I am not a huge fan of big business. Nature and scripture teaches us the value of keeping things local, of esteeming individuals for who they are, not just what they can bring to a company, and for ensuring that the economy of a local community provides work and produce for that same community. However, for now, big businesses are a fact of life, and whilst we would all do better to buy local, from independent and community-based businesses, sometimes you just can’t. We are trapped in the world of the multi-nationals and supermarkets. In Milton Keynes, there was a battle raging over whether Primark would build near John Lewis on the site of the open air market. Happily, Primark lost that one.
However, John Cridland, current DG of the CBI, reflects today on the public relations mess that Michael Gove made the weekend before last, in front of the massed ranks of the NAHT. This is interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is that it acknowledges the work that English schools have made over the years to improve the quality of the education they provide, and the readiness of young people for the business world. But it is also interesting because businesses, over the years, have learnt several diplomatic skills when dealing with their customers and clients, diplomatic skills which Gove, at heart a journalist, and being in a right-leaning government that KNOWS it is right, has not really needed until now.
Cridland rightly focuses on the ground that Gove would want to cover – standards and curriculum. These, by the way, whilst important, are not the heart of education, but that is a debate I have had elsewhere. He starts with teaching:
Great teaching needs the system to work for them not act as a barrier, with a strong, relevant curriculum, challenging and helpful accountability and the freedom on the ground. The best heads and teachers too often feel like rebels. They follow their gut, do what they know is best to equip young people with the attitudes, values and skills they need for life. So for me, the litmus test of the current education reforms is that the rebels must become the establishment who succeed because of, not in spite of, the system.
Notice the choice of words here – attitudes, values and skills – not a word about knowledge, and a big acknowledgement of the fact that the best practice often feels the most autonomous and feels least like being pushed around by government. The NAHT, he observes, are not union firebrands, but the people “(Gove) needs to carry with him”.
Then he moves to the issue of standards and accountability, where he says that fewer and sharper exams are probably needed. However, he observes that most businesses do not do things “by exam” any more, and that a narrative approach to achievement and records of attainment are much more effective. This, at the same time that the government is taking things backwards to what feels like a 19th century approach.
The business world has seen a gradual but significant move to more narrative company reporting since the 1980s, where firms set out their overall strategy and direction of travel alongside the essential black and white financial statements. In schools, tough exams are essential but are not sufficient in creating a great education system. The government needs to adopt a more holistic view that wins support from heads, business and parents. Ofsted needs to adjust its role to be a guarantor, through reports that mix assessment on exam results with a broader narrative setting out achievement in the round.
As far as curriculum goes, Cridland argues for a more personalised approach to learning (the work of Ricardo Semler in Brazil is in the same vein), where the variety of who we are can be reflected in what we learn, including a proper approach to vocational education:
Let’s invest in rigorous vocational alternatives and give them a proper standing in the system – gold standard vocational A-levels. And let’s stimulate a culture where individual learning plans are the norm, mapping out each young person’s academic and personal development.
None of this is rocket science, and it is nothing that educators have not been saying already in the current debate. But next time you hear Gove bang on about what business leaders want, bear this in mind.