Sunday 17 June 2012

Reply 2 to Tim Oates's letter.

My first query to Tim Oates was:

I'd be interested to know where the evidence exists for

1. the claim that  issuing directives like this does anything to raise standards. Dylan's Inaugural lecture appears to contradict this and he offers a great deal of international evidence and his own practice to back that up. (I don't accept the distinction between content and pedagogy). We've had similar documents being issued since 1988 at massive cost, and then junked (see NLS). In other words there are much better ways of working.

Tim has now replied but some key points are overlooked.

a) this is a Curriculum devised at the centre at the DfE for implementation by Local Authorities in 'maintained schools' only. While private schools, academies and free schools do not have to follow it and of course Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland make their own arrangements. We should feed into the mix here the fact that this is a government that is hostile to local authority control of education.

I will admit to being confused and irritated here. Why is a government that is doing all it can to destroy the link between local democracy and the running of schools be asserting its control (right down to what sounds and words will be learnt and when!) over those very schools? 

My first gut feeling is that this puts the whole development and publication of the curriculum into a bag that has much more to do with politicking and engineering a favourable outcome for the academies programme than a real concern with every child. 

This seems to me to put a good deal of Tim Oates' high-blown claims for concern about intellectual capital into the shade. 

b) The power of government lies in what it produces in terms of definitive documents. Tim Oates claims that producing a Curriculum like this is only one of many means by which schools get better. This is disingenuous. When governments issue something as detailed, backed up and policed by a regime of testing (phonics, punctuation, spelling, grammar and SATs) it is this core document and process engendered by it, which come to dominate - as we saw with the NLS. 

And what is the dominating that's going on? Rule over teachers by cabal and diktat. A process which is kept mysterious and secret (who wrote this document? What was their background? Why did they write it, rather than someone else?) and which makes highly specific demands. We know only too well that headteachers willingly or unwillingly end up demanding that staffs in their schools follow the requirements of documents like these. It will be pored over and discussed as a document to 'implement'.

It is precisely this process that deskills teaching, and turns it into box-checking. There is another model: which is to empower teachers, researchers and political representatives  themselves to develop curricula. The claim is made that this produces a non-standard curriculum - a laughable criticism given the fact that we now know how this document applies - or not applies -  across the UK! 

The moment a process is set up whereby experts sit in the DfE with a view to boiling down the essential requirements of what they think teachers and children are going to have to do, we are on the road to deskilling and disempowering teachers. Disempowered teachers feel less inclined to innovate, change, experiment, and - vitally - research their own practice and draw conclusions from it.

c) There is indeed a set of practices which needs to be considered going along beside or as a consequence of producing a Curriculum like this. This set of practices is about ignoring teachers' own professional organisations, (LATE, NATE, UKLA, CLPE, NUT and the other teaching unions etc) and demanding that the tiny rump of local authority advisers left in place in CPDs and the like merely 'deliver' or 'roll out' the policies in the document. 

Tim Oates has presented these other activities as part of a whole. This is misleading. They are part of ahierarchy - not of a neutral whole or sum of equal parts. The power lies in the centre with the unaccountable, cabal and diktat. One of the motives for leaving local authorities will be precisely the understandable wish by headteachers and teachers to rid themselves of some part of this cabal and diktat process. Ironically, this will put them into the hands of unaccountable 'local' or 'business' interests who will have power to dictate the ethos of that academy! 

d) The question of 'core knowledge' or 'cultural capital' raised by Tim Oates is absurd. A regime determined by cabal and diktat, a curriculum laid down by such a body, policed by a testing regime does not deliver cultural capital (core knowledge, or powerful knowledge) to the disempowered/disadvantaged The more you test children, the more you confirm the superior cultural capital (home knowledge, aptitude and school-readiness) of those who have it. The winners of the test-regime are those whose parents did well in tests, those who have parents with money to spend on home tutoring, those who have the cultural informal 'syllabus' that they (we!) give to children.

I will give one example, teachers reading this could give a thousand others. Last year's KS2 SAT English revolved round a Sunday Times (!) article about caving. It was a perfect example of a piece of cultural specificity (or bias, if you prefer) which favoured those who a) read the kind of prose produced by journals like the Sunday Times, b) those who came from families where such activities were frequent or the norm. 

Now spin that on its head, look at the examples of specific knowledge required by the curriculum and it doesn't take long to see how easily and obviously, teaching these will 'layer' the children even more rigidly into fast and slow tables, A,B,C and D sets and streams. Put it this way, this is a curriculum that treats 'English' as a set of rules to be learned, not an expansion of language awareness developing out of the language and culture of the child. Watch as the disempowered and disadvantaged spectate their advantaged colleagues powering through the tests armed with the language and dialect of the tests themselves.

Those of us who work in the arts see within that work how children's language and language awareness can produce out of the activities  a much more level playing field. Expertise in thinking, feeling and ideas comes from everyone. Discussion about end products (poems, stories, reports, magazines, debates, plays, blogs and the like in my case) takes the matter to a level where the use of language can be made explicit ie about literary form, grammar, and editing (punctuation, spelling). The dog wags the tail. The activity (writing, speaking, listening, acting etc) gives power to the discussion and analysis. With top down, diktat-led lessons and tests in grammar and the like, the tail tries to wag the dog. Cultural capital remains intact in the hands of those who either already have it or those who can buy it.

e) Finally, I repeat, I see no evidence - and it's probably impossible to show anyway - that these cabal and diktat documents help children learn, or help raise standards of learning - any more than could or would have been raised by a process once tried and then junked known as the Language in the National Curriculum project (LINC). The problem lies in the fact that we have reached an era when the professions are either in the hands of business managers or governmental managers or both. Such a structure always comes up with 'solutions' which support the power of itself. It is afraid and unwilling to let localised, professional people (teachers, researchers)  have more than a smidgeon of control and power over what they do.