Election and Education

In Thursday’s Guardian – April 2nd – there was an article headlined Teachers don’t like the Tories – so why isn’t Labour benefiting? [here]. I didn’t have to think very hard about that certainty on the day, and I have been considering this assertion from the NUT’s General Secretary Christine Blower on and off since. For those of my generation, beginning teaching in 1980 and working until 2010, there are key experiences that inform a view on this question; I am less sure about a more recent teaching generation’s viewpoint, not least the de-politicised nature of the profession overall, apart from apparent dislikes, as it seems to me.

A potted history of my early experiences is all that is needed to underpin personal, main feelings on this question. The first 17 years of my teaching were done under a Tory government: Maggie Thatcher 1980-1990; John Major 1990-1997. The Education Secretaries who served across that time were Mark Carlisle 79-81, Keith Joseph 81-86, Kenneth Baker 86-89, John MacGregor 89-90, Kenneth Clarke 90-92, John Patten 92-94 and Gillian Shephard 94-97. The most infamous amongst this generally shabby lot were Joseph, Baker and Patten.

It is ironic, however, that within this political framework and the distasteful ideologies and strictures imposed by it, this was also the most professionally rewarding time in my teaching career of 30 years. This was always due in the first instance to the wonderful people with whom I worked, especially the English teams in my school across the whole time, but in that 17 year period it was without doubt underpinned by the inspirational,  cogent thinking and ideas shared by my county’s triumvirate of outstanding English advisers Pat Brain, Nick Jones and Martin Phillips . Whilst on the one hand the national political thought was essentially narrow and idealistically skewed, on the other, the Devon LEA English Advisory service was independent and imaginative: a separateness peculiar to the time.

Also historically, the Tories introduced the worst aspects of what has survived to plague the education system to this day – testing and targets. The testing regime was the initial damnation of all that had up to that point been good about teaching English. The Tory’s Education Reform Act of 1988 led to the establishment of The National Curriculum and more crucially SATs, Standard Assessment Tests, affecting me in particular at Key Stage 3, ages 11-14. Trying to keep this as summary, what galled most was the fundamental distrust of teacher assessment, but for English in particular it was the discrete and finite nature of the testing that proved utterly anathema to the realities of how students demonstrated their knowledge, understanding and skills in this subject. When putting this argument to the test – in other words, students subjected to the often simplistic question/answer nature of English SATs at KS3, but most importantly the restrictive and patently erroneous mark schemes for all responses to which examiners were shackled [though these charlatans should themselves have been shackled to something else…] – it signalled the death knell for a creative and expressive approach to teaching and learning in English, as well as a broad method for assessing its rich and varied elements of response.

There is much more I could say on this historically – about both the discussion paper Bullock Revisited of 1982, and the Cox Report of 1989 responding to the demands for a national curriculum in English [respectively brilliant and surprisingly apt]; about the positive role of Examination Boards [JMB/NEAB and 100% coursework assessment], and the creativity of the publishing market for English teaching resources – but I will save this for another time. These are also ironic realities as the genuinely purposeful nature of this collection also occurred within the philistinism of a Tory regime.

Which brings me from this potted and to a degree planted-out historical context to Labour. By 1997, the impact of the diminishing effects of a testing and target culture outweighed the professionally inspired attempts to circumvent it. Therefore, teachers like myself craved a change and we all felt that Tony Blair’s New Labour would achieve this. Did it happen?

I think it was on the very first day of their actual operation in government that Labour confirmed the reappointment of Chris Woodhead as the Head of Ofsted, another Tory construct of destruction in so many ways. Woodhead himself was a withering traditionalist who did little to support teachers and everything to undermine them. That too is another lengthy story, but imagine the shock of his re-appointment for people like me: a dedicated English teacher looking for hope in significant change, and someone whose political ideology of fairness and liberalisation looked to Labour to bring this to bear on educational thought and curriculum development. No, it didn’t happen, and far from it.

During Labour’s long tenure in government – one promising enlightenment under the campaigning banner of Education, Education, Education – they did not change that testing and target culture [indeed they consolidated and strengthened it] and there was little if any insightful or ideological alternatives introduced within the existing curriculum. Whilst it is true that significant sums of money were put into education, and thus a genuine measure of realisation to that campaigning pledge, there simply wasn’t the change to impact on the teaching and learning in English that I had craved. It was devastating.

Getting all of that out of my system – but important in explaining my opening premise about feelings of my generation as a teacher – it is presumably easy to see how Labour wouldn’t for many teachers ‘benefit’ from a current dislike of Tories. Having behaved towards education like Tories in so many ways from 1997 to 2010, what would inspire anyone to imagine there could be a difference in a Labour government from 2015? Certainly little has been said by Labour to significantly challenge the last five years of a return to a largely Tory educational ideology [stated as scant reference to the claimed ‘liberalising’ impact of a coalition], one quite frighteningly shaped by the singular fundamentalism of former Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove.

