A few years ago, on my old blog, I expressed my views about education policy. Specifically, I was annoyed by politicians constantly meddling with structures when it is the substance of education that is the major issue. I hoped for better education ministers.
Since then, I’ve changed my mind about structures. I still think ministers would do well to focus on substance, but I now see substance as something well defined and specific. To understand what I mean, imagine that the English phonics check had instead involved ministers asking the sector to develop an ‘early literacy assessment’. The latter is the sort of policy we are more used to in education and it can be captured by the ideological priorities of various players. The former is more tightly defined and makes better policy.
So, what about the structures?
Over recent years, education in the UK, US and Australia has undergone an accountability revolution. This has involved state-mandated standardised testing. In the US, there has been an explicit reward-and-punish regime associated with these tests, whereas in the UK and Australia, pressure has been exerted less overtly, but it still weighs heavily on everyone involved. The UK also has an inspection system that seeks to hold schools accountable.
We often find ourselves arguing about the value of this kind of accountability. Some point to high performing education systems and note that they lack the same kinds of regimes, inferring that accountability is the cause of the stagnation we see in international tests taken by students in the UK, US and Australia. I disagree (and my thinking on this has been heavily influenced by Eric Kalenze).
Education was not in a golden age in the US in 2000. If it had been, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) act that initiated the test-reward-and-punish system would not have been passed. We have to realise that when politicians impose accountability regimes on education, they do it as a response to perceived failure. Yes, it is the ideological go-to solution of our times, but they would not have gone to it if they didn’t feel the need. Accountability is not the cause of our problems, it is a response to them; a symptom of them.
It’s not a very effective response, I think we can agree. I wouldn’t abandon all standardised testing because I believe the data is useful: it lets you know where your school sits relative to others; whether you’re disappearing down a rabbit hole. But I don’t think it’s the solution because it’s based on the premise that we, in education, know exactly how to fix things, we just need motivating to do it. The truth is that we don’t know what to do and all that these regimes achieve is a frantic rush to apply more leeches.
This is because education is the domain of bad ideas.
So, what can policy makers do in the UK and Australia (I know the US system less well so I won’t comment)? Politicians are attuned to public opinion and so they are good at identifying when things are going wrong. However, we have to recognise their limitations. Few education ministers are masters of the brief. Even those who possess, or slowly develop, a better understanding, are likely to be moved and replaced at any point by a whimsical prime minister who also knows little about education. In their brief time at the helm, education ministers seek to make an impact.
This last point is important. If you have a homogenous education system that is actually doing quite well, an education minister may fall for the line that students now need to develop critical thinking skills through project-based learning and so on. Without understanding the history and the science, a homogenous system could start to undo the things that made it a success in the first place. After all, the system is unlikely to correctly understand what those things were because, over time, lots of levers have been pulled across the whole system.
So, successful education systems are not necessarily robust education systems. And this is where structures are important.
The challenge for politicians is to try to engineer a structure where difference is maintained. You can’t have a system that, at the flick of a switch in headquarters, can be sent off chasing the latest fad. And the solution is not as simple as outsourcing everything to the private sector because, as the example of free schools in Sweden shows, this can just as easily lead to groupthink. Instead, we need different system components that can survive independently but that are driven by slightly different priorities; parent led providers, the state, non-profit organisations, interest groups such as dyslexia campaigners and so on. Equally, we need different ways of training teachers so that education may benefit from a plurality of outlooks.
I am not claiming that these disruptive alternatives will be better than traditional providers. Many may be worse. And there is still a role for system-wide regulation including policies such as the phonics check. However, by embedding difference, we can identify features that make schools, or other parts of the education system, better. Over time, this will lead to a more effective system overall, and one that is robust.
If education was focused on evidence, then I wouldn’t suggest this. I’m a fan of Britain’s single National Health Service and I am comfortable with the idea of monolithic, publicly owned utilities and public transport systems. But then, nobody is likely to say that, ‘in the future, merely supplying electricity will not be enough’. Education is different. It is contested. I see no alternative but to let the contest play out.