I’m not going to review Robert Peal’s book for Civitas, because if you want to know what I think of its arguments, you can read this http://debra-kidd.com/2014/04/04/better-a-blob-than-a-knob/ on Toby Young’s pamphlet also written for Civitas or this http://debra-kidd.com/2013/07/06/7-myths-about-education-an-alternative-view/ on Christodoulou’s book, published by The Curriculum Centre who are supported by Civitas. All three make the same arguments. All three are published by organisations close to Michael Gove. All three have received acclaim from people praised by Michael Gove as being excellent teachers. Yadda yadda. Talk about framing the debate through your team mates. What it makes me think though, is ‘what’s so wrong with being progressive’? And what does that actually mean? And having done a bit of reading, I think I quite like the idea of being progressive. I think I’m progressively becoming more progressive.
According to cognitive psychologist George Lakoff (you thought that Daniel Willingham was the only cognitive psychologist in the world, didn’t you?), being progressive is much misunderstood. He defines progressive values as:-
“The nurturant-family model is the progressive view: in it, the ideals are empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication, authority that is legitimate and proves its legitimacy with its openness to interrogation”.
Lakoff’s argument is that political debate, whether it be educational or ecological, tends to be framed around moral values which roughly fall into the ‘strict father’ model or the ‘nurturant family model’ – often described as traditional/progressive or conservative/liberal. His concern is that the former is highly skilled at controlling the debate by claiming the moral high ground while at the same time, ridiculing the opposition to such an extent that the debate is not about two sides debating, but about one establishing the ‘common sense’ narrative while the other scrambles around, denying their position and trying to claim common ground, losing all sense of self and value in the process. To this end, we see teachers, and I have done this, claim ‘I’m not progressive – I see the value of both sides’ while the traditionalists say ‘whatever’ and stride forward taking control. But let’s look again at that definition. What is actually wrong with empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication and legitimate authority that is open to interrogation?
Young/Peal/Christodoulou all claim that the ‘problem’ with education is child-centred progressive ideology. What exactly is wrong with making education child centred? This is not the same, as I keep saying as ‘child led’. To place a child at the centre of education is to surely meet its needs? To prioritise the child’s needs over, say, the market? To have authority is not anti-progressive – but to have authority without legitimacy is. What might that legitimacy be? That your authority rests on acting in the best interests of the child, and not of the league tables/Ofsted grading/lastest government whim? That you might be answerable to parents and children in order to have your authority legitimised? In many ways, this is what Demos proposed in their report on the problems with Ofsted. Is that really not better than having your authority legitimised by people called Michael?
We seem to be living in a time and a world in which it is becoming common place to ridicule those who hold on to the belief that they are there for the benefit of children; that community is important; that happiness, relationships and skills matter. And yet this is the view that the majority hold. When I look at the number of people trumpeting this ‘blob’ fear, there are few. But they are very noisy. And almost all of them are now bound together by the same free school – Michaela – either as governors, managers or teachers. Some even write under two names to make it look like there are more of them. Those in the know call that astroturfing and there is no doubt that there has been a very clever manipulation of social media to create this noise.
I worry. I worry that we are losing confidence in the face of a baying crowd. I worry that too few of us realise the connections between this neo-liberal noise and the dominant market forces lobbying education. I might be getting paranoid in my old age, but here are some facts just about one of those companies – Pearson.
1. Pearson are trialling a ‘Pearson School Model’ in six secondary schools, which delivers a computer based curriculum containing Pearson materials.
2. Pearson funded the research that said that GCSEs were suffering from grade inflation.
3. Pearson own Edexcel and have the contract to assess SATs results.
4. They own most of the textbook market – and Liz Truss has publicly given her support for a return to wider use of textbooks in our schools.
5. Pearson works with TeachFirst on ‘My Education’ a project to promote the voices of young people to demand a ‘more rigorous’ education. That sounds like a good and harmless idea until you look at what happened in the US with the ‘Students for Education’ campaign, funded by private organisations like Pearson in order to create the effect of a student-led grassroots campaign in support of market driven educational policies. The students were easily manipulated into believing that they were championing improvements in education – not unlike some of those inexperienced teacher-come-think-tank-mouthpieces we are seeing at the moment.
6. Pearson works closely with TeachFirst. And the American equivalent of TeachFirst, ‘Teach for America’ has a Pearson company CEO on its board.
7. In the US Pearson run over 50% of the standardised tests set by states and provide the curriculum materials to go with them, creating a profit in excess of £2 billion.
8. Had Michael Gove been successful in reducing the examination system down to one board, Pearson owned Edexcel would have been the most likely successor.
9. Sir Michael Barber is the Education Advisor to Pearson. He is also the author of the widely quoted McKinsey report used by government to promote the notion of international comparisons as a means of measuring educational effectiveness.
10. It stinks.
So I think, so what? What can I do? Well, I can carry on teaching in the way I know works for my students and myself. I can carry on reading a range of cognitive and neuroscience and draw my own conclusions. I can make sure I find out who publishes and funds the latest ‘must read’ and figure out if there has been a responsible and critical editorial eye. I can make sure I don’t get bullied into denying who I am and what I believe. And I can write counter narratives. Like this one.