What has the Shadow Secretary of State for Education Tristram Hunt contributed to encourage me and current members of the teaching profession to favour Labour? In another Guardian article on the 30th March [here], Tristram Hunt answers questions put to him and this one is most apposite to what I am exploring here: What is a left-wing approach to education? Hunt’s answer is:

‘I see it as a heated dialectic between Gramscian rigour and Ellen Wilkinson’s evangelism for innovation, creativity and freedom. In Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks there is this remarkable paean for the traditional rigour of the classics as being crucial for Italian working-class consciousness. On the other hand, Wilkinson, Clement Attlee’s first education secretary, argued: “Schools must have freedom to experiment, and we need variety for the sake of freshness. We want laughter in the classroom, self-confidence growing every day, eager interest instead of bored uniformity.” A modern, left-wing response to the 21st-century digital economy needs a dose of both. But where these two philosophies meet is equally important – that education is precious beyond instrumental labour market outcomes. That is something we must fight for when the right attempts to commodify it.’

I need to place my reservations on hold for a moment to acknowledge the intellectual aspect of what he is saying. As an Historian, Hunt is much better read than I will ever be in many respects, but certainly educational history, and that is a welcome alternative to the tenuous grasp of educational theory yet brazen legislative application from someone like Gove. He would appear to have embraced his role entirely from a personally myopic educational experience and then obtuse extrapolation of this into dictates. However – and accepting the single commentary I am quoting – Hunt’s response also reflects a typically cerebral rather than practical, experienced ability to reflect on what a ‘left-wing’ government would do, in curriculum terms, to return us to a more fair and progressive system. He, and Labour in opposition, have said little else about concrete alternatives they would apply, if in government, to counter the current situation. Where, for example, was the Labour outrage at the undemocratic and appalling legislative move to effectively ban American authors from being studied for GCSE English Literature from 2015, something that has altered the uncontentious status quo in this subject under both governments over countless years?

What else has Tristram Hunt, as the education voice of Labour, offered so that as a political party and alternative to the Tories it can benefit? Two salient but silly soundbites spring to mind to further serve my point: firstly, Hunt’s absurd recommendation of an ‘Hippocratic oath’ for teachers to declare [a piece of peripheral nonsense that allowed the Tories to take the moral – and sane – high-ground and argue that teachers didn’t need to declare such an oath], and secondly, his ‘Master Teachers’ proposal which had all the echoing of a kind of teacher-as-professional-prefect project. Whilst the idea of rewarding and retaining teachers in the classroom is not without merit, it is in the context of announcing such ideas as sudden initiatives [not in fact new or exclusive to Labour] rather than focusing on sustained attacks on Tory policy that has caused Labour to appear so depressingly weak or even distant.

If the current election campaigning is teaching us anything about how thoughtful people are influenced, it is for politicians to stop posturing and to present articulate, convincing and meaningful alternatives in striving to make a case for their declarations of intent. I know it was easy for her to do so in the – let’s be real – unlikelihood of forming or even being instrumental in the next government, but Natalie Bennett as leader of the Green Party did speak in the recent TV debate about two key elements that I think teachers today [and of the past] would see as a position to benefit them in the future: first, a return to local authority control of schools, thus removing aspects of needless competition as well as the incoherence of disparate systems; and second, a call to a broader approach to what we teach so that it is more than what can be measured by testing and targets [and whilst this t&t has changed somewhat of late, its essence is still in place and still toxic]. This would obviously need much more detail and examination – for example, how to dismantle the Academy/free school ideologies and practices, and then fund, structure and support all LEAs so they are as effective as Devon in the 80s/90s – so when you place it against the answer Hunt provided about what makes a ‘left-wing’ approach to education, it is saying something very similar but in quite active if ambitious ways.

Imagine Labour, and Hunt, being a little more proactive and at the very least speaking like this about real alternatives to the Tories. Actions do speak louder than words, but without even that latter, where are the benefits in voting for them to be envisioned?

[An additional note of hope is that perhaps we will be entering a phase where tracking achievement/progress in English will be more reliant once more on teacher judgements; and the book I have promoted in this blog Writing Workshops has, as I have argued, returned to an ethos and approaches that did work in that ‘better’ past. This of course has been achieved without Labour….! A final point which probably hasn’t been strongly apparent in the article above, or in that preceding comment, is I would still much rather see a Labour Party in government compared with the Tories, for many critically important reasons, not least of overriding values about equality and fairness].

1 thought on “Election and Education

  1. Pingback: Endorsing a Creative Future for Education: Hunt on Robinson | mikeandenglish

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