Education is not about standards, but values.

Another SOCK! HORROR! education story. We are told that in recent analysis of PISA data that the children of ‘elementary workers’ in China and Singapore – like cleaners – are outperforming the sons and daughters of British professional middle-class people – like barristers – in mathematics. We are told that this is a critical national issue if we are to maintain our economic competitiveness. Personally, I think a bigger issue for us as a nation is that the children of ‘elementary workers’ in this country  rarely if ever, outperform the children of the professional middle-class.

In my humble opinion, education is not about meeting shifting standards, it’s about nurturing universal values. At least, that has been my guiding principle (though I was forced to seriously reflect on that at times, including during the riots that engulfed English cities in the summer of 2011) But now I am even more convinced of it.

Teaching is a deeply political activity. As you start teaching in a school, any school anywhere, you are confronted with the deeply political and social realities of educating people.

One is that social class is still the biggest indicator of educational achievement in Britain. Not race. Not gender. Not even disability. But social class.

Personally I hate that fact. But facts sadly, have the uncomfortable characteristic of being true.

I’m referring to ‘achievement’ here in relation to the standards we set (or we acquiesce in setting) for children through our education system – the SATs, the GCSE and ‘A’ level results by which every young person these days is recognised, judged and even valued.

The way we define and share aspirations is an important factor in achievement – which is why in my view the best schools are the ones which are socially diverse – the ones with a good mix of ‘middle-class’ and ‘working-class’ kids and parents.

But such schools require a social contract.

The ‘middle-class’ parents must accept some compromise in educational ‘standards’ while the pay-off for their children will be the social cohesion and community that ultimately affords them the educational achievement, prosperity and personal security they crave.

The ‘working-class’ parents must accept their kids might aspire to be a different ‘class’ and ‘culture’ and abandon their ‘roots’, while the pay-off is access to new social capital and access to sustainable educational achievement and prosperity.

But this contract, both in schools and in the wider society, seem to be at a critical point of collapse.

Twenty years ago I would regularly visit schools in north London that were very socially mixed. One I can think of had the children of Cabinet ministers, film and television actors, playwrights and rock stars in almost equal number with peers from the nearby council high-rise estates. The school was an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of creativity, innovation and excitement. Plays, concerts, art, dance, crafts of all sorts were as much a part of the curriculum as the three Rs. Parents of mixed backgrounds collaborated with teachers on all kinds of projects for the benefit the whole school community.

I visited the same school recently. All that has gone…

There are still Cabinet ministers, film and television actors and celebrity chefs living nearby, but their children go elsewhere for their schooling. Now the school is almost completely populated by kids from the council estates. Even more worrying – the kids are almost entirely Bangladeshi or Somali – so the ethnic diversity has gone too. Now the teachers are focused on a mission with a different emphasis – much less of ‘building a school community’ and much more of teaching numeracy and literacy to the high ‘standards’ the education system demands.

I’m not saying the education system twenty or thirty years ago was a model for a perfect society, but neither was it a system were ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ were its defining characteristic. There may be aspects of our system that are out-performed by so-called ‘Asian Tiger’ economies. But our system still provides a broad and balanced curriculum that includes literature, drama, music, art and design that results in Britain’s world-leading cultural reputation.

As professional people, how much responsibility should we take for the educational system we operate?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.

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7 thoughts on “Education is not about standards, but values.

  1. Education has to be about standards and values – and, often, in the narrow pursuit of GCSE grades or SATs scores we can forget the importance of values and we can lose any sense of what a broad and balanced education really means. As a former GCSE Chief Examiner, I have often said that 10 GCSEs doesn’t amount to a broad education because it offers not breadth but 10 variations on a theme.

    But achievement matters, as does its narrower-minded cousin examination grades, as any student who has missed out on a training course or job or university place because of the lack of them will testify. I went to a school in north west London where, in 1979, four of us got 5 GCSE grades and our education system has come a long way since then, so let’s not say that examinations don’t matter. And let’s recognise that tests, targets, tables and inspection may have played some part in the progress.

    The problem is that the narrow pursuit of a particular kind of academic attainment as all that matters has become counterproductive, marginalising key elements of the social curriculum such as Citizenship and PSHE, locating vocational education as a correction strategy for the apparently hard to control rather than as a vital part of every young person’s preparation for the working world, overwhelming any sense of a broader educational purpose, and serving no purpose for those who do not achieve academically – other than to confirm their exclusion from the mainstream.

    The low literacy levels in our prisons and the continuing correlation between social class and educational outcome demand that the standards agenda remains an important one but we mustn’t be forced into false choices between values and targets or achievement and inclusion.

