Wednesday 4 January 2012

Third Worst - how they got away with it; the alternative

For these 'reforms' to win the day, several conditions were necessary: an authoritarian like Blair (and pals) to have taken over the leadership of the Labour Party; a perceived 'crisis' in education as a whole and 'literacy' in particular; a sufficiently credible leading 'educationist' or two to come up with a rationale and who, if pushed, could appear in the media to give the whole thing credibility (eg Prof Michael Barber); willing middle-ranking advisers and 'experts' recruited from all over the country and prepared to write the nitty-gritty of the strategies; a cynical, dishonest programme of rubbishing teachers, schools, the comprehensive system and any research or evidence of humanistic education methods leading up to this moment; and, as I suggested before, a sufficiently domesticated profession to prevent a mass revolt.

Whenever I've raised this in meetings with teachers or advisers, people have suggested that a) the situation in education was not good enough when New Labour came to power and any critique of what was put in place needs to take that on board and b) they've asked, what would I have done instead?

Re the situation in education at the time: education in England (I won't speak for the other parts of the UK) has never been 'good enough' for the simple reason that government after government finds itself unwilling to commit to a system based on universal provision of the best for all. The only way that can be done is to see that   'cohorts' of children and school students attend schools in localities - albeit overlapping ones - and the key question is the provision of equal education in each and every locality. Any effort to 'improve' one school will always end up being at the expense of the others. It's the cohort that counts. This means for one thing maximising (not minimising) co-operation between schools in a locality, co-operation between teachers in the form of discussion groups, conferences etc. And of course it means equalising admission procedures at all levels so that everyone can see how it's done and why - which means putting parents and teachers in positions where they are part of those procedures. It needs central government to lay the basis for this so that the same egalitarian principles apply everywhere, and a genuine reforming government, interested in raising the levels of education for all would make it its duty to explain why and how this was happening. As various people have told me, there are articles galore now on how Finland has succeeded in improving its education system and it is because it is based on the principle of equity. What happens in England is that government after government comes in and thinks immediately of selection, segregation, 'leadership', 'choice', streaming, 'competition', exams, tests, inspection - in other words systems that guarantee failure under the name of 'raising standards'.

Re: what would I have done instead? Part of that is in the previous paragraph but the other part isn't just in my head as some kind of fantasy. Staying with 'literacy', the history of education in England is littered with reports and initiatives which either addressed this matter directly or made it a core part of a wider report. Meanwhile, hundreds of researchers, advisers, academics spent millions of hours over decades looking at literacy and literature in schools, how best to teach it, writing up their conclusions in thousands of documents.  One of the biggest lies that each government spins when it comes in and starts talking about these matters is to pretend a) there is failure everywhere and b) no one knows what they're doing and c) there isn't sufficient information on what's been done or what to do, d) there is lack of 'rigour'. So it is that reports like the Plowden Report, the Bullock Report, Schools Council documents, research by the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA), the National Literacy Trust, academic research coming out of the Institutes and Colleges of Education and teacher training departments in London, Exeter, Manchester, Cambridge, Birmingham; the international research coming out of international conferences - the whole shebang gets swept aside in favour of one trusty's line - a trusty who is saying something that suits the prejudices of the moment, rather than some kind of synthetic approach, ie synthesising wisdom of theory, practice and evidence. And that whole 'shebang' doesn't count as 'rigour'. The millions of hours of observed practice, theory and thought about how children learn, how teachers teach, how schools work don't count as 'rigour'. The thousands of teachers who attend the courses and conferences based on unpicking that research - apparently not 'rigour'. The practice in the classroom which they put into place off the back of that work - again, apparently not 'rigour'.

Now, in case this sounds too unspecific, I've deliberately left one key 'report' or, should I say, 'project' from the above list. The Language in the National Curriculum project. I think this is of special importance - not because it pronounced some special wisdoms - though these were coming through - but because of its process. Yes, I know 'process' is a dull word and doesn't sound as exciting as 'strategy' and 'programmes of  study' and all that, but unless we look at the matter of 'process', education will always lose out. So, to LINC, as it was known.

