The Great Debate must now yield a Great Consensus

6 Jul 2023, 5:00

Jim Callaghan’s 1976 Ruskin College speech saw the irreversible entry of politicians into the “secret garden” of education. The speech started a Great Debate that still rages, and Callaghan’s warning that politicians would no longer “keep off the grass” has since seen them not simply stroll upon it, but roll up their sleeves and rotavate the entire landscape.

Ruskin wasn’t wrong about the problems, but what was once a commitment to increase quality, accountability and outcomes now places schools at the mercy of a perennial pendulum of extremes. It may not be possible or even desirable to keep the politicians off the grass, but to ensure sustainable growth we need to stop stomping on it from time to time.

For the sake of education, it’s time the Great Debate yielded to a Great Consensus. The profession is crying out for long-term vision that aligns talent, encourages retention and prevents the cycle of wasted funding created by frequently changing focus.

When political leadership and professional praxis align, we see marked improvement for young people. Significant focus on reading and phonics to improve reading has been a policy priority under different governments since 2006, and the results are clear. Whether an equivalent drive on reading for pleasure and fluency could or should have complemented it is up for grabs, but we shouldn’t argue against the facts for the sake of politics.

Equally, and rightly, no one is seriously championing a return to the hoop-jumping of national curriculum levels or away from a focus on curriculum quality. The interpretation and implementation of these shifts has led to issues we are still unpicking, but a steady political hand on the tiller could see us iron those out for the better of all schools.

However, it is certainly true that schools have been subject to frequent, politically driven and unnecessary intervention in their pedagogical practices. Improvement here is driven by consistency too. But more than that, it’s about alignment with values and context too. The positive commitment to knowledge-rich has arguably made that harder. For example, the removal of explicit focus on racial and ethnic diversity in new GCSEs means this now often has to be covered in additional modules or extra-curricular experiences.

The profession is crying out for long-term vision

Assessment shapes practice, and while the move away from modular exams to high-stakes assessment may have reduced gaming, it has created other problems. Year 11s this summer had the gruelling experience of upwards of 27 exams. Many face repeated resits of the same GCSE maths and English that some argue is a questionable way to prepare them for their futures. Maths to 18 is a reality for them, but not in a meaningful or transferable way

Add to these the arbitrary selection of subjects for EBacc that prefers Latin over modern foreign languages and disincentivises performing and creative arts, and a rich curriculum begins to look like a very narrow entitlement for an exclusive segment of the population.

All of which adds up to growing disparity between what schools are equipping young people to do and what a broad economy requires of them. This is crucial as we look towards a green and digital future.

At the other end of the educational journey, early years remains a wholly marketized sector that delivers unequal results based on parents’ ability to pay for an increasingly expensive service. Children start school with gaps many never manage to close. There is surely space for political focus and consensus here.

We have successfully established common ground over the value of research-informed practice. We are blessed with innovative, principled leaders who have proven their credibility in times of national emergency. If we are not careful, political micro-management will have caused great swaths of them to give up.

Our young people don’t need adults shouting pedagogical principles at each other across the educational barricades. They need grown-ups to agree a common basis for what young people in the reception class of 2023 will need over the next 13 years, what they can afford to resource, and how they will hold schools accountable for results.

Politicians are welcome in the garden. It would be nice if they watered it and pushed the lawnmower from time to time instead of routinely digging up the flowerbeds.

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