    Yes, let’s bemoan the absence of debate about the purpose and values of education and let’s start that conversation but let’s not be painted into the corner where grades and achievement don’t matter – they surely do, most of all for those largely under or unqualified young people coming before the courts this week, to some degree victims of an educational culture that has triumphed the narrow pursuit of grades over all else but sorely in need of those grades nonetheless.

    1. Thanks Tony – that’s an excellent post and a robust defence of the so-called ‘standards agenda’.

      However, I still can’t help feeling that there is a unresolved dichotomy at the heart of your argument. There are a couple of references in your piece but I pick out one at the end: “the victims of an educational culture that has triumphed the narrow pursuit of grades over all else but sorely in need of those grades nonetheless.” – I’d like to put the challenge to you that the ‘standards agenda’ has contributed significantly to the commodification of our education system so that its relationship to economic materialism is now closer than ever.
      While I accept that there has to be hierarchies of achievement and quality in any aspect of life – particularly in professional life (and that may just be another way of saying ‘standards’ ) I am very uncomfortable that our education system now seems to have more ‘losers’ than ‘winners’ and that “the narrow pursuit of grades over all else” is the agent that is producing so many of those ‘losers’.

      Thanks again for a very challenging and stimulating post. I hope other readers will engage with it too.

  2. I agree with your point on commodification but don’t accept the problem is that we have more losers; in fact, according to classic measures (which I concede are insufficient) we have fewer losers (more get good GCSE and A level grades, more progress to HE and so on) but the problem is that those that lose lose by a much bigger margin and are much more conclusively excluded. I explore this tension in educational policy between, as I frame it, attainment and inclusion in a forthcoming book (Teachers, Schools and Change, Trentham Books, 2011).

    My point here was not to ‘defend’ the standards agenda but to acknowledge its roots, some of the gains and its current limitations and unintended outcomes. We now need a much more nuanced post-standards agenda that better balances the need for attainment and inclusion, recognising that the former does not simply generate the latter. We need to acknowledge that inclusion-focused strategies (family learning, student voice, good quality citizenship education, for instance) are a mechanism for raising the achievement of those currently left behind, not a ‘fluffy’ side show as they are so often characterised.

    1. Thanks very much Tony. I look forward to your book.

      In the meantime – any reflections for new teachers on whether the teaching profession is in a good position to influence this debate?

  3. The teaching profession must be at the core of these debates; for many of our more marginalised young people, whether or not they are committed to learning, the school provides a sanctuary and place of stability. We need to create mechanisms and forums that bring together the teaching profession, those in academia and those in the policy community (and ,of course, education’s many other stakeholders – young people, parents, employers) in the sharing of knowledge and the shared generation of policy. Too often, these groups operate in separate enclaves.

    Over the past two decades, policy, in particular, has been increasingly generated in the detached world of the think tanks by those with bright minds but no experience of delivery and neatly packaged for swift implementation. We need a much more grounded approach to policymaking that engages teachers (and the wider children’s workforce). This will be the objective of a new initiative that I will be launching later in the year, Transform Education. We need that great debate about education that James Callaghan called for 35 years ago – and we need educational purpose and values to sit at its core.

    1. Once again, thank you. But here’s another question, again thinking about how new teachers entering a profession might contribute…

      You say, “We need to create mechanisms and forums that bring together the teaching profession, those in academia and those in the policy community and, of course, education’s many other stakeholders – young people, parents, employers.”

      The coalition government has abolished the GTCE, which whatever its faults, was designed to do what you describe on behalf of the teaching profession. Teacher unions also attempt to play such a role but often end up on the margins of policy influence. My point therefore is, that the teaching profession has not much of a track record of success in influencing policy debate. Why should new teachers be any more optimistic about the value of their contribution to policy in the future?

  4. Fair point. But the challenge is not to give teachers or any other group a ‘voice’; it is to engage the separate worlds of teaching, research and policy development in shared rather than separate conversations. For whatever reason, some would argue that the GTCE, at least publicly, never really got sufficiently beyond providing juicy stories about the misdemeanours of individual teachers for the TES; had it done so, calls for its survival would have been much louder. The teaching unions have made key interventions but have sometimes seen opportunities as threats, for instance in areas like workforce remodelling and (more contentiously) in the emergence of academies and free schools.

    My own sense is that there are grounds for optimism on three fronts: (1) because, out of all of this, we might just begin to see a recognition of the need to engage with the professionals and to respect their knowledge; (2) because the flaws in the way in which we currently generate public policy (and, as a by-product, recruit to our political class) are increasingly evident; (3) because teachers are an incredibly resourceful and creative body of practitioners and new teachers all the more so.

    I think that the profession has a better record than you suggest on influencing change but that often their efforts have been employed defensively and responsively (how do we deal with this latest demand from the policy high table?) rather than creatively and pro-actively (what steps do we need to take to address the key issues?). But I’d be the last to underestimate the scale of the challenge.

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