From out of the educational wilderness…towards what?

Two things became clear to me this week, both connected with education.

The first, I suspect, has been clear to many for quite some time, so I’m just ‘keeping up at the back’ on that one. The second one is far less publicly obvious, but I reckon is rather more insidious than the first.

The first is that the Tories have probably given up on the idea of winning the next election (my predictive text insisted on ‘ejection’!) and forming a government. So they have embarked on a mission to change the educational landscape so fundamentally and significantly that no government will be able to undo or reverse – within the lifetime of that government or even just a lifetime – any of the changes that have been wrought.

The second thing that occurred to me, which became obvious at a meeting I attended at the Department for Education (DfE) on the reform of ‘A’ levels, is that the ideological pressure is now so great that the language of education is being changed fundamentally, ¬†literally as we speak it and write it.

Others have commented – in various and many articles and blogs ¬†– how words and phrases such as ‘child-centred’ and ‘progressive’ that used to have such a positive, hopeful meaning now attract only scorn and derision from those who deign to govern us. There has also been a great deal of concern and comment regarding the constant dismissal and consequent erosion of the arts – which, by their nature, tend to be child-centred and progressive – in the national curriculum and in the media discourses on education. It’s all about STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.

It’s also worth noting that the academies and free schools, that are so favoured by our government, are not tied to the national curriculum, so other measures (see below) are required to ensure the focus on STEM is maintained.

Recently the ideological focus has expanded to encompass not only the primary and secondary sectors, but also the tertiary sector and higher education (note: Mr. Gove has admitted in print that he would love to have the whole educational system under his guiding wing at the Dept. for Education).

To accompany and support this expanded focus, and to maintain the ideological commitment to STEM, we have had to adopt a new vocabulary of educational double-speak, in which some ‘A’ levels are designated ‘facilitating subjects’ for entry into a ‘good university’, while others – mainly but not only arts subjects – are designated ‘non-facilitating subjects’. In addition, Ofqual (the government agency responsible for all qualifications in the schools’ sector) has decreed that all ‘A’ levels must be designated as either ‘exam-assessed’ or ‘non-exam assessed’, the latter referring to any form of assessment that is not a traditional, sit-down, written examination: a not uncommon phenomenon in the arts. What is astonishing is that the nice, seemingly intelligent people at Ofqual and the DfE insist that there is absolutely no implication of value in that language. They insist that all subjects are regarded as equal, despite the unequivocal evidence that some are clearly more equal than others. The baleful consequences can be seen in the growing list of schools that have deleted arts subjects from the list of A levels they offer.

Our political leaders have taken it upon themselves to lead us out from what they perceive as the desert of educational disaster – in which we have been wandering for at least ¬†40 years – and to enter the promised land flowing with STEM and increased PISA scores. When it comes to education, particularly in England, they are guided not by the evidence provided by years of careful, rigorous research by educational researchers, nor by the evidence provided by scientists in new and potentially paradigm-shifting fields such as educational neuroscience. Rather they stick a finger in the air to see which way the ideological wind is blowing, listen carefully to what their favourite soothsayer has to say on the evils of past educational discourses and practices, check that the pillar of right-teous ire that is the Daily Mail is well and truly behind them and that the pillar of smoke and mirrors is in front of them…and off they go, confident that the caste of pedagogic priests and disciplinarians that they have appointed will ensure obedience and silence dissent.

As we traipse reluctantly behind them, we look back to see the tattered tents and banners of genuine, life-enriching and life-enhancing education left blowin’ in the wind.