A professional consensus against governmentality

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In his latest monthly commentary (May 2016), Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, states: “We need to put as sharp a focus on the other subjects (of the primary curriculum) as we do on English and mathematics.” Wilshaw goes on to remind inspectors to look closely at “the wider primary curriculum, including science and modern languages, as set out in the inspection handbook.”

Yet, as former HMI Prof Colin Richards points out, no subjects other than mathematics and English are specifically mentioned in the inspection handbook. Instead, there is a vaguely expressed requirement that, when evaluating the design and implementation of the curriculum, inspectors should ensure that this contains “breadth and balance”. As Richards argues, this requirement becomes meaningful only if there is political and professional consensus over the criteria by which the breadth or otherwise of schools’ curricula can be judged.

Recently, I was having dinner with some friends who included two recently retired primary head teachers. One of these mentioned that, in his experience, the support of a professional consensus is very important when deciding the teaching policies of a school. One might disagree with aspects of this consensus, he said, but it was important that it should be in place, to provide an agreed framework for professional effort.

It struck me that it is the absence of such a consensus that is at the root of the present crisis in education in England. As Estelle Morris writes in yesterday’s Guardian: “Teachers are working with a curriculum, assessment and pedagogy that are increasingly directed by ministers’ own priorities and prejudices”.

Thirty years ago, as Colin Richards reminds us, HMI forged a consensus around “breadth and balance” by arguing that primary and secondary schools should involve all children in nine areas of experience and learning throughout the age-range 5 to 16.  Within this consensus, schools and teachers were free to interpret the ways in which these areas of experience and learning might be implemented in particular classrooms.

How different the situation is today. We no longer have the structures to achieve professional and political consensus. The consultative bodies within which teachers, inspectors and politicians discussed the curriculum – the Schools Council, Secondary Education and Assessment Committee, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – have all been abolished. In their place we have the Department for Education, which effectively implements the diktats of the Secretary of State for Education.

In these circumstances, “breadth and balance” is little more than dimly remembered mantra from a former age. Within the new order, what matters is not experience and learning but “skills”. The primary skills are literacy and numeracy: the former subjects of English and mathematics, but with ministerially prescribed content. Within the new curriculum hierarchy, creativity is confined to the so-called creative subjects (art, music, drama but not English) that stand outside the “core academic subjects” that comprise the EBacc. Assessment by periodic national testing (the SATs) and GCSE (age 16) and A level (age 18) examinations emphasises memorisation and learning for the test. Private providers of instructional and testing materials and procedures, such as Pearson, are heavily involved in the delivery and assessment of this curriculum.

In the UK, teachers of English are increasingly preoccupied by the need to prepare students for the new tests in language and grammar “skills” which now have to be taken periodically from the early years (age 5) through to GCSE (age 16). There is a particular symbolic significance in these tests. For 50 years, the consensus among English teachers has been that the teaching of formal English grammar as a discrete aspect of English has little or no positive effect on students’ ability to write fluently, coherently and effectively. Grammar, or knowledge about language, did not disappear from the classroom: it has always been part of the national curriculum, and A-level English language, introduced in 1985, is still a growth subject. Formerly, however, English teachers had discretion, supported by a professional consensus, in the extent to which they incorporated explicit grammatical instruction within their teaching. Work by the Grammar for Writing team at Exeter University, which demonstrated ways in which applying grammatical knowledge within the drafting process can help children improve their writing, has recently become part of this consensus. Today, however, teachers and students face a quasi-theological grammatical apparatus that has to be memorised in order to answer test questions.

These curriculum and assessment changes derive not from the education profession but from what Jory Brass (following Foucault) calls “governmentality”. This word combines notions of “government” and “mentality” into a single term to identify political strategies to direct the conduct of the governed towards particular ends. Michael Rosen believes that the obscurity of the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests will result in more schools’ appearing to fail and thus requiring to be transformed into academies, thus supporting the government’s intention to privatise the forms and structures of education as far as is possible. It also seems to me that a more immediate result of these tests – which introduce a further element in the assessment of English beyond the traditional domains of speaking and listening, reading and writing – will be to withdraw cultural capital from numbers of young people who formerly achieved satisfactory results in English. This will be justified in the name of “standards”. It is worth remembering that, in 2012, the Office of Qualifications (Ofqual) put pressure on the assessment authorities (examination boards) to raise the threshold for grade C (the “passing” grade) in GCSE English. Despite an enormous protest, including legal action, by parents, local authorities and subject associations, this move was accepted as a legitimate attempt to “raise standards”.

These are not the “standards” that would be supported by a professional consensus that genuinely sought a broad and balanced education for our young people. Government requires the acquiescence of the governed. To resist these developments, we need a professional consensus against governmentality.

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How was it for you?

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Human beings are given to looking back at supposedly better times than the present. In The City and the Country, Raymond Williams examines nostalgic discourses about social change and suggests that that memories of better days usually refer to a period thirty or more years in the past. But I’ve never felt this way about education. The schools and colleges where I’ve taught during the last thirty years offered a better experience to both students and teachers than the institutions of the 1960s and early 70s, where corporal punishment was a normal feature of everyday life and most students left at 15 or 16 with no qualifications.

And yet – thirty years ago, the political-educational culture was very different to what obtains today. Teachers educated in recent years must find it hard to imagine a time when schooling and assessment were not subject to endless political influence and change. When NATE started in 1963, the consensus about educational reform was such that the Minister for Education wrote an article in one of the first issues of English in Education. Responding to the Black Papers on Education of the early seventies, the Bullock Report of 1975, A Language for Life, stated that there was little substance in the view that “large numbers of schools are promoting creativity at the expense of basic skills”. And yet the Report’s acceptance of a binary opposition between “skills” and “creativity”, a conceptual dichotomy still routinely deployed, arguably set the scene for the landscape of today, where SPAG assessment is seen as a fundamental marker of competence in English and creative writing at A level is under threat.

Over more than fifty years, English in Education has offered critical research and opinion on the “basics” of English in Scotland_Road_playschools – the teaching of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Reading through the collected volumes to prepare our reflective paper on the first fifty years of the journal (published in the September 2014 issue, 48:3) Sarah Wilkin and I became aware of what Margaret McCullagh, an MA student at King’s College, London, calls the “turbulent and challenging” history of English teaching over those years. Perhaps the English in Education archive can mobilise our collective memory at a crucial time in English education.

If you are one of those teachers whose experience, like mine, approaches the number of years that NATE and its journal have flourished, we’d like to hear from you.  Margaret McCullagh (maggiermccullagh@gmail.com) is writing a dissertation on older English teachers’ perceptions of their work.  She wants to interview a number of English teachers aged 55 and over who have spent most of their working lives in the UK educational system.  Those who have retired within the last five years are equally welcome to participate.  She hopes to elicit a picture of what these teachers believe promotes self-efficacy in English teaching – and what hinders it. If you fit this profile, and can help by participating in an audio-taped interview of up to an hour, at a time and place convenient to you, with any travel expenses paid, please get in touch with Margaret at maggiermccullagh@gmail.com.