I was peripheral to its operation so I have no axe to grind here. I just attended some sessions, mostly in Tower Hamlets, where teachers were meeting in a Teachers' Centre to chew over what I understood to be two inter-related projects: the Oracy Project and the Literacy Project. The 'process' that I'm getting excited about here seemed to work like this: teachers recorded what they were doing in the classroom, in particular selecting work with different abilities of child, and making what we might call 'dossiers' of these examples of work; teachers with the responsibility of 'literacy' were attending day conferences in their locality to look at these examples of work; a mix of advisers (teachers with at least five years experience in the classroom), academics, researchers, and 'literacy practitioners' of one kind or another (that's where I came in, mostly just to read poems, as an example of what you can do with poetry) came in to the one-day conferences or twilight sessions to share what they were doing or what they had found out, to 'workshop' ideas and practice  (eg in my case, to get teachers writing poetry).

As I understood it, this LINC project with its two wings - Oracy and Literacy - was going to produce a massive report, or many small reports. It was early days in the world of computers but already people were talking in wide-eyed terms about shared resources, shared knowledge and the rest in ways that people like me (born 1946) couldn't imagine. Anyway, cut to the chase: thousands of teachers were involved; teachers were treated as experts on their own practice; they were encouraged to share what they were doing; they were being given a chance to develop their professional judgement and ability in the very process of examining it, documenting it and discussing it; this was interfused with whatever researchers, advisers and practitioners were coming up with - in a fair equitable way, not as dictated from on high; and a process of sharing of children's work was a core part of the whole project.

So what happened to LINC?

It was junked. Millions (some say £20 million) went straight down the drain. The whole project and all its processes were tipped into the sewers and shredders. As far as I know the only document that came out of it was an interesting book written by Ron Carter about grammar in the classroom but which was probably read in full (I didn't finish it) by about a hundred people.

This is a crucial part of our history. The rise and fall of LINC tells us about the politics of literacy education. In other words, literacy education is not about right and wrong methods,it's not about governments trying to find solutions. It's about implementing a particular politics of how things must go on in education, dictated from the centre, furnished with authoritarian documents, policed by inspection systems, divided up into segregated, selective  and streamed schools. It's not about getting trained professional people sharing their expertise, raising their game by discussing what they're doing with people of similar status in open forums, being given the chance to learn new tricks, and/or to discuss these things, to listen and chew over research to see if it's relevant or useful and of course to replicate that within schools with the body of teachers of that school and indeed in classrooms with the children.

So, when people say, what would you have done instead of what New Labour did, it doesn't come down to something I might cook up in my mind. The blueprint for the whole of education was there in the LINC projects. You have to believe in the combined wisdom, experience and thought of the practitioners of a profession. Rather than treat them as sheep who must be bullied and led, you approach the matter by saying,  these are the professionals we've got. These are the people who actually engage day to day with the 'client group' ie the children. It's not that there is one way to do the job. Teaching is a people-job involving and incorporating the personalities and social situations of all its participants. This is not a snag or drawback to the process. It's one of its virtues. The model of LINC - and I'm sure there were plenty of ways it could have been built on, adapted, improved - was one which had 'humanistics' at its heart. That's to say, it acknowledged that everyone involved is a human being with experience, the ability to reflect, the ability to plan, the ability to reflect on what was planned and what actually happened, to change and to improve.

All we ever heard from New Labour was stuff about 'levering up standards'. I would suggest you can't sit in government and 'lever up standards'. The model is wrong. Standards are raised by those doing the stuff. It needs organisation to release people's potential. And it needs a set of values based on equity to ensure that this stuff is for everyone.

PS added 15.50    04.01.12 - where I've written 'Literacy Project' above it should be 'Writing Project'.
PPS The dates for LINC were 1989-1992.