A Generation of Radical Educational Change: Stories from the field

This is a rather disparate and anecdotal collection of musings on education over the last 40 years. The things most of the contributors have in common are an adherence to progressive ideas (Plowden is always mentioned with warm approval); a contempt for those outside the professional fold, particularly politicians and the apparently clueless ordinary parents to whom they appeal; and a dislike of government interference, which is connected in their minds with nasty rightwingers who want to specify what schools teach.

Ordinary folk are conspicuously absent from the book in general, which breathes the rarefied air of the chosen few, those champions of “local accountability” who did whatever they liked in the heady days before they were actually held accountable, in any meaningful or direct way, to the parents on whose children they inflicted their noble ideals.

Overall, the book is critical of the top-down approach to educational reform, lamenting what it sees as the indifference of government to “professional opinion and serious research”. But for all their faults, politicians are aiming to represent the views of ordinary people, while the priesthood of professional administrators and academics has no such accountability. This cry of pain from the comfortable professional class is unlikely to find much sympathy with ordinary people.

But then, they’ll never read it anyway. Aimed at “aspiring headteachers and policy makers”, the tone of the book is that of an internal discussion between initiates, not a broader appeal to the population at large. One wonders whether it would be considered by some of the contributors a distasteful sort of demagoguery even to attempt to appeal to those not initiated into the labyrinthine mysteries of modern public education.

The title suggests that the book aims to report what is actually going on in schools. The “field” suggests the arena of battle. Nonetheless, with the exception of one journalist, and, of course, the venerable Lord Baker, all of the authors have spent most of their careers as administrators or academics rather than classroom teachers. It’s a self-enclosed and self-congratulatory group, convinced of its own rectitude, and drawing much of its “evidence” from the writings of other group members, or even from the authors’ own previous publications. From their sanctuary of impervious left liberal righteousness, the group looks out with horror and disgust at the antics of the nasty rightwing reactionaries that have spoiled their fun, and the foolish electorate that insists on repeatedly voting them into office

There is also an aloof refusal to engage with the example of the independent sector, to which so many of these ignorant, reactionary parents have fled, especially in London. How odd that they should insist on doing so, even while the ILEA was creating such a wonderful, “locally accountable” system.

The honourable exception in amongst all the stifling self-referential self-congratulation is Tim Oates, who delivers a brief and stimulating chapter on the importance of stability in assessment, in order to be able to measure the impact of reform. Unlike the other contributors, he actually engages directly with key ideas, instead of avoiding them by simply sticking political labels onto opponents, or pretending that the debate does not exist.

I avoided reading education books for years because they all seemed to be like this: detached, academic, jargon infested, and above all, determined to prevent a breakout of dangerous common sense in the sanctuary of the education theocracy.

If you want to enter the priesthood of educational administration, perhaps you’d benefit from learning some of its mystical language by reading books like this. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in actually promoting learning in the classroom, don’t bother. Do it for yourself instead. In a refreshing, if brief, departure from the ivory tower, Pring notes the phenomenon of teachers using social media for professional development in positive tones.

More typical of the contributors’ attitudes, however, is Peter Wilby’s dismissal of the “poorly informed comment” of blog writers, unless they be his allies, of course, as in the case of the Local Schools Network, who show an admirable determination to support local bureaucrats in their efforts to criticise the creation of schools such as Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela Free School.