The Problem with School Reform

It's been quite entertaining watching Liam Byrne opposing the government's proposed deficit cuts, knowing as we watch him that he handed the coalition a propaganda weapon so valuable they will keep on using it to the end of time - or the end of the coalition, whichever is the sooner. David Cameron used it, in a feisty Commons performance which suggested that having made common cause with one set of former enemies he was going to make up for that unnatural conciliation by redoubling his aggression against the remaining enemy. His Liam byrne line was "thirteen years of government summed up in thirteen cavalier words" - or words very close to that anyway.

Meanwhile, as expected, one of the more eye-catching parts of the Queen's Speech, delivered in her customary jokey manner, was Michael Gove's proposed school reforms. I'm not a great expert on schools reform, teaching as I do in one of those that clearly doesn't need any reforming. And I was pleased when Gove asserted the need for history to be taught as a chronological package, if a tad surprised to learn that you can clearly teach it in thoroughly non-chronological packages. But there's no doubt that however exciting the whole Academies project looks, it will take a lot of effort to persuade most schools that they really want to go independent. Educationalists are naturally cautious when it comes to their own jobs and livelihoods, no matter how radical they are with other people's learning, and the real fight for Gove won't be setting out the ideas, or even getting broad public consensus - it'll be persuading educationalists to accept them. Stephen Pollard makes the same gloomy prognostication in the Telegraph today.

And as for reform, if Gove really wanted to make the lives of schools, teachers and heads easier he could start with simplifying the disciplinary process. I know a school whose head could be spending much of his next year or so at appeals hearings and in court because the parents of expelled pupils simply won't accept the right of the school to take that sort of disciplinary action. There is no behaviour so bad, or infraction so obvious, that punishment for it can't be challenged over a time-consuming and expensive period by recalcitrant parents. And discipline suffers. The case of the science teacher who hit a boy with dumb-bells (whilst at the same time shouting "Die, Die, Die" in a distinctly non-peaceful disciplinary manouevre) has been much commented upon, mainly along the lines of "good on him, the boy had it coming to him". Possibly, although I venture to suggest that perhaps one or two other less obviously damaging forms of disciplinary action could have been tried first, before the one that fractured his skull and damaged his hearing. But, as the First Post's Brendan O'Neill presciently observes, the case throws up a more disturbing issue, concerned with the overall decline of discipline and authority in schools and society:

Fundamentally, the driving force behind the demise of discipline in school is the collapsing authority of teachers themselves, where their moral and professional authority over their charges has been eroded by a creeping culture of relativism and today's broader cultural disdain for the idea that adults know better than children.

So, Mr. Gove, start sorting out the nonsense that masquerades as school discipline and you might indeed be a great reforming Education Secretary.


consultant said…
Worth a read is Tim Luckhurst's piece in the Guardian here. Needless to say I agree with him entirely.

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