Education under Siege: why there is a better alternative
Peter Mortimore 2013
Bristol: Policy Press
313 pp., £19.99, ISBN 978 1 44731 131 7
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2014
Concerns about increasing political interference in education have been expressed since the Thatcher governments of the 1980s took control of the curriculum and began the process of turning the state system into a market. Those concerns grew during the Blair decade, when the government began to micromanage the teaching process itself, expanded the number of 'faith schools' and began privatising local authority services and schools (notably through its academies programme).
With the election of the coalition government in 2010 and the appointment of Michael Gove as education secretary, such concerns developed into something approaching panic, as educationalists and commentators realised that the new administration seemed hell-bent on the effective destruction of the state education system.
Public debate about the nature and provision of education intensified, with notable contributions from Melissa Benn (School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education 2011), and Peter Cunningham (Politics and the Primary Teacher 2012).
Now we have Education under siege: why there is a better alternative by Peter Mortimore.
In his Preface, Mortimore says: 'to be effective, education needs good learners, good teachers and a good education system' (p.xii). We are born good learners, he says, and we have many good teachers. So it is the third component - a good education system - that he believes is 'questionable in England today' (p.xii). This book is his contribution towards creating a better system.
His credentials for contributing to the debate are impeccable. He has had a long career in education encompassing many roles: classroom teacher, university researcher, HMI, Director of Research and Statistics for ILEA, Assistant Education Officer, professor in three universities (two English and one Danish), Director of the University of London Institute of Education, school and college governor. It is an extraordinary record which gives him a unique understanding - both broad and deep - of the English education system and how it compares and contrasts with those of other countries.
In the first half of the book Mortimore sets the context, giving readers a wide-ranging introduction to the history, philosophy and psychology of education.
In Chapter 1 he asks 'What is education?'. He considers the views of such thinkers as Aristotle, Comenius and Dewey, and proposes his own definition:
Education is the process through which society transmits its accumulated values, knowledge, skills, attitudes and customs from one generation to another and influences how an individual thinks, feels and acts (p.3).He then looks at education's 'desirable outcomes' (Chapter 2), which he argues are moral compass, good character, sense of strategy, a trained mind, happiness, knowledge and skills. It's an interesting list: I suspect many people - and most politicians - would have put knowledge and skills first.
In his consideration of intellectual ability (Chapter 3) he argues for a broad view of intelligence. 'A person's ability', he suggests, 'is made up of their intellectual, social, emotional, physical and artistic capabilities, skill in using luck, capacity for hard work, resilience and sense of strategy' (p.43).
The question of how 'such a multi-faceted concept' (p.43) should best be employed takes him into a consideration of learning (Chapter 4) and teaching (Chapter 5).
He describes the work of many writers and researchers and concludes that
we still know little about the way learning actually takes place ... there is a danger that our usual methods of teaching - at least for some children - inhibit their natural learning. ... In the meantime, teachers still have to use their best judgement about how to help children learn (p.54).Moving on to teaching, Mortimore notes that recent governments have displayed a lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to teacher training. On the one hand they have imposed guidelines which have become steadily 'more directive' (p.55), while at the same time they have 'expanded routes into teaching that avoid higher education' (p.56). This is a pity because 'university staff with responsibility for teacher education are generally highly competent and experienced'. Yet 'instead of treasuring this resource, governments have sought to destroy it' (p.56). And now the Coalition government is allowing 'free schools' to employ unqualified teachers.
He describes the multiplicity of tasks undertaken by teachers and discusses a range of issues including class sizes; classroom control (from personal experience); the use of questioning; assessment and pupil profiling; and what makes outstanding teaching. He regrets the constant criticism of teachers by politicians and the press.
Next, Mortimore looks at the schools (Chapter 6). He outlines their history and relates the development of the state education system. Describing the current situation, he comments that 'No other country has so many different types of secondary schools' (p.80), and he mentions various other areas in which the English education system differs from those in the Nordic countries.
He describes life in schools, noting that 'bad behaviour in school is not a modern problem' (p.87) and regretting the fact that government ministers have insisted that teachers differentiate between even quite young pupils, 'thus setting an individualistic and highly competitive tone in our classes' (p.91). He notes that this is not an approach followed in Nordic countries, as a little-known Ofsted Report of 2003 on The education of six year olds in England, Denmark and Finland illustrates.
He discusses school leadership; school effectiveness (relating the findings of his own research); social disadvantage (noting that the poverty gap has widened dramatically in recent years); school improvement; value-added analysis; and coaching. This last issue has become the 'elephant in the room' in any discussion about school effectiveness, he says. 'No one knows how much the position of schools on the league tables depends on the prevalence of private tuition' (p.99). And 'the more the practice spreads, the more the disadvantaged families that cannot afford it fall behind' (p.99).
He ends the chapter with a look at the future of schooling and concludes that 'there is as yet no clear alternative to schooling as we know it. Our best response, therefore, might be to prepare pupils, schools - and the education system as a whole - to be adaptable' (p.101).
Mortimore then looks at Quality control (Chapter 7) and notes that there are two ways of judging the quality of what goes on in schools: assessing the progress of individual pupils and inspecting the work of teachers.
He discusses the purposes of assessment and relates the history of school examinations. He notes that Gove has changed his mind about introducing an EBacc and instead intends to make the GCSE 'more rigorous'. He warns that this risks 'creating an assessment system which favours pupils who absorb information easily and who are good at one-off examinations. Other kinds of pupils - no matter how able - may be seriously disadvantaged' (p.108). He argues that 'No recent government has been able to design and successfully implement a satisfactory group of courses providing progression for 16- to 19-year-old young people' (p.109) and he expresses concern about Gove's proposal that the Russell Group of universities should be involved in setting A levels.
Moving on to inspection, he gives a brief history of the role of HMI, noting that its remit guaranteed its independence. This sometimes led to HMI being critical of government policies and ministers came to view the Inspectorate as 'turbulent priests' rather than 'standard bearers' (p.112). As a result, in 1992 HMI was 're-organised' into Ofsted, which, under Chris Woodhead's leadership, 'developed a reputation for an aggressive approach' (p.113).
He notes that many other countries use assessment or inspection, 'but few use both in such extreme forms' (p.113).
In the first half of his book, then, Mortimore has given his readers the background - a summary of the philosophy of education, its history in England and some of the key issues. In the next three chapters he considers the current education system in England in terms of its strengths, ambiguities and weaknesses.
First, he looks at the system's strengths (Chapter 8). He begins by considering its aims - such as they are. 'I found a system with confused aims,' he says, 'frequently shifting between the three Rs and broader ambitions' (p.116). Despite this, he considers that 'the English education system functions adequately' (p.119). One of its strengths has been the existence of a 'middle tier' - the democratically elected local authorities. He regrets the fact that recent governments have greatly reduced their powers: 'In my view this has been a serious mistake' (p.119).
Other strengths, he says, include the governing bodies of schools, the quality of teacher education, and the quality of school leadership. However, he regrets Gove's decision to allow free schools to employ untrained teachers and does not support the appointment of head teachers who have no experience of working in education. He argues that Local Management of Schools has been a mixed blessing - it can be difficult for small schools - but that, 'even with these disadvantages, I think self-managing schools are a positive feature of our system' (p.124).
Moving on to the teachers, he praises their professional culture, their pedagogic skill and their commitment to their pupils: 'I have found the positive nature of teacher-pupil relationships in English schools deeply impressive and definitely one of the strengths of the system' (p.125). He also admires their promotion of active learning, their zest for improvement and - last but not least - their sense of fun.
Among other strengths of the system he includes citizenship studies, school assemblies, 'outstanding music' (p.128), the visually stimulating environment in schools, sport, school trips, and the lack of 'retention' - the practice of keeping children who fail to make sufficient progress down for one or more years. He notes that retention is common in other countries, 'despite evidence from the OECD that it produces overwhelmingly negative results' (p.131). He believes that 'formal schooling begins too early for many pupils' but recognises that progress has been made in making appropriate provision for under-fives. And finally, he regards teachers' awards ceremonies as a strength - 'but with reservations' (p.132).
In Chapter 9 Mortimore reviews the 'ambiguities' - parts of the system which can be strengths or weaknesses or both - 'depending on how they are used' (p.133). He lists these as education spending, the National Curriculum, the quality of assessment, the desirability of faith schools, the national reading strategy, inspection, homework, school uniform and out-of-school activities.
He notes that our spending on education is 'pretty average' compared with other countries. He is concerned that 'more than a sixth of the entire DfE budget is going on the academies programme' and that the government has cut back on the education maintenance grant and school buildings: 'squeezing corridors and erecting poor-quality buildings will be a mistake, likely to haunt the education system for years to come,' he warns (p.134).
The introduction of the National Curriculum, he says, created a number of problems and teachers quickly realised that 'the curriculum was being driven by the assessment attached to it' (p.136). So while the principle of a National Curriculum is sound, it 'seems to have forced learning into testable packages and pushed teachers into an over-passive role' (p.137).
On assessment, he argues that there are major problems with SATs: crude league tables which 'take no account of pupils' starting-points and cannot, therefore, indicate the quality of schools' (p.138); 'teaching to the test', inaccuracies in the results, and cheating. There are also problems with GCSE and A levels. In fact, he argues, 'Each of our principal methods of assessment - SATs, GCSEs and A levels - is unsatisfactory in one way or another' and he worries that Gove's promise to make examinations more rigorous will 'turn assessment back towards an elitist approach' (p.143).
He includes faith schools as an ambiguous item 'because they are popular with parents and many do well. But, by having exclusive intakes, they run the risk of being divisive' (p.144).
The government's 'synthetic phonics' reading strategy, based on dubious evidence, is worrying, he says, because teachers are being told that there is 'only one way' to teach reading. He notes that only a quarter of English pupils now enjoy reading.
On school inspections, he argues that the former HMI system, alongside local advisers, was far from perfect but 'worked reasonably well' (p.147). He regrets that, with the introduction of Ofsted, inspections have become a 'high stakes' activity, sometimes resulting in heads being sacked and schools being placed in special measures. He also wonders whether Ofsted is really free to comment on all aspects of schooling or whether 'it is under pressure to praise government initiatives (such as academies)' (p.148).
In Chapter 10 Mortimore lists the major weaknesses of England's education system.
First, there is the over-dominance of Westminster. When a government has a substantial majority, he says, ministers usually get their way - 'no matter how foolish their ideas' (p.153) - and he lists some of the most absurd. He is also concerned at the way politicians ignore or rubbish evidence they don't like.
Second, there is the market model of schooling. This has caused anxiety for parents and insecurity for children. 'Yet this is the system that successive ministers have imposed on our country - without any debate or referendum' (p.157). The marketisation of schooling, he says, 'will turn out to be a grievous mistake' (p.159). He notes the success of comprehensive schools and regrets that 'New Labour ... colluded in the myth that comprehensive schooling, managed by local authorities, had failed' (p.159).
Third, there is the divisiveness of private schooling: half of those gaining places in Oxbridge colleges come from the seven per cent educated in private schools. However, he argues that 'many private schools are excellent and employ highly gifted teachers. They also own impressive buildings and have superb cultural and sporting facilities. To destroy them would be madness' (p.163).
Fourth, there is the issue of selection. Mortimore reviews the evidence showing that 'grammar schools were not all they were cracked up to be' and that 'the 11-plus selection process ... was heavily biased towards children from middle-class homes' (p.164). Yet selection remains engrained in our system: 'Frequently repeated myths about the success of grammar schools are propagated even by the BBC. A two-part programme in 2012 was strewn with factual errors and unsupported assertions about the value of selective education' (p.167).
Fifth, there is ability grouping. He quotes a wide range of evidence showing that setting and streaming have negative effects, yet politicians still favour streaming. Perhaps, he says, it is because they think that it is what parents want.
Finally, he expresses concern about the lack of affordable pre-school provision, the stresses on England's children (particularly as a result of poverty), and the lack of opportunity for innovation.
He concludes that these weaknesses 'are marring life for a generation' (p.174).
In Chapter 11 he seeks to answer the question 'How good is the system?'.
The system's aims, he says, are 'underdeveloped' (p.175) and its structure and governance have become confused: 'both the current fragmented marketised structure and the way the system is governed are now unsatisfactory' (p.176). It is (and always has been) underfunded and funding is 'currently distributed on an unfair basis' (p.177). Furthermore, many school buildings are no longer appropriate for use today. He acknowledges that Labour's Building Schools for the Future programme 'was undoubtedly wasteful', but regrets that the coalition government's guidelines 'stipulate smaller and cheaper buildings' (p.178).
He then presents two lists of education policies since 1988. He lists five wise decisions:
Many of the problems have been predominantly caused by the direct actions of politicians across the political spectrum. They have fragmented - almost to destruction - what was once a national system, albeit one haphazardly developed and poorly funded. This system could have been built on and improved. Instead, it has steadily been undermined (p.200).He remains hopeful, however, that the system 'can yet be repaired' (p.200) and in Chapter 12 he considers what a better system might be like.
A better education system, he says, would need a minister to oversee it, a central government ministry to 'coordinate education with other policy areas, ensure adequate funding and define national priorities' (p.202) and local government to form 'the appropriate democratic middle tier' (p.202) to take responsibility for educational provision and quality.
It would need high quality educational buildings and 'well-qualified, expertly prepared teachers and support staff' (p.204).
It would need fewer top-down diktats, which stifle innovation: 'We need to give teachers more control, involving them more in the overall planning of syllabuses, working as a team, sharing ideas and monitoring each other's work' (p.205).
It would need mutual respect between teachers and pupils - 'one of the strengths of the Nordic systems' (p.206); and it would need be more inclusive: 'Since its faltering beginning, our education system has been riven with divisions between rich and poor, private and state, religious and secular and even within different religious denominations. There have also been divisions between those who find learning easy and those who do not' (p.208).
Mortimore begins Chapter 13 by noting that many people have given up hope that the government will do what is needed, and he quotes retired professor of education Michael Bassey:
Over the last quarter of a century, education has been pushed and pulled, twisted and turned in the maelstrom of party politics ... It must now be recognised that this has not worked: politics has polluted the schools and is failing our children (p.209).He then presents his proposals 'designed to build on the strengths of the education system and address its weaknesses' (p.209):
I believe that England must embrace changes to its education system. But such changes must be based on fairness and supported by evidence. They should be aimed at achieving the highest standards not just by an elite group but by as many as possible. They should certainly not be about giving the market freedom to make profits for big companies. Changes must encompass the all-round development of children, including academic success, and foster the future prosperity and happiness of our society (p.234).In his final chapter he discusses how these ideas might be taken forward.
The country's education system does not belong to any minister or political party, he says. It is public property and, 'if enough people believe it is not serving the best interests of the nation's children and of our society as a whole, it should be changed' (p.236). This will mean 'standing up to the politicians who, because of ideology or as a result of lobbying by interested parties, have created the problem' (p.237).
He acknowledges that it will take years to sort out the confusions of the current system, but a good start could be made by getting rid of labels such as 'academy' and 'free school'. All schools should be treated fairly, 'with funding on a common basis ... and common governance and regulations' (p.238).
A new, fairer system would be open, honest and easier to understand. 'No one would have to pretend to be a believer in order to gain admittance to a faith school. No one would need to furnish a false address in the hope of winning a place in a popular school. No one would be written off as a failure at 11 years of age'. We must 'leave behind the class-ridden system which separates out and labels our children' (p.238).
He fears that neither the Coalition government nor the Labour opposition will want to change course. So what can be done? He urges his readers to speak out and to 'persuade politicians of all parties to support a campaign for the better system that our children and our society deserve' (p.240).
He warns that there will be strong opposition. Right-wing think-tanks funded by anonymous donors 'will do their best to rubbish the arguments' (p.240). Such opposition, he says, can be overcome 'only by a mass desire for a fair education system, serving the interests of all society, led by determined campaigners' (p.241).
Readers, create the opportunity for an 'education spring' and do your part in building an education system - and a society - worth leaving to your children and your grandchildren (p.241).
Several factors make Education under Siege an excellent book.
First, of course, there is the content. Peter Mortimore has provided a huge amount of invaluable information and a wealth of thought-provoking ideas for his readers.
Second, the book is very well organised and logical in progression: there is a clear sense of direction and purpose.
Third, it is very enjoyable to read - and made more so by the inclusion of personal anecdotes which add authenticity and interest. For example (in a discussion of grade inflation at GCSE):
I suspect that this view of declining standards is mainly a natural reaction to growing older - as I suggested to my 10-year-old grandson when he criticised the lax standard of work required of his 8-year-old brothers (p.142).and (in discussing the 'wilful blindness to the often excellent management undertaken by local authorities'):
I worked with one particularly outstanding manager in the ILEA. When the authority was abolished, he was hired by a private education company to take over the running of a troubled local authority. He recruited several of his former colleagues and set to work. Ironically, his success was hailed as a victory for private management (p.158).and (in noting the malign effect of streaming on children):
most of us have such fragile egos that if other people (especially our teachers) think we are limited in our abilities - we become so.And finally, there are hardly any errors in the text to distract the reader. Luxembourg is missing its 'o' on page 61 (though not on page 60), and on page 115 when Mortimore writes: 'In Chapter Ten I deal with those parts of our system that have the potential to be either positive or negative' he means Chapter Nine. Otherwise, Policy Press are to be congratulated on producing a remarkably clean text - which, regrettably, is not always the case these days. (See, for example, my review of Clyde Chitty's New Labour and Secondary Education 1994-2010).
There will be a range of views on Mortimore's proposals. Many readers may well agree with most of them. I certainly do - though I would have gone further on faith schools. I don't believe faith schools 'run the risk of being divisive' (p.144) - they are divisive! What's more, I'm appalled that organisations with a history of intolerance, misogyny and homophobia - not to mention child abuse - should be allowed to run schools. So I'm sorry he didn't go the whole hog and call for the removal of religious groups from the education system altogether. After all, he notes that in the 1944 Education Act RAB Butler 'had the opportunity of thanking religious schools for providing a service prior to the creation of a national system and standing them down' (p.73) - which rather suggests that that is what he would have preferred Butler to do.
Others will find some of Mortimore's proposals - random allocation of pupils to secondary schools, for example - controversial. Those on the Right will no doubt seek to rubbish the whole list.
I have to say I was disappointed with the last chapter. Perhaps this was because the rest of the book is so good - and Mortimore's passion for education so clearly expressed - that I was sure he would come up with a new and unique idea - a 'magic bullet' - for getting his proposals implemented. But he is right, of course. There is no magic bullet. In a democracy all one can do is try to persuade as many people as possible of the rightness of one's ideas. And that is exactly what he is seeking to do in this book. The problem is that, in our society, it is the rich and powerful who vote, exercise choice and make the decisions. It is in their interest to maintain the status quo. So it is not going to be an easy task.
Education under Siege is an important book which I hope will be widely read by parents, students, teachers, and all those who care about the education of our children. (It would be good if a few politicians read it, too).
A shorter version of this review was published in Forum 56(2) Summer 2014 325-329.