Who Cares About Education?
... going in the wrong direction
Eric Macfarlane 2016
London: New Generation Publishing
271pp., £8.99 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-78719-159-4
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2018
Over the past seventy years or so, the level of political control of education in the UK has increased dramatically. We have moved from the broad outline of state education provided by the 1944 Education Act, which said virtually nothing about the curriculum or types of school; through the changes wrought by the Tories in the 1980s and 90s, which created new types of school and, by imposing a National Curriculum, gave politicians control of what children were to be taught; to New Labour's diktats to teachers on how to teach.
There have been important changes, too, in higher and further education, in vocational education and its status in relation to academic studies, and in the exam system.
Eric Macfarlane's wide-ranging career has encompassed many of these areas. He taught in, and was head of, secondary modern and grammar schools, and was the founding principal of Queen Mary's College, a pioneering post-16 comprehensive college in Hampshire.
He was involved in various projects to improve learning and teaching in schools and universities, advising Oxford University's Department of Education on the introduction of a school-based teacher-training course, and promoting the Enterprise in Higher Education initiative at the University of Surrey and Birkbeck College.
He has written numerous articles and several books, including Education 16-19: In Transition (1992) and The Making of a Maverick (2007), and was awarded the OBE in 1988 for his services to education.
He is thus well-qualified to assess what has been happening, to point out where governments have got it wrong, and to suggest better ways forward.
Macfarlane begins Who Cares About Education? by suggesting that, given the many challenges facing the world, it is vital that we educate our young people 'to think in a wider and more imaginative dimension' (p.7). What is needed is a skills-based education system which enables the next generation 'to access and evaluate new information and to develop a spirit of enterprise, creativity and entrepreneurship' (p.7).
Yet politicians are either not listening or do not understand. They appear to be insulated from the real world, their interest in educational reform 'limited to quick-fix solutions and peripheral adjustments designed to appeal to the self-interest of specific sections of the electorate' (p.8).
They constantly tinker with the system, but remain slaves to it. There is no sense of permanency about the changes that are made: each successive government seeks to cancel out the initiatives introduced by its predecessor and to establish its own limited political agenda (p.8).He bemoans the constant denigration of teachers and is particularly critical of Chris Woodhead, head of Ofsted between 1994 and 2000, whose mania for rooting out incompetent teachers and focus on 'a very limited range of educational objectives and learning experiences' came at a time when 'our education system was crying out for a creative and imaginative change of direction' (p.18). Sadly, the Woodhead legacy 'has continued to be a driving force in Ofsted inspections' (p.18).
He is equally critical of Michael Gove, secretary of state for education in David Cameron's coalition government, who 'wasted no time in demonstrating his commitment to Woodhead's ideology' (p.18):
further political control of school curricula and pedagogy; more 'academic rigour'; a substantial increase in the already significant role of research-based universities in designing school syllabuses and exams; greater concentration on core academic subjects; more didactic teaching and rote-learning; exam results based on fixed percentages for each grade, rather than on pupil achievement; a further reduction in oral, practical and coursework assessment; a significant devaluing of creative subjects such as drama, art, music and dance, together with a strengthening of their academic content; denigration of 'soft options' such as sociology, media studies, psychology and environmental studies; an insistence on league tables as a tool for state management of schools (p.18).The focus on testing and league tables is damaging, says Macfarlane, not only to pupils, but also to their teachers, who find that as they help more children to reach their 'age-related expectations', the tests are made more difficult, with the result that the education process is 'put on hold while schools devote their time and energy to an extremely narrow set of objectives' (p.24).
The commitment to a traditional academic curriculum and specialist approach, the obsession with assessment, the emphasis on didactic teaching and a passive role for learners, the suppression of individuality and imagination - these are all taking us back to a bygone age (p.37).Comprehensive schools, he argues, were created in order to end 'the absurd classification of children at the age of eleven' and to 'nurture every individual's strengths, aptitudes and interests, regardless of their background, social class or money'. In so doing, they were to assist in making the country 'a more understanding, tolerant and cohesive society' (p.50).
Sadly, they have come to be judged on the basis of their position in exam league tables, and this has created competition between schools which is sometimes 'unpleasantly acrimonious and degrading' (p.55). The legacy of grammar school priorities has 'undermined some of the basic principles of the comprehensive ideal to meet the needs of all children' (p.60).
The latest Government initiative to intensify this drive is to return to the 1940s' school certificate ... The newly-introduced English Baccalaureate, or EBacc, is a precise imitation of this, a traditional grouping of academic GCSE subjects that most children are now expected to study (p.60).The effect is inevitably to reduce the status of other areas of the curriculum - the creative, the practical and the vocational - which 'have always fought a losing battle for equal status'. If the present trend continues, he warns, some of these will be fighting 'not for equality, but for survival' (p.61).
The need, he argues, is for
an exam system that is servant, not master, of the curriculum and which gives universities no more than they need to know, that is, whether or not applicants' general level of education suggests they would benefit from higher education (p.70).He goes on to consider the role of the independent schools, where the 'Oxbridge impact' is 'seen at its most extreme' (p.84).
The way in which we select, segregate and groom a privileged class for leadership roles in our society is unjust, restrictive and entirely inappropriate for the age in which we live. We instinctively know this, but the tradition is so strong that we feel unable to do anything about it (p.86-87).He notes that Michael Gove regarded the domination of positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power by those educated in independent schools as 'morally indefensible' (p.87). Yet Gove's 'radical reforms for tackling the pernicious divide between private and state education' were, like the academies initiative, based on 'an unquestioning acceptance of the public school as the model to which all schools should aspire' (p.88).
The idea that state schools should model themselves on 'highly elitist and richly-endowed institutions' is, he says, 'manifestly absurd' (p.89): the gap between expenditure on state school pupils (about £4,000 a year) and private school pupils (up to £30,000 a year) is 'a constant reminder of our deeply-rooted class system' (p.95).
The 'obsession with academia' has resulted in a situation in which 'not only do all children now have the opportunity to follow academic courses, but almost all of them are actually expected, and indeed pressurised, into doing so' (p.96). Art, music, dance, drama and design are 'invariably the first casualties of early specialisation' (p.105). Leading members of the performing arts and creative industries have 'repeatