Michael Gove is extremely fond of citing the international tables which supposedly compare educational achievement. You might have thought that the journalists who repeat what he says about 'slumping' down tables (BBC) would pause a moment and scrutinize a) the tables themselves and b) the purpose to which they're being put by Gove.
Here are some observations:
1. Statistically a league table can only tell you about relative positions. A supposed 'slump' might mean a huge difference in performance, or a minute one. Think football league tables: being 3rd or 10th could be a matter of 2 or 3 points difference or 20 points difference. One is an insignificant difference and the other is significant. We are not being told whether the differences are significant or not. Just that there is a 'slump'.
2. Different international tables show different positions. This would suggest that international comparisons made on this basis are not fixed or certain.
3. One of the rules of statistics is that you must compare 'like with like'. Do the tables compare like with like? It would be fair to say that this is impossible for many reasons: the social, economic and cultural make-up and needs of different countries are different; what is being tested for is not the same; how the tests are conducted is not the same; the tests do not take place in the different countries' students' educational calendar at the same time (the students tested might have as much as nine months more or less schooling); it is a statistical nonsense to aggregate educational performance - too many different kinds of progress are going on.
4. Gove is selective in what kind of educational structure and content he pulls from the 'competitors'. As everyone now knows, he rejects Finland and opts for what he thinks is the Singaporean model ie rejects an education which involves trusting teachers and localities and opts for an authoritarian model. The Secretary of State for Education in England now controls the curriculum in local authority schools, and controls the rest directly from the DfE.
5. The economic argument that lies behind the league tables is absurd. The implication being touted is that England (the educational authority that Gove controls) is 'falling behind' because its students are poorly educated.
i) England is not a separate economic unit from the UK or indeed from the EU, so whatever is being administered for England can't be separated out.
ii) If England 'fell behind' that would be as a result of the people who ran the economy when England fell behind! Most of these people are in their fifties and sixties when - in one of the narratives peddled by the right - education was much better.
iii) the relative economic performance by countries (bearing in mind that the 'country' that Gove rules over is not a country) is hardly dependent on small differences in educational performance. The various kinds of economic mess that the UK is in were caused by decisions made about what kinds of economic activity were thought to be best for the UK to carry on. As we know, two key decisions were made:
a) to shift the balance of British capitalism from manufacture towards financial services
b) to deregulate those financial services.
Put less formally, it meant that the economy was geared to casino capitalism. This put the power of the British economy into the hands of a tiny group of gamblers. They gambled and lost. As a result there are stupendous debts hanging about in the financial sector alongside stupendous hoards of capital. This is causing the UK's difficulties more than anything else.
Meanwhile, the 'solution' cooked up by the Tories and largely reinforced by Labour is cutting the 'cost' of paying wages and supporting those in difficulty. (It isn't a 'cost' because this is the majority of people trying to earn a living and get what they need. It's only a 'cost' looked at from the point of view of capitalism.)
So, any failure by the UK to make its way in the world is wrapped up in this particular twist in the history of capitalism and not with whether students are studying Shakespeare or not, or whether five year olds are doing fractions.
6. So if this is all about different kinds of smokescreen and bs., what is really going on?
i) educational policy as presented by ministers is more about political propaganda than education. It's about being seen to be 'tough' or 'good on detail' or 'traditional' or some such.
Mostly this is about
a) playing to the narrative of decline ('everything has gone to the dogs') which chimes with a nasty anti-youth, anti-child agenda peddled by politicians
b) it panders to some older people's notions that they are better educated than their offspring
c) it panders to one idea that has run through northern European culture for three hundred years, that the best thing you can do with children and young people is to control, contain and discipline them.
ii) the economic mess that both governments have administered is, in truth, out of their control. They are trying to manage a whirlwind. They willingly carry out policies that were demanded by the economic masters of the City and big business and all it has brought is hardship to the majority. Gassing on about 'world-class education' sounds like busy-work: 'Look what we're doing to make things better.' This is a con. Even if they were creating a 'world-class education' the effects wouldn't be felt for at least another 20 years! Their crisis is now and they are trying to use that particular disaster as a way of levering in changes to education now.
iii) apologies for repeating myself, but the key structural change that has taken place in education is that the Secretary of State has been given almost total power over schools and curriculum. No other section of government has this kind of totalitarian power. Old systems of modifying and balancing that power (mostly through local authorities and big government 'Reports' like Bullock and Plowden) have been swept aside. The Secretary now directly controls the opening and closing of thousands of schools in the UK without any reference to that locality. He or she now controls the curriculum and the exam system without any need to refer to any profession-wide Report, any group of the professionals - teachers or academics. The Department is now run by a system of patronage and on the Secretary's whim. He or she will talk of consultation but this is positively Tudor: people are invited to offer their 'suits' to the monarch and he or she decides which are good or not. Clearly, the most important suits are those which chime with his or her prejudices or the loudest noises in his or her political party. I think it's particularly interesting that at a time of economic chaos and uncertainty, power in education has become much more centralised. To my mind this expresses a loss of nerve about the control of ideas ('ideology' if you prefer). Authoritarian government is mostly linked to moments of high economic stress. I don't think I'm overstating it, if I say that the way we have allowed education to be run is becoming - choose your adjective - totalitarian, Stalinist or fascistic. It is dominated by unchecked decisions made in one room by one person.
7. There are alternative ways of running education in a modern economy. There are alternative ways of running education which harness the best of what teachers can do within a fair and egalitarian context. That requires a different way of thinking about academics, professionals and locally elected bodies. It requires central government providing a means by which classroom activity can go on as a result of these different sectors being allowed and encouraged to talk to each other within a framework determined by a sense of equal entitlement. The last twenty years have become obsessed with notions of the 'great school', the 'great school leader'. Very little attention has been placed on the notion of the great locality (ie where all children and young people live and go to school) where all schools, all teachers and all children were progressing well. That's where real reform could and should happen in education ie where all children and young people are being educated - not just some.