Politics and the Primary Teacher
Peter Cunningham, 2012
144pp., £21.99 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-415-54959-2
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2012
In his 2007 book Teaching and Learning in the Primary Classroom, Maurice Galton quoted a Year 6 teacher who, asked what she thought of the literacy hour, said she liked being able to use materials produced by the QCA because they 'Save you the trouble of having to plan lessons. It cuts out the need to think'.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at this chilling response. During the past thirty years the training of teachers has become almost entirely utilitarian. A knowledge of the content of the National Curriculum - and some idea of how to 'deliver' it - seems to be all that's required. This is simply not good enough. Young teachers need much more than the ability to download lesson plans, assimilate lists of facts to be taught, and acquire some skills in classroom management, useful though these may be. They need to learn to think for themselves and take an active part in the debate about the nature and purpose of education: something they can only do if they have some understanding of its history and the politics which have shaped it.
Peter Cunningham's new book contributes to that debate by providing a wealth of information to support critical thinking about the policies and provision of primary education.
Chapter 1 Introduction: exploring primary politics
In his introduction, Cunningham argues that 'the context of primary teaching is innately political' - indeed, that it has been 'excessively politicised' over the last thirty years or so. The teacher's job is 'not well understood beyond the school walls' and this lack of understanding is where 'the politics of primary teaching begins to reveal itself' (p.1).
He then sets out the plan of the book. Chapter 2 outlines the nature of politics and political theorising, and provides a historical perspective. 'We need to be inquisitive and questioning about the historical evolution of primary policy and practice,' he says, 'as different versions of the past are presented by politicians to justify current policies, and we need to remain sceptical about those justifications' (p.2).
Chapters 3 to 8 survey in more detail the period since the Plowden Report. The curriculum, which has become 'a critical policy issue' (p.3), is discussed in Chapter 3; while two aspects of it - citizenship and well-being - are highlighted in Chapter 4 as 'predictable sites of contestation' (p.3). The politicisation of pedagogy and its implications for professional autonomy and children's learning is the subject of Chapter 5. Chapter 6 looks at changes in teachers' working conditions, training and development, and at professional organisations. National accountability is the theme of Chapter 7; while Chapter 8 examines local accountability and concerns about the demise of local democracy.
Finally, Chapter 9 'draws together threads of argument and presents some concluding propositions' (p.3).
Cunningham is keen to lay stress on the importance of personal and professional memory: he seeks to encourage discussion, argument and debate about 'the way politics has influenced, and continues to influence, primary education practice' (p.5). To this end, each chapter is followed by questions which aim to stimulate debate, and suggestions for further reading.
Chapter 2 The primary school as a political institution
Cunningham begins with a brief discussion about the history and nature of politics. He discusses the notion of ideology and suggests that key features in the political development of primary education can be grouped under three broad headings - content, teaching methods (pedagogy) and accountability.
He reviews the part religion has played in educational provision, noting that public funding of religious schools was always 'a politically contentious matter' (p.14) and remains so today.
He argues that elementary schools provided education for citizenship, with a focus on the health and well-being of individuals and society. In this context, basic skills were of fundamental importance: universal schooling was 'certainly directed at equipping a skilled labour force' (p.16).
He recounts the history of teacher training from the monitorial system to the introduction of BEd degree courses in 1967. Pay and conditions have often been contentious issues, alongside teachers' aspirations for full professional status. However, teachers 'never acquired the independence enjoyed by the more elite established professions of law and medicine' (p.18).
He notes that the quality of teaching has been a political issue ever since public money was first spent on schools. The system of payment by results, introduced in 1862, led inevitably to 'teaching to the test' with 'routinised, mechanical and dull methods of teaching' (p.18). By the early years of the twentieth century, however, 'a new breed of enlightened and progressive HMI' were encouraging elementary teachers to 'take more initiative in responding to the needs of their particular children' (p.18), and he suggests that this trend towards greater teacher autonomy in pedagogical matters can be linked to the political circumstances of the time.
He argues that schools' broadcasting was also of political significance: it extended the curriculum and provided valuable professional development for teachers, but also signalled 'a tendency towards national standards for primary teaching methods' (p.19).
Finance, he notes, has been 'a central aspect of the politics of schooling' since 1858, when a Royal Commission examined the effectiveness of education in church schools supported by state funds. A concern about 'value for money' has 'permeated political discourse on education ever since' (p.19). When the state began providing schools, local taxation was seen as an alternative way of funding them - first through the School Boards and, from 1902, through the LEAs. By the late 1960s the state was spending more on education than on defence and electors were becoming concerned about how their money was spent.
The finance and regulation of public services, he says, is 'highly complex' (p.20). HMI was established in 1839 to ensure value for money in the church schools built with public funds. This role was expanded in 1846 to include monitoring the quality of teachers and their work. The title 'Her Majesty's Inspectors' suggested independence from party political control, an important feature which was 'crucially abandoned' in the 1990s (p.21). By the end of the twentieth century, central government - the major source of funding - was exerting 'increasing control over the character and quality of education provided by LEAs' (p.21).
Chapter 3 Curriculum: the politics of subject knowledge
Cunningham argues that the curriculum is 'inherently political' in terms of both its purposes and its structure, and that views about these 'tend to polarise opinion along political lines' (p.25). He contrasts education for personal fulfilment and education for employment as 'competing paradigms, each with political implications' (p.27).
The creation of primary schools in 1944 freed elementary schools from the task of preparing children for the world of work and allowed for a more 'child-centred' approach. Plowden gave 'a powerful endorsement to this emphasis' (p.28). The case for personal fulfilment as a pre-eminent curriculum aim, he says, can be 'elaborated in political, psychological and other ways' (p.28) and he examines it in the context of the government's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Personal fulfilment and vocational preparation are, he notes, 'by no means mutually exclusive', but New Labour's 'intense focus' on literacy and numeracy strategies and standards and targets, led to 'a serious and widely recognised loss of breadth and balance at Key Stages 1 and 2' (p.29).
While elementary education sought to make working-class children more employable, it also had the important aim of 'preserving an established political order' (p.30). For cultural and vocational purposes, therefore, 'a structure of discrete subjects or disciplines was firmly embedded as a way of organising curriculum' (p.30). However, 'an alternative view of curriculum structure was gradually accepted' (p.30): Plowden 'did much to raise popular consciousness of primary curriculum and pedagogy' and endorsed the 'independence of teachers and schools in constructing the curriculum' (p.31), while the Schools Council 'reflected the power of organised teachers to resist early attempts by departmental civil servants to intervene in curriculum reform' (p.31). Both CACE (which had produced Plowden) and the Schools Council were abolished by Thatcher's education secretary Keith Joseph - 'a symbolic act' (p.32) and a taste of things to come.
The Education Reform Act of 1988 'brought education policy to the centre of political contention'. Its imposition of a National Curriculum was 'a radical break with tradition' (p.33) and from now on the state would determine what what was to be taught in schools. Defined in terms of traditional subjects - 'a specifically neo-Conservative agenda' (p.33), the National Curriculum was hopelessly complicated and constantly revised.
Three reviews of the curriculum were conducted between 2006 and 2009. The Cambridge Review called for the reinstatement of a broad and balanced primary curriculum. The Rose Review (commissioned by New Labour) promised to 'make the curriculum less prescriptive and free it up for teachers' - a claim, says Cunningham, 'both wildly exaggerated and historically flawed' (p.37). And a parliamentary enquiry argued for a slimmed-down curriculum and for reducing the politicisation of curriculum development. These calls were not heeded: the new coalition government abandoned Rose and announced that the National Curriculum would be a 'minimum national entitlement organised around subject disciplines' (p.38).
Cunningham sums up the arguments for and against state control of the primary curriculum and argues that policies 'based on ideology rather than on educational understanding and objective research', together with political attempts to micro-manage education, result in 'discontinuity and instability' (p.39).
Chapter 4 Curriculum: the politics of citizenship, health and well-being
In the aftermath of the second world war it was seen as important to imbue children with 'a sense of national identity, democratic values, law-abiding behaviour and participation in civic life' (p.42). In the following decades, political, social and cultural change 'generated new contexts for citizenship and health education', so that schools were 'blamed for a declining respect for law and order but simultaneously expected to provide solutions' (p.42).
Citizenship in the curriculum, Cunningham observes, is 'riddled with dilemmas, integral to the topic itself and contingent on an ever-changing political context' (p.45) and in the past decade the citizenship agenda has been repeatedly reformulated 'in an insistent search for remedies to social and political crises' (p.45). He warns that 'Neither politics nor citizenship education can ignore religion' (p.47) and describes the controversies surrounding 'faith schools' and arguments about whether religious schooling suppresses 'the personal autonomy that should be the aim of all public education' (p.48).
He notes that physical education was included in the elementary school curriculum because it was seen as important to maintain healthy males to defend the nation and healthy females to breed and rear the young: 'Citizenship in this way took a physical form' (p.50). Health education has been redefined over the past twenty years and subsumed into personal and social education, 'thereby expressing its continuity with citizenship education' (p.52). He argues that New Labour's policy of providing more 'joined-up and accessible services' for the needs of children and families illustrated 'a gradual elision of citizenship, health and well-being to combine current ways of working through the formal curriculum and through the wider role of the primary school' (p.53). To reflect this new policy, the Department was renamed 'Children, Schools and Families' in 2007, a title which the coalition government immediately replaced by the narrower 'Department for Education', reflecting the right-wing preference for a focus on 'the basics' (p.53).
Most primary teachers, he says, would agree that citizenship education should include 'a curriculum, pedagogy and a school ethos that teaches by precept and by example the values of democracy, self-respect and respect for others, cooperation, a healthy lifestyle, well-being and even "happiness"' (p.55). However, this 'vital and rich curriculum field' becomes problematic if governments 'determine the parameters of citizenship education for their own particular ends' (p.56). Teachers need to be alert to this, 'to understand and cultivate citizenship in the fullest sense of social development for democracy, to question and resist its narrow prescription or imposition of values by the state' (p.56).
Chapter 5 Pedagogy: a political issue?
Cunningham argues that pedagogy has become political in two ways. In a narrow sense - as classroom practice - its political significance 'derives from its greater or lesser efficiency and cost-effectiveness in achieving the state's educational objectives' (p.58). In a broader sense, pedagogy can be conceived 'as a symbolic interaction that represents a set of power relations between the state and the individual' (p.59). In this second broader cultural sense, pedagogy is 'bound to be profoundly political' (p.59).
He offers three approaches to understanding the politics of pedagogy as it affects primary school teaching.
First, he explores the way pedagogy has been understood and discussed by educationists and the wider public. The view that children should be 'active agents in their own learning', rather than 'empty vessels to be filled with knowledge' (p.60) was prevalent up to the 1960s, when Plowden promoted child-centredness and discovery methods of learning. However, concerns about a 'lack of systematic description of pedagogical processes' (p.60) led to a 'new wave of research based on close observation of primary classrooms' (p.61). Unfortunately, the debate which ensued was based on an 'artificially polarised discourse' of 'teacher-centred' pedagogies on the one hand and 'learner-centred' pedagogies on the other (p.61), a polarisation which, he says, is still evident today.
Second, he considers the political direction of pedagogical practice since Plowden. He mentions the William Tyndale Affair, Jim Callaghan's 'Great Debate', the 1988 Education Reform Act, the 'Three Wise Men' report, and New Labour's National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. All this, he argues, indicated 'that primary teachers could not be trusted to raise standards without the government's top-down, standards agenda' (p.64). A Commons inquiry into pedagogy in 2009 concluded that the Department's promotion of a particular approach as the 'one best way' was 'highly problematic' (p.65): the Department should 'send a much stronger message to Ofsted and local authorities as to the non-statutory nature of National Strategies guidance' (p.66). A year later, education secretary Michael Gove 'responded in contradictory ways to this trend of thought' (p.66): the National Strategies were to be abandoned, but there would be a new stage of assessment - a reading test at the end of Year 1.
He relates the history of assessment - 'a key factor influencing pedagogy' (p.66) - from the Revised Code of 1862 to the imposition in 1988 of a national curriculum and its accompanying testing regime. The statutory tests (SATs) were needed, he says, because 'to create a free market in education, parents as consumers needed information about the quality of schools between which they were to choose' (p.66). This function 'helps to explain the contradictory policies of a "free market" accompanied by increased central control' (p.66). 'Political high stakes' (p.66) were attached to assessment, but there were concerns that the intense focus on it was - as in 1862 - distorting the curriculum.
Thirdly, he focuses on the classroom and argues that the politicisation of pedagogy has 'impacted significantly on the professional autonomy of teachers' (p.67): their role has been reduced to 'delivering' National Strategies, and a 'dirigiste approach to pedagogy' is threatening to 'stifle creativity in teachers as well as in children' (p.67).
He concludes that 'the concept of social pedagogy implies teamwork and a collaborative process' in 'the holistic development of children's cognitive, emotional and practical abilities' (p.71). Unfortunately, official policy remains 'constricted by the rigid systems of assessment and testing that continue to be imposed' (p.71).
Chapter 6 Workforce and politics
Cunningham argues that the use of the term 'workforce' to describe teachers 'neglects and obscures the blend of vocationalism and professionalism demanded in effective primary teaching' (p.75). The teacher's role is a complex one, making 'varied and subtle demands in terms of initial teacher education and continuing professional development', yet training and development are 'increasingly micro-managed by government' (p.75).
He explores three ways in which politics and policy have impinged on the role of primary teachers.
First, he deals with training and professional development. 'Political intrusions' into teacher training began in the mid-1980s - and were 'hotly contested' (p.75). The objective had been a highly educated individual and 'expert' teacher, but by 1997 the aim had become a 'competent practitioner' (p.76). This shift, he argues, led to rigorous control of institutions, a specified training curriculum, and much greater involvement of schools. Continuing professional development faced a similar shift in policy in the late 1990s, when the introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies resulted in professional development being 'determined by political rather than personal priorities' (p.79).
Second, he considers conditions of work in schools. The autonomy which teachers once enjoyed was removed by the imposition of the National Curriculum and then by government intervention in pedagogy. 'Performance culture' infiltrated the primary classroom, with 'demoralised teachers "performing" for the purpose of surviving inspections' (p.81). He argues that the discursive power of the term 'workforce remodelling', introduced by New Labour, is, 'not to be underestimated' (p.84) and he describes various surveys which have examined the extent to which schools employ teacher assistants.
Third, he looks at the professional organisations which represent primary teachers' views and interests. A distinctive feature of the teacher union movement, he argues, is that it has been concerned not only with teachers' conditions of service and remuneration, but also with 'defending and promoting the cause of education' (p.86). Primary teachers became 'more confident of their status, more articulate and assertive', but critical perspectives sharpened and teachers, through their unions, 'learned to respond as education came under attack' (p.86). The creation of the General Teaching Council (GTC) in 1997 was a missed opportunity, he says, because the Council had 'no scope for negotiation of salaries or conditions of service' and most media coverage focused on disciplinary cases against teachers, and so 'failed to convey a positive image of the profession' (p.87). One of Gove's first announcements was his intention to abolish the GTC.
As governments have become more interventionist, he concludes, the importance of teachers' personal career development has been eclipsed by a 'managerialist and technicist approach' (p.88) and primary teachers have found themselves caught up in a public discourse that is 'categorical and reductive' (p.89).
Chapter 7 National accountability: audit and inspection
Cunningham sets out the history of the government education department and describes the processes of policy-making and legislation. He notes that since the 1970s education policy has increasingly been decided in the prime minister's office, and that, with the privatisation of education services (of which he gives various examples), there has been a 'fundamental change in national accountability for education' (p.94). He argues that the 'audit culture' (p.97) evolved in the UK in the early 1980s when economic pressures and corporate values led to government reinventing pupils and their parents as 'customers' or 'consumers' (p.98). 'Ever-more complex and burdensome mechanisms of accountability were counter-productive', he says, 'as they led paradoxically to greater mistrust' (p.98) and often obstructed the proper aims of education.
He argues that the statutory tests (SATs) have been used to serve 'an increasing number of purposes specified by successive governments' (p.99), raising concerns about their validity and the distortion of teaching and learning processes; and that league tables are 'most unlikely' to be abolished in England, because political reputations have been so heavily invested in them (p.101).
He compares the notions of 'audit' and 'quality assurance' (p.102). Judgements about schooling are made from a range of competing viewpoints, he says: 'Hence inspection is inherently political' (p.102). In the first half of the twentieth century HMI had a 'developmental and supportive role' (p.102) but this changed in the 1980s when Keith Joseph began publishing inspection reports, a policy which New Labour took further, 'naming and shaming' so-called 'failing schools' (p.102). These moves forced HMI to 'rethink their relationship with schools' (p.103) and led to the creation of Ofsted. Frequent changes in the inspection frameworks 'began to blur the distinction ... between auditing and inspection' (p.104) and under the coalition government Ofsted will now focus inspections on just four areas: 'pupil achievement, the quality of teaching, leadership, and children's behaviour and safety' (p.105).
The monitoring of standards has to be 'credible and transparent', he says, so as to provide reliable data and supporting values that reflect 'the wide aspirations of parents, and professionals' understandings of primary pupils in relation to their development' (p.106). Competing claims have to be reconciled: 'That is the stuff of politics' (p.106). Above all, he says, 'accountability, like politics, needs to be balanced by a sense of integrity and value, maintaining professional self-esteem and public confidence' (p.106).
Chapter 8 Local accountability: school, community and local democracy
Local government, says Cunningham, has 'a proud history' in relation to education, with some LEAs setting high standards in their 'progressive and child-centred practices' (p.109). What's more, these local authorities were 'politically accountable at the ballot box to local ratepayers' (p.110). However, central government often criticised them, alleging 'wasteful bureaucracy' (p.111) and attacking their power to distribute funds to schools. This rhetoric, he argues, 'conveniently ignores the strict formulae for distribution already in place to which the authorities have to conform' (p.111). He points out that Local Management of Schools has created problems for LAs, which have often been 'a convenient scapegoat for inadequate national funding of education' (p.112). Treating them as local agencies for national initiatives has resulted in a 'deficit for local democracy' (p.112), which has been further diminished through the practice of outsourcing educational services.
Understanding the relationships between schools and the communities they serve, he argues, 'is made difficult by the diversity of school types that have evolved over time' (p.114). He notes that Tory governments in the 1980s gave governors much greater responsibility but imposed a national curriculum, 'undermining a significant freedom that schools had enjoyed' (p.116). This paradox, he says, 'epitomises the ambivalence of governments in devolving weighty accountabilities to groups of lay people' (p.116). Nonetheless, the 'broadly democratic principle' of parental and community involvement in local primary schools is 'now well established' (p.117).
He notes the conclusions of a study which found that English heads were 'fixated on systems and routines to track pupils' attainment and monitor teacher performance, generating much time-consuming and energy-sapping paperwork' (p.117). He observes that accountability in respect of learning goals is 'closely stipulated by the state in levels of attainment' (p.117) and he calls for two broader perspectives: human rights and 'learning without limits' (p.118).
He warns that consumerism in state education leads to greater social segregation, which will be exacerbated by academies, trust schools and free schools. The problems academies were meant to address 'could equally have been tackled through well-resourced schools democratically accountable to their communities' (p.119). Furthermore, Gove's free schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum or employ qualified teachers - 'raising serious questions about the role of both National Curriculum and Qualified Teacher Status within a national system of education' (p.121). There are unlikely to be many free schools, he says, but 'their political and ideological significance goes beyond their number' (p.121).
He concludes by asking how primary education - controlled and largely funded through national government - can remain 'democratically accountable in the locality and responsive to local needs' (p.122).
Chapter 9 Going forward
In his final chapter, Cunningham draws together the key themes of the book and offers some suggestions for all those involved in primary schools. Teachers, he says, should draw on their own experience and knowledge to promote 'principles for teaching and learning that can be explained and defended in an antagonistic political environment' (p.124). Despite the antagonism, it is worth remembering that all governments are to some extent characterised by 'compromise and continuity' (p.124).
The trend towards privatisation is increasingly affecting primary schools, while academies and free schools are designed to 'reduce public spending and create an educational free market based on diversity and consumer choice' (p.125). These developments now seem unstoppable, but 'all concerned with primary schools ... need to be aware of the changes and to strive against their negative effects on the quality of young children's educational experiences' (p.125).
A key theme of the book is the place of democracy in our society. Cunningham notes that 'Education policies are frequently far from commanding majority support, and many policies fall short of providing equal educational opportunity or fail to respect rights enshrined in the UNCRC' (p.125). He argues that, for all the shortcomings of local government, the 'consistent centralisation of policy-making has undermined the participation and sense of ownership that parental and community representation on governing bodies appeared to promise' (p.125) and that the free-market ethos 'is unlikely to foster the democratic principles, participation, trust and security, self-esteem and respect for others required for effective personal, social and citizenship education for children within primary schools' (p.125).
Governments interpret the past to justify their policies, but an independent study of the past, he argues, 'raises questions about the discourse and scepticism about a view of educational reform as simply a technical and managerial approach to narrowly defined problems' (p.127). In this context, the collective memory of teachers is a 'valuable and accessible resource' (p.127).
I began this review by arguing that young teachers need to learn to think for themselves and take an active part in the debate about the nature and purpose of education, and that they can only do this if they have some understanding of its history and the politics which have shaped it.
Peter Cunningham's book is a timely and invaluable contribution to that debate. Timely, because the present government is embarked on a course which will see many of the policies of the past thirty years (relating to curriculum, teacher training, privatisation etc) taken to extremes; and invaluable, because it provides support for critical thinking about the policies and provision of primary education.
Although it is aimed in the first place at the teachers themselves, it will be equally valuable for all who are concerned about our primary schools - parents, governors, and - though I suspect they're most unlikely to read it - politicians.
There are no wasted words in this book. It is packed with a huge amount of factual information relating to the history and politics of primary education, all of it relevant, interesting and extremely readable. Indeed, the first draft of my summary ran to almost 8,000 words and I found it very difficult to decide what to cut in order to reduce it to the 4,500 words reproduced above.
Cunningham's aim was to stimulate debate, so his book is not just full of facts, it also poses questions which form the basis for discussion. These are pitched at three different levels: for trainee or newly qualified teachers; for class teachers with more extensive experience; and for teachers in senior management roles.
Thus the three questions at the end of Chapter 2 are:
Curriculum: What is political in curriculum content, in the knowledge and values presented for children to learn? What aspects of the knowledge and values might be politically controversial? What recent policy developments have raised issues about the content or organisation of the curriculum? (p.22).And finally, he provides lists of books and websites for further reading and study.
The bulk of the book is about England, but Cunningham also includes useful information about the situation in other parts of the UK, enabling interesting comparisons to be made. In the section on league tables, for example, which are 'most unlikely' to be abolished in England (p.101), he notes that in Wales, the 'marketisation' of state-funded education has no place because 'cooperation rather than competition' (p.101) is seen as the way to improve public services; Northern Ireland relies mainly on teacher assessment at Key Stages 1 and 2; while in Scotland, 'resistance to Westminster's testing regime was evident from an early stage' (p.101) with parents supporting teachers in the SATs boycott of 1991-2.
Another particularly useful feature of the book is the provision of two timelines of politics and primary education: from the seventeenth century to 1967 (p.12-13) and from 1964 to the present (p.128-130).
Among the key themes of the book, two struck me as particularly important in the current situation: the devaluing and deskilling of teachers; and the destruction of local democracy and accountability. On the former, Cunningham urges that we should aspire to 'an alternative vision of primary teaching as a profession, valued for its expertise and judgement and trusted with self-regulation' (p.89). In a changeable political climate, achieving that goal requires 'a critical engagement with politics on the teachers' part' (p.89). And on the demise of local democracy, he observes that academies and free schools are 'overtly anti-democratic' (p.119) and that, while David Cameron claims his 'Big Society' is aimed at 'dismantling the state', it is actually 'increasing state power by requiring more direction from the centre' (p.113).
The book conveys a sense of urgency - which is appropriate, given that many of the policies currently being pursued may prove irreversible. All those involved in or concerned about the future of our primary schools must acquire some 'knowledge and understanding of how policies developed' (p.124).
I have no doubt that Politics and the Primary Teacher provides exactly that knowledge and understanding. I urge you to buy it and read it - along with Melissa Benn's School Wars. Together, these two books provide all the information you need to understand what is happening to our schools and - hopefully - to resist the current government's attempts to dismantle our public education system.
This review was first published in Forum 54(1) Autumn 2013 159-170.