Opinion: Getting back to sanity – EBC plans now dropped

The news about the abandonment of the EBC is to be welcomed by all interested in a progressive and inclusive education system. Is this beginning of the end of the regular Gove-ian, back of the envelope initiatives, which seem to have little to do with evidence-based, rigorous research and planning, and more to do with a kind of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, personal take on what makes for a good education? Somehow I doubt that. But at least it’s a start.

The education world has been suffering from major shock and awe style reforms and promises (threats?) of reform, such as EBCs since Gove got the top job at the DfE. By anyone’s reckoning this approach is simply not sustainable, or more importantly, in the best interests of our young people. A new group has formed called the Headteachers’ Roundtable, as a direct response to the teaching profession deficit that has figured in all Gove’s policy reforms to date. Their five principles make for interesting reading, and there is the old chestnut there about ridding education of party political tinkering, which is something I have long considered is worthy of deeper consideration by a party brave enough to consider it.

Maybe we do not need to go that far, but we can introduce reform which would temper the effects of Ministers acting in the interests of being seen to act, and beefing up their personal reputations through their programmes of reform.

So let’s consider the three following points, as we warm up to serious Lib Dem manifesto consideration:

1. Why is there not a Chief Education Officer (or more than one) in the DfE to act as a counterpoint to the Minister for Education, who comes from the teaching profession and is ideally, I would suggest, elected by the teaching profession? The model is already there in other Government departments, in roles such as Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Officer, etc. Arguably with such professional heavyweights, initiatives such as the EBC would remain on the back of the envelope and never see the light of day.

2. Why is there not a body in the DfE, similar in function to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel in the NHS, which would act an an independent expert on proposed service and structural changes. In the NHS, this panel provides advice to the Secretary of State on disputed proposals for changes to the NHS in England, amongst other functions.

3. Finally, as has been proposed in so many other areas in the political policy arena, why can’t we agree that education is surely the area where there should be cross-party support for major initiatives, to ensure stability? The one basic and fundamental reason behind the much documented and evidenced success of progressive education policies in Finland has been because of political party consensus on the basic structures and direction of educational reform over decades. I leave you with a quote from Pasi Sahlberg of the Finnish Education Ministry, from his book, “Finnish Lessons”:

The success of Finnish education is not the result of any major education reform per se. Instead, education development in Finland has been based on the continual adjustment of schooling to the basic needs of individuals and society… The basic values and main vision of education as a public service have remained unchanged since the 1970s. Governments from the political left and right have respected education as the key public service for all citizens and maintained their belief that only a highly and widely educated nation will be successful in world markets.

* Helen Flynn is a Harrogate Borough Councillor and is the Parliamentary Candidate for Harrogate & Knaresborough. She is an elected Council member of the Social Liberal Forum, an executive member of the Lib Dem Education Association and a member of the Federal Policy Committee.

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9 Comments

  • It was welcome, but we still have the EBacc league tables (and the matching A-levels) despite there being no evidence to support the choice of subjects included…

  • Is there scope for parental voices in your proposals? One is often left with the sense that we parents are not to be consulted because as non-professionals we cannot be trusted to know what is best for our children.

    I agree that cross-party clarity over what government is trying to achieve with the education system would be very useful.

    Often the sense (as perceived from outside government & the professions) is that the system is primarily concerned with turning our children into useful economic units (for” success in world markets”?) although my local primary school also considers their role is to teach the children manners, punctuality, reliability etc.

    My personal view is that the education system should work in partnership with families to ensure children grow up with sufficient understanding of the world and equipped with the right skills (practical and “soft”) to enable them to make their *own* way in it with confidence .

  • “Their five principles make for interesting reading, and there is the old chestnut there about ridding education of party political tinkering, which is something I have long considered is worthy of deeper consideration by a party brave enough to consider it. ”

    The most radical suggestion for removing party political interference from education would be to remove the control of education from political structures.

  • Helen Tedcastle 8th Feb '13 - 4:39pm

    Apparently Michael Gove And David Laws plan to ‘press on’ with the implementation of the ‘hard facts’ back to basics curriculum – Laws said so himself on Channel Four and it’s reported in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/feb/07/gove-schools-vision-back-basics?intcmp=239

    This is but the end of the beginning…

    How much consultation has there been within the Party on this type of agenda?

  • Julian Critchley 8th Feb '13 - 4:55pm

    @Helen

    The proposed history curriculum is actually beyond parody. When you have a proposal which requires teaching about William Harvey and Elizabeth Fry to 5 year-olds, and about the Heptarchy to 7 year-olds, then you know that the people involved in the drafting of this have either (a) never actually met a child, or (b) have lost touch with reality.

    Good for a laugh in the history office, though. We’re an academy, so we will be roundly ignoring this great steaming pile of nonsense when we plan our own curriculum.

  • Helen Tedcastle 8th Feb '13 - 5:19pm

    @ Julian: Yes, It’s beyond funny – positively bizarre, especially the overall aims – children must understand the word ‘empire’ and ‘peasantry’…

    The poll on the Historical Association website shows that 99% of those polled think Gove’s curriculum is a ‘negative change.’ http://www.history.org.uk/resources/secondary_resource_6202,6203.html

  • There is more incentive to encourage pupils to carry on with languages. The previous regime’s slight of hand that allowed young students to turn their backs on even a very limited exposure to languages was appalling and mechanism for reinforcing isolationism with respect to the country’s closest neighbours.

    I supposes the mis-named EBacc attempts to establish a common core, but the content and standards are the devil of the detail. In the past whatever changes have been applied has led to dumbing down, since the ultimate requirement has always been the appearance of improving results.

    Julian: once I found out what heptarchy is, I thought it OK even for 7 year olds (though silly to insist on at that age). The division of Saxon Britain into separate kingdoms, is, I would have thought, the kind of thing that can be a bit fascinating for young kids (I remember learning that Winchcombe – a local village, had been the capital of Mercia at a similar age). Certainly there is no harm in learning about the Saxons, but I would agree that the prescriptive element is likely to be damaging as it leads to the inevitable tick box syndrome.

    If Michael Gove wants young kids to be interested in History of this period, his best bet would be to write a book about it that everyone would be keen to use in primary schools. If he cannot do that, get someone else to do it, who can bring this history to life, but not to impose any specifics on schools. Schools and primary schools in particular need to have the freedom to explore the history that relates to their particular locality.

  • Helen Tedcastle 9th Feb '13 - 10:29am

    @ Martin: I can’t speak for History specialists but even a cursory glance through the proposals is enough for me to raise serious questions about the sheer quantity of material expected to be taught. For instance, the KS2 programme – one has to be mindful that Primary teachers will be expected to deliver a substantial chunk of British History alongside substantial chunks of other subjects (also given the Gove treatment.).

    One has to get the balance right between what one might like to be taught to youngsters and what is actually feasible (incidentally the Saxons are already taught) – given that English and maths take up vast tracts of time as core subjects – French has now been introduced – and Gove has made Science a core, nationally tested exam again – the latter was dropped by the last Government. Add to that, arts, RE, PE, Geography, ICT and PSHE ….

    Incidentally, dumbing down is a favourite Gove-ian phrase to describe education. Actually, he applied the phrase to GCSEs and the link that grew up under Labour between the exam boards and the performance tables ,(the pressure to gain 5 A*-Cs) .

    Gove’s U-turn on exam boards and performance tables this week, is another example of his failure to listen to the education world on finding meaningful solutions. It is too easy to raise doubts and fears in people’s minds using the blunt-instrument of the media, regarding the education of children.

    I do not see any correlation between raising standards and filling the curriculum with so much content that there is inevitably less time for understanding and evaluation.

    Certainly I could point you towards some students, particularly certain types of boys, who would thrive in an environment where learning prioritises vast swathes of facts – it is less suitable for girls and other types of boys.

    It is about getting the balance right and bearing in mind that there are a variety of learners and a spectrum of abiities.

    That was not a well-known truth and seldom part of teaching back in the 1980s when Gove and I were at school.

  • Helen, I do not dissent from much of what you write. Micro-management of the school curriculum has been one of the principle causes of a degradation of education.

    The more a government interferes the more it is obliged to conjure up evidence that there has been improvement. This can be achieved by moving the goal posts. Sure enough shifting goal posts in education have been the unifying theme for the past quarter century.

    It is easier to create specious ‘improvement’ in some subjects more than others. It is probably most difficult in languages, because being able to maintain basic communication is pretty much a fixed standard. The only way for governments to ‘fake it’in languages is to let it be removed from the curriculum at middle and higher school levels, which is what happened.

    I have never been able to discern a gender difference in learning facts. I believe that educationalists have claimed to have found evidence that multiple choice can favour boys, but I do not know how significant this might be. At present in the UK boys do not achieve as well as girls at GCSE, though I think the gap narrows at A level. I suspect that interpretation of this (role of classroom teachers; socialisation; role models; curriculum; exam style etc) is contentious.

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