Pedagogy and Politics

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As the NUT conference starts, Robin B explains why we have to rescue children from the politicians

We are a year away from the 2015 general election. After four years of Gove, it is tempting to think ‘come back Labour- all is forgiven’. Looking back at Labour and Tory visions for teaching and learning reveals real differences. These differences matter, but what is urgently needed is a radically different vision for teaching and learning.

We need to continue to fight over pay and conditions, but we are also proud that the NUT, at its best, has the means to articulate a better vision for our schools.

Are you part of ‘the Blob’?

Not a month goes by without Gove or his allies briefing against ‘the blob’; an amorphous mass which includes the teaching unions, university education departments, and even Ofsted inspectors who ‘enforce the doctrines learnt under Brown and Blair’.

In his imagination, ‘the blob’ conspires at every turn to thwart his plans because they are committed to ‘progressive education methods’ and state control.

The existence of an unholy alliance of Ofsted inspectors and NUT activists will be surprising news to most delegates. Most on conference floor will have spent years fighting Ofsted.

It is, however, worth taking Gove’s rants seriously. Understanding the differences between Gove’s pedagogic vision with and that of Labour’s shows how utterly educationally bankrupt his own vision is.

It also shows why we need to fight for more than a return to Labour policies.

Gove’s Visions: More than pub-quiz pedagogy

On the one hand, Michael Gove has talked about freeing schools from central control. On the other hand, he is introducing a curriculum that focuses on spelling, punctuation, and grammar in English, and the learning of ‘facts’ across the rest of the curriculum.

Changes to school assessment criteria mean that every child will be judged on how well they have learnt these facts.

Teachers understand that the type of knowledge and skills taught, and how these are assessed, has a close relationship to the methods used in the classroom.

Despite overtures to pedagogic freedom, the proscriptive knowledge enshrined in the new national curriculum dovetails with didactic, teacher led methods.

Because of this, teachers and school leaders opposed to the exclusive use of these methods may find themselves forced to enact them.

It is easy to dismiss this ‘pub-quiz’ pedagogy. Charles Dickens subjected it to withering satire in ‘Hard Times’ over 150 years ago. Headteacher Gradgrind saw students as ‘vessels…ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them’.

He could have been a speech writer for Gove:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts! Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them’

Whilst Gove is pedagogically illiterate, his vision for teaching and learning is part of a clear political strategy. This strategy has two purposes, both of which are intensely ideological. The first is to discredit the teaching profession as a whole in preparation for deregulation and privatisation. The second is that it positions students as passive bearers of knowledge, subject to the teachers’ discipline. This has little to with learning. It is about control, and teaching children to blindly respect authority.

How different was Labour?

When faced with this reactionary agenda, it would be easy to welcome back Labour.

The way that Labour talked about education was very different to Gove. Whilst Gove’s vision for teaching and learning harks back to a mythical 1950s golden age, New Labour’s ministers and quango appointees emphasised rapid and economic constant change.

In the words of David Miliband, children needed to ‘learn how to learn for a lifetime of change’. In plain English this meant schools had to teach the skills of learning in preparation for a lifetime of unstable employment and retraining.

This entailed a very different vision for what teachers and students were to do in classrooms. While Gove emphasises knowledge, the Labour era emphasised skills. Learning was emphasised over teaching.

Mick Waters, then head of the QCA, and Christine Gilbert, head of Ofsted, both talked about the benefits of student-led learning. They talked of breaking the curriculum into themes, and emphasised the skills of learning.

Government ministers talked of unleashing ‘the child’s creativity in learning’. Together, in the language of government at least, there was a break from didactic, positivist teaching. At the very least, teaching as a profession was no longer openly derided.

But this was not just talk. These pedagogical aims were met with year on year increases in budgets for teacher training and continuing professional development.

Was this really different to what had gone before? Chris Woodhead, the Tory favourite in charge of Ofsted, certainly thought so. He described Labour’s pedagogical interventions as ‘a set of initiatives that has wasted taxpayers’ money, and encapsulated the worst of the discredited ideology that has done so much damage since the 1960s’.

Progressive Education and Neo-Liberalism

As usual, Chris Woodhead was wrong. If only Labour were that radical. In many respects, New Labour policy made possible the mass privatisation Gove that wants.

Looking back at this era, it is clear to see how it is possible to attach progressive, student led pedagogy to a thoroughly market based conception of education and society. This argument says that the teaching of ‘facts’ is utterly inadequate for preparing children for the realities of the globalised labour market.

Instead, education should ‘empower’ children in the curriculum, ‘unleashing their potential’. This vision pervades the policy documents and speeches of the New Labour era.

This vision still informs part of ‘the blob’ that Gove rails against. In a recent report, Sir Michael Barber, education advisor to Tony Blair, and now chief education advisor to Pearson Education, lambasts didactic methods which ‘bore students and disillusion teachers’. Sir David Bell, until recently Gove’s senior civil servant, has also made critical remarks.

Another education is necessary

At the general election we will be faced by two different visions of teaching and learning. Gove’s neo-conservative model will emphasise discipline and tradition. Labour’s social-liberal model, if they have the guts to articulate it, will emphasise skills needed for the children need to be effective citizens.

While both have a different vision of what teachers and students do in classrooms, they share an obsession with endless measures of tests, performance criteria and metrics. Whether the emphasis is on ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’, it is these that are often the key detriments of classroom practice.

Gove’s model for education has been so unpopular that the Labour party has been forced to speak against many parts of it, even if they have not promised to reverse them if elected. Our union needs to pile the pressure on Labour to commit to reversing the most reactionary changes.

But we need to go further than this. We also need to put forward a radically different vision for education. One that puts democracy and social justice back at the centre of learning, one that has the goal of helping children and young adults be creative, informed and confident individuals, capable of collectively facing the challenges to society in the 21st century.

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