The problem we face in education across much of the anglophone world is quite clear: Silly ideas. But if this is the problem then what is the solution?
I am keen on the role of argument. I believe that if we point out the flawed logic underpinning popular conceptions then, over time, we might start to change the terms of the discussion. Clearly, there are those within the education establishment who still recognise no debate. You can tell that they don’t by the way they react to criticism; as if they’d just seen a wombat reciting Sylvia Plath.
I think we’re getting there. We can’t be ignored any longer. And nasty, irrational attacks just make our case seem more reasonable. But there’s a long way to go.
I can’t help noticing that many of those who are shaping the global discussion about teaching methods do so from a position of association with free-schools and academies in the UK and Charter schools in the US. This is unsurprising; such schools provide a space where unconventional thinking is allowed and encouraged. And unconventional is what we need.
I have not been convinced up to this point that these schools lead to overall system improvement. I would certainly commend some of them. But I also believe that many schools will market themselves as much on silly ideas as they do on sound ones – just look at how independent schools tend to brand themselves at present.
The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a thinktank that prioritises liberty and free-enterprise, today released a report authored by Trisha Jha and Jennifer Buckingham. It is a measured report, short on hyperbole. It weighs the evidence and just about finds a positive effect in favour of Charter Schools and their equivalents. Now, you might expect this from such an organisation but I would challenge you to read the report before dismissing it.
You see, I don’t think this is necessarily a left-right issue. If such schools were allowed to make profits then it might be – something that the report does not rule out. However, essentially, we are talking about alternative ways to deliver a public service that will remain free to users.
The attractiveness is that this will allow choice to those who cannot presently afford it. Independent schools in Australia are subsidised directly by government but are still out of reach for many Australians who are locked into a school through residential zoning. So perhaps Australian Charters could add something to the mix. I am certainly interested in their potential to provide proof-of-concept for schools organised on very different lines to standard government schools.
Immediately after the CIS report was published, a counterargument was presented in The Conversation. I’m not sure that it is the strongest possible attack on the idea of Australian Charters. One passage stood out among the others. Discussing Charter Schools, Dean Ashenden observes:
“Their record in innovation is similarly mixed. Some do use their freedom from the usual rules and regulations to innovate, but most pitch to parents in the same way as Australia’s independent schools. They sell on “traditional” values, curriculum, teaching methods and discipline.”
I suspect Ashenden’s ‘innovations’ are pretty much equivalent to my ‘silly ideas’. And I reckon that there are a lot of parents out there who would be keen on a Charter School that sold itself on traditional values, curriculum, teaching methods and discipline. Are these parents wrong? In fact, one of Jha and Buckingham’s main points is that it is exactly this type of Charter School that is the most effective.
There might be something in this after all.