Education is arguably the most important thing societies do.
It can transform lives, support economies and cohere communities and society itself. If we step back just for a second and think about the commitment to educate someone throughout the life-course, we come to realise that education is a truly remarkable human achievement. However, we did not arrive here by accident; we had to fight for it and we are struggling for it still. Education is therefore very important. In fact it is too important to be treated as some sort of political football.
These days when I hear a minister or politician state that education reform is their biggest priority, my heart sinks. Why? Well let’s just look at what’s been going on for the last three decades. They tend to treat education as a plaything; what Ewart Keep refers to as ‘the biggest train set in the world’. Constant change becomes tied to ministerial careers with every new appointment feeling they have to leave their mark and double quick too. Moreover, an adversarial political climate fuels the deliberate manufacture of conflict; the generation of opposites and dichotomies because of the calculation that political gain is to be had in the development of difference. Opportunities for agreement are ignored. In this climate, politicians have little incentive to genuinely learn from the past and they exhibit little if any policy memory. In fact most appear to suffer from an advanced case of policy amnesia because everything is meant to be shiny and new. It is the constant zigzag of policy that inhibits the gradual accumulation of wisdom about education, despite the fact that we know more than ever about how people learn and what works. This politicisation of education tires teachers, puzzles parents and employers and instils a pervasive sense of discontent. Nothing is ever right.
A real English education revolution based on agreed values
It does not have to be this way. What I am proposing here is a real English education revolution, based on moderation, balance, deliberation and agreement. In doing so, I am suggesting four important steps. First, we must try to find ways of distancing education from party politics, of passing the power around. Some other countries are more successful in this respect, establishing a degree of consensus about their education systems. Our problems appear to be a peculiarly English disease. Second, we need to slow down politics and widen participation in the policy process. Fast politics excludes. Third, we should focus on deliberation and the use of evidence rather than tolerating policy produced by political whim. And finally, and here is the most radical proposal, we should also try to seek out agreement.
At this point I will offer an observation. Politicians are obsessed by reforming structures, whether these be in relation to schools or qualifications. It is these that tend to fuel political disagreements because they are essentially about the shape of the education state. If we want to try to forge agreements, we should start first with a discussion around values. It may be easier to start building a consensus around these than around structures.
And where might we start when it comes to values? Well I suggest three, although I’m sure that there are many more. First, the principle that everyone counts, that everyone can be educated, that everyone can think as well as do, because this is the essence of the human condition. The first principle is, therefore, of one of educability. Second, I propose the ‘law of care’, that those who are in the greatest need get more because we are morally obliged to produce a level pitch. Unfortunately, an ‘inverse law of care’ prevails presently – those who have get. Third, we should promote a belief in a holistic curriculum.
Moving from the world of ‘versus’ to the world of ‘and’
The current government seeks political refuge in unnecessary dualisms; for example, knowledge versus skills or subjects versus real world understanding. I think it would it would be far more productive to think about knowledge and skills or subjects and real world understanding. This more holistic approach, moving from the world of ‘versus’ to the world of ‘and’, takes us to a far more interesting place.
I noticed that Prime Minister David Cameron has said that ‘all fresh ideas can only be for the good of our education system’. Well, I will take him at his word. But first I want to make another observation, and that is that the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, still appear to remain practitioners in the world of ‘versus’ and drawn to polarities. But I want to make them an offer; to join with me and others, to walk together from the world of ‘versus’ to the world of ‘and’. In this place of moderation and balance everyone could still keep their fundamental beliefs, but could begin to appreciate the views of others.
Thinking ecologically about education
On this journey to the world of ‘and’ we could also start to think about education in more ecological terms. In Finding Nemo (which is a very good film by the way) Bruce the shark realizes that the actions of one affects the health of another which, in Bruce’s case, were pretty profound ones for all the fish on reef. As Bruce begins to think ecologically, he declares ‘I have to change my image; I’m not a mindless eating machine. Fish are friends not food.’ Well, we should all be inspired by Bruce. If he can do it, so can politicians.
Bruce changed himself and made a pledge and this brings me to my pledge.
A Hippocratic Oath for Education
We now need a Hippocratic Oath for Education to embody our fundamental values and around which we can begin to agree. As a tribute to the great psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who took an ecological approach to human development, and at the risk of overcomplicating things, I want to propose an oath involving three fundamental educational actors in their ecological settings. First, at the micro-ecological level of the learner (their most immediate learning environment), teachers could dedicate themselves to their learners, to nurture their talents through thick and thin.
Second, at the meso- or exo-level, headteachers or college principals, some of whom are the most voracious sharks I know, could pledge themselves to supporting 100 per cent of learners in their area and not just those in their own institution. If this were the case, I’d be far less exercised about the effects of institutional diversification – academies, free schools, state schools and colleges – because of the popular pressure to take the pledge. Third, and at the national macro-ecological level, politicians could promise to offer real leadership by giving power way and providing educationalists at the levels below the tools to do the job. This means that those running our political system will need not only to have confidence in their own strategic capacity, but also to be safe in the knowledge that those on the ground are able to deliver lasting and sustainable change better then they.
I will work with a range of social and political partners to develop this kind of agreement within the education system because of my belief that lasting progressive reform now has to be values-led and based on as much consensus as possible.
Ideas emerge because we create the conditions for their realization
However, I want to leave you with a warning. If we are not able to move some way down this road, then all the great ideas around will find it very difficult to see light of day in our education system. Good ideas do not simply emerge because they are good; they also emerge because we create the conditions for their realization. This is perhaps what I am referring to when I talk about the need for a real education revolution.