Over this weekend I have been rejoicing in reading the excellent Flip the System UK: A Teacher’s Manifesto whose central thesis, expressed in a series of 37 essays, is that for the system to change in English education, it is teachers and those who stand with them to lead and support them who should be setting the agenda for change, and not the Department for Education, and certainly not OFSTED. I have only read two essays in any depth, but have browsed through many. I have rarely been so heartened by educators as I have in reading this book. What is really enjoyable is the range of voices – some who I have been aware of for years (Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Alison Peacock, David Weston) and who are fixtures on the English education scene, and others who I have never heard, but who write cogently and thoughtfully, often in fury, never without clarity.
Of course, as strong as the arguments are for change, little of this will happen in England, because the issue for government (and the rump Local Authorities in craven submission to them) is not about standards at all, but about control. They want to define what a successful school is, in defiance of any other way of looking at them, and they want their version of success to be the only version on the table. This has long been the case – so long, in fact, that parents and professionals not in the teaching system think that this is the only way of looking at schools. Today I am going on training with other teachers and leaders to learn how better to interpret the ASP (serpentine and poisonous, yes, but actually standing for Analysing School Performance) as though this is the best way of thinking about school performance. Of course it is not. It is a silly proxy for the real work of schools.
Never mind the pressure on children (which can be huge). Never mind the pressure on teachers (which distorts and mangles the Y6 curriculum). Pay attention to the fact that this whole English-Maths-test culture is creating an alternate reality where the “best schools” get the “highest scores” and thus boost their standing with OFSTED, supposedly the arbiter of standards in this country but actually just the gatekeeper of the alternate reality.
Robert Loe argues cogently that the real work of schools is in the quality of the relationships that they build and that anything worth measuring as a metric will flow from this, Vygotskian reality – that all learning is social – not just in its formation but in its impact on our society. If we bemoan the individualism of western society and especially Britain and America, then the way that our schools emphasise the personal, generally meaningless SATs outcomes must bear a lot of the blame.
We are better off, as a nation, without SATs, without OFSTED and without league tables. I am sure many heads agree, but we all play the game. To finish with a quote from David Williams, also in Flip the System UK (p33):
If there is even a whiff of top-down accountability attached to tests, the numbers will go up, in perfect correlation with their meaninglessness.
Far better, argues Loe, to think more deeply about what education is actually for. He quotes Beth Green, a Canadian researcher, who has written that the purpose of educating is to love your neighbour. This is brilliantly close to Tom Wright’s definition of the purpose of knowledge, and a clear way forward to a true reality, not the counterfeit reality that OFSTED, the DFE, the regional schools commissioners and their lackeys purport to judge us all by.