Outrage over each new education policy does nothing but harm
The polarised response to the latest Ofsted report is wearing. Teachers and academics should be able to sensibly discuss new ideas, not jump to tribal conclusions
Thu 18 Jan 2018 11.30 GMT Last modified on Thu 18 Jan 2018 11.32 GMT
As I sat marking maths books with the radio on in the background – I caught the end of a news report saying that more 1,850 academics, educators, opposition politicians and most notably Robert Winston had asked for a new report on how to educate our children to be withdrawn. My first reaction was to immediately agree with them – they are after all on “my team”.
But I read the actual open letter and realised they were referring to an Ofsted report called Bold Beginnings, I realised an all too familiar situation had arisen. While I am inclined to agree with Winston, and many of the others who signed the letter, on most things – the man was after all the sum total of much of the sexual education I received when at school – I just could not and still can’t see what has caused all this fuss.
Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report on reception class curriculum is flawed | Letters
The way education policy is currently debated perfectly encapsulates our current political discourse. We are so accustomed, so programmed, to agree with “our team” – and be outraged by any opposition – that we don’t always listen to what the other side is actually saying. As a result, debate becomes polarised, entrenched and filled with false dichotomies. This “team first” approach leaves us without further space on our outrage-o-meters when confronted with policy or actions that are morally, factually and/or theoretically almost indefensible, making it far more difficult to persuade the other side.
Bold Beginnings, for those of you that are not up to date on your Ofsted reports, was released two months ago and sought to give advice to early-years providers based on what the authors had found in a series of “good” and “outstanding” schools. Quite unremarkably, or so I thought, the report suggests that quality reception classes provision includes, among other things, a combination of play, group work and direct instruction.
Now of course the report had an agenda and of course there is scope for discussion and disagreement with some elements of it – especially if it is cited in the future as the basis to narrow the curriculum or implement overly formalised assessments (none of which are actually suggested) – but are its recommendations really that outrageous that it needs to be withdrawn?
Of course not all academics or educators will agree on how much time should be spent on direct teaching as opposed to play-based learning – and any such blanket agreement probably wouldn’t be a good thing in any case. As a primary maths specialist, who has taught in all levels of primary school, I for one know exactly where I come down on the debate and what I would like to see more of. But that is not the point. We as educators are not listening to each other.
While this has been and will always be, to some degree, the case, our confirmation and group biases seem to be tuned to their maximum at the moment. When it is coming from someone with whom we usually agree then we ignore anything contradictory they might be saying and cheer from the sidelines. And of course the opposite is also true.
Ofsted's call for more teaching in reception year prompts backlash
The consequences of this theoretical and pedagogical partisanship is nothing but negative. For starters it would seem to encourage binary thinking within teaching without empowering educators – and indeed schools – to think for themselves or to understand that in teaching many things are context dependent. As Dylan Wiliam – one of my educational heroes – often says: “Everything works somewhere, but nothing works everywhere.” You would have thought that, if nothing else, the past 20 years has taught us that binary top-down approaches to educational improvement do little to improve overall educational outcomes.
A further, and potentially more damaging, impact of the nature of our educational discourse is the lack of space it affords us when responding to truly black and white issues, such as grammar schools. The justifiable, fact-based outrage in academic and educational circles to this policy just didn’t seem able to permeate through to the public as much as it should have. Instead it may have just seemed to many like another my team-your team issue, which was, of course, not the case. It was only Theresa May’s disastrous decision to call an election, and her inability to control her own party, that means that we don’t have new grammar schools, and Toby Young working in the Office for Students.
So teachers, Robert Winston, academics, let’s save our outrage for those moments when we most need it. In the meantime – just as we do with our students – we should embrace the diversity, complexity and contradictions of each other and education as a whole. In doing this and in celebrating these characteristics, maybe education can serve not only as a vehicle for social and political progress – as it always has – but also as an example to society of how we can move forward.