Friday 4 April 2014

How the media do education: shock-horror then, mistakes now

Those of us with long memories in the education game, remember how the press handled education scandals of the past. We can call to mind the press hysteria around such 'school events' as Risinghill, William Tyndale and Highbury Quadrant.

These became the battlegrounds for the argument about state education with these three schools accused of a combination of such crimes as 'progressivism' and 'political interference'. For the moment, I'm not going to revisit the details of these but rather, focus on what was the purpose of the media output and how it relates to the situation in education now.

It's now clear that these were the opening chapters in the story that has unfolded with the Gove revolution. In essence, there has always been a school (!) of thought in education which believes that the best way for children to be educated is by emphasising children as empty vessels waiting to be given wisdom and knowledge that teachers transmit via textbooks, worksheets, exercises and lectures.  In spite of claims made by those who believe in this teaching method and content, the 'progressives' who have different models of education and learning did not take over the reins of power and great swathes of education have always retained the 'empty vessel' model. The main reason for that has been the testing and exam system, which has always demanded of teachers to forgo discussion, investigation, co-operation and the like so that the children/students can 'cram' or the equivalent. As I often say, this is not to blame teachers. When exams and tests are given the high status or sole status of judging 'education', teachers have no choice but to do what managements and inspectors and ministers say (often without much evidence) that the 'cramming' system of passing is the best way to teach.

So, bearing this in mind, these three schools I've mentioned became national news. They were educational horror stories and it could be said that the shock-horror that was created was then bit by bit turned into some kind of truth (I would say 'myth') about the state of all schools and the constantly repeated and unchallenged fib that Wilshaw and Gove come up with about the 'failed generation'. As I've written in a previous blog, the 'failed generation' are - according to them - now in their thirties and forties - so, if they were honest, they would tell us what it is that thirty and forty year old state educated people cannot do, or what they are doing 'wrong'.

Leaping now to the present state of school under Gove, I am not inventing things when I say that there have been a set of crises breaking in specific schools set up under the Gove regime. I don't need to list them, but we know that some Free Schools have failed, at least one academy chain is in serious difficulty, the governance of academies is still in a state of flux with governance shared between Gove and the academy chain (if that's what's running the academy) while coming over the horizon a new tier of bureaucracy is on its way with regional (?) academy bosses.

Then again, as I've written, there is a real problem with what is happening to disaffected 14, 15 and 16 year olds. Put it this way, if you are 15/16 and were really intent on slipping out of education, it wouldn't be difficult. That's because we no longer have a unified system of universal provision. The old system as devised in 1944 and repeated in 1988, no longer prevails. We can no longer say that the 'school system provides education for all'. What happens now is that academies and free schools provide education to those that go to those schools. Local authority schools do the rest - apart from the fee-payers. It is not the responsibility of the academy system or the free school system to educate anyone apart from those children who are in their schools. When they get rid of pupils, it is not their concern as to where they go or what happens to them.

Now, let's imagine that the press and media that hounded Risinghill, William Tyndale and Highbury Quadrant, were as interested in these stories of failure as they were in these three schools. They would be front page news, long interviews with anguished parents, long 'comment' articles by the great and the good. Gove would be hounded with the stories that I hear about eg local authorities picking up the pieces of academies that fail, pupils who are rejected by the academy and free school system, the cramming into smaller and smaller spaces that is going on because local authorities are not allowed to build new local authority schools, the full nature of what happens when a free school fails, who has been corrupt in the handling of funds and so on. And though Gove's billion - or is it billionS, now? - is mentioned, it's brushed over as if it's just one of those government things. Where is the press anxiety and rage?

So, though Tyndale, Risinghill and Highbury Quadrant were taken as symptomatic of a 'disease' that was affecting all children, the Gove experiments are given an easy ride and the failures are taken as 'teething problems' and to be expected in what is after all a truly honourable venture in 'raising standards'.