Free Education Campaign: Professional autonomy is there for the taking (Part 2)

Reblogged from Pedagog In The Machine, aka the Free Education Campaign (@FreeEducation


Pedagog in the Machine (@_FreeEducation)

And so to the precarious question of the proposed College’s relationship with policy.

Alison Peacock suggests that the College should be able to “have influence on the appointment of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector”. Of course this is to be encouraged: but is this really the extent of the College’s ambitions?

In his essay on ‘the importance of professionalism’, John Armstrong says: “The beauty of an independent professional body, working in the public interest as prescribed by Royal Charter, is that it can combine setting professional standards, awarding qualifications, creating and enforcing a rigorous code of conduct and set of values, having an effective regulatory framework, providing thought leadership *, formulating research and policy, and sharing international best practice.”

So there it is in black and white: formulating policy! The days of political interference in education are finally behind us!

Ah but what’s this…? David Weston’s essay on ‘what grass roots teachers want’ states that “Our new professional body must work with schools and policy makers…” – which suggests that to his mind at least, the College would not have the power to create policy.


So then which is it?

Why should we be concerned with the relationship between the proposed College and Policy?

Well, there is good reason to believe that the main barrier to our education system becoming truly world-beating is the endless interference from politicians that has characterised our profession for as long as living memory will allow.

Mary Bousted hits this point home with some force:

The current government and its predecessors have, for the past forty years, driven a constant revolution in education policy. Each succeeding administration, keen to make its mark and widen its scope of influence has introduced legislation to control the education system. We are now at the end of the road of this approach. We have arrived at a place where too many teachers feel little or no agency and where matters which should be left to the teaching profession – matters which go to the heart of what it is to be a professional – are the subject of ministerial dictat. The curriculum, the qualifications which count, teaching and learning strategies, approaches to special education needs, teaching standards, and so much more – all are decided by politicians whose conclusions are fine for the sound and fury of the Westminster village but utterly unsuitable in raising standards of teaching and learning in our schools.

Deborah Lawson hits upon a similar theme:

Relentless government intrusion into education over several decades has undermined and compromised teachers’ professional autonomy, so, to build capacity for such an initiative, there would need to be active government promotion, support and brokering to bring together interested parties and facilitate the actions and dialogue needed to implement an appropriate scheme…

An appropriate scheme

The proposal to establish a College of Teachers presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transfer the power to create the policies that dictate how our schools are run away from government ministers, and into safer hands. I do not mean to suggest that government ministers are ill-equipped to devise policy. Even the most contentious policy initiatives tend to be scrupulously well-informed and intentioned.

Everybody wants to make the system work better – in this we are all united.

However, what is beyond dispute is that since 1945, we have had 34 secretaries of state for education – an average of one every two years. Similarly, since Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister there have been no less than 20 Education Acts – again, more than one every two years.

Nobody becomes a government minister because they want to keep things ticking over. Naturally, each incumbent wishes to make their mark in the time that they have: they frequently admit as much. As a result, sweeping policy changes are endlessly ushered in on a wave of revolutionary rhetoric, only to be quietly dropped a few months later. It is this short-termism that blights meaningful progress, tearing up at least as many good ideas as are set in place.

This is the true enemy of promise.

Even the most adept headteacher would not be expected to turn a school around in two years. They could tighten the screws of course, and you may see a short-term spike in results. But not if their predecessors had exhausted all the short-term fixes. To  change the culture of a school takes longer than that: five years at least. To change the culture of an education system takes longer still.

Let’s uncouple policy-making powers from the short-term concerns of the electoral cycle, and provide the time and space for longer-term improvement planning to take root.

So what’s stopping us?

David Weston suggests that “We will only stop politicians and the media lecturing us with their solutions to problems when we grasp the nettle and show that we can make the hard changes ourselves. Others will stop trying to force change on us when we are seen as trustworthy leaders of change. We are, at present, a long way from this vision…”

This rather self-flagellating assertion appears to suggest that if only we can all work harder to please our political masters, eventually they will set us free. However this is based on an understanding of the nature of power that runs counter to the evidence. In 2005, Michael Gove wrote: “The reason I’m in Parliament is not really to see my colleagues win power, it is to see us at last in a position where we can give it up.” However since coming to office, Gove has appointed himself more than 50 new powers, including the ability to close a school without any opportunity for challenge, to insist that any new school that’s built becomes an academy, and whose Free Schools and Academies Act masquerades as a march to freedom when the reality is that such schools simply exchange local authority for central government control.

Can we really believe that politicians will hand all these powers back at some non-specified point in the future, once we’ve somehow proven that we are worth our salt? Even if we can envisage a time when teachers have “grasped all the nettles and made all the hard changes” – whatever that means – politicians would claim any improvement as evidence of their deft governance, and would tighten their grip ever further. We know this to be true, and yet we don’t want to entertain it because as a profession we have developed a sort of collective Stockholm Syndrome.


An idea hat has come of age

Freeing education policy decisions from political control is not a new idea, and nor is it radical.

The Liberal Democrats had a policy in their last manifesto to pass an ‘Education Freedom Act’ which promised to “prevent politicians from meddling in the affairs of education”.

The fact that one of the major political parties had this in their last manifesto suggests that this is an idea that has come of age.

People have talked about Finland so much in recent years that it has almost become derivative to mention it. And yet the message from Finland is as clear as the day is long:

Less is More

Less cramming of literacy before age 7. Less inspections. Less testing. Just take a step back, and let the teaching profession – and, in turn, the student population – find their groove. Just see how quickly we rise up the international league tables.

In tomorrow’s post, I will examine the proposed  College as a champion of research.

* What is ‘thought leadership’? A couple of the essays mention it. Does it mean ‘telling people what to think’..?

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