviser in USA, reflects on her own journey as she realised the standards movement had turned into the testing movement. She asserts that ‘market reforms have a certain appeal to some of those who are accustomed to ‘seeing like the state’. There is something comforting about the belief that the invisible hand of the market will bring improvements through some unknown force. In education, the belief in market forces has let ordinary mortals of the hook, especially those who have not figured out how to improve low-performing schools or to break through the lassitude of unmotivated teens. Instead of dealing with rancorous problems like how to teach reading or how to improve testing, one can redesign the management and structure of the school system and concentrate on incentives and sanctions. The lure of the market is the idea that freedom from government regulation is a solution in itself. This is very appealing, especially when so many well planned school reforms have failed to deliver their promise.’

Ravitch continues, ‘I was concerned that accountability, now a shibboleth that everyone applauds, had become mechanisitic and even antithetical to good education. Testing, I realised with dismay, had become a central preoccupation with schools and not just a measure but an end in itself. I came to believe that accountability was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strived to meet unrealistic targets.’

There might be other solutions to the relentless emphasis on accountability and structures.

What if…Every school inspector, as a condition of registration, was required to teach for an eight week period every year; not as an observer or a helper but as the teacher of history or science or mathematics, while the teacher joins an inspection team as an observer. Would the inspectors then have more credibility? Maybe there would be more humility, less certainty and more considered judgments.

What if…Politicians were not allowed to be filmed and photographed in schools? What if…School league tables were published by parliamentary constituency? Given the relative reduction in responsibility for schools by Local Authorities, it seems counter-productive to match them in leagues. Similarly, the range of formations of school collaboration and management systems seems to make comparison difficult.

If we compared school performance by constituency we could place accountability where the government wants it to be, with elected members?

What if…Up to five parents per day were present in school and fed back to staff,  pupils and other parents on a regular basis about their observations of lessons, routines and school events?

What if…SAT tests were selected by picking the papers from a previous year? Why do we spend a fortune developing and trialing new papers every single year? With 20 years’ worth of tests to choose from it should be random enough to avoid prediction and the comparison of results would provide evidence of performance over time as an added benefit.

What if… the syllabus for a subject was made available just 50 days before the exam so that the big ideas of a subject discipline would have to be understood in order to be revised at that point? Or maybe we could publish the 150 possible exam questions two years ahead of the exams and generate the actual paper on the day.

Practice such as this would ensure breadth and depth in study rather than exam practice. We might end up with real scientists, historians, geographers, designers and linguists, rather than people who pass exams so that they can drop the subject immediately.

It’s never over until the final whistle but the game is changing for ever. Should the pitch be left to the recent arrivals in the new game? Or are there some fundamentals that need to be further examined?

These are the issues of ‘Passion, Potential and Performance’ to be addressed by a rich array of speakers at this North of England Education Conference. Delegates are assured of a warm welcome in Leeds and the organisers have gone to extraordinary lengths to make the conference relevant, worthwhile and enjoyable. High quality speakers come from the world of education, Olympic sport, the arts, journalism and politics. The programme invites us to think differently. Let’s do it.

Mick Waters
Professor of Education at Wolverhampton University
President of the North of England Education Conference, Leeds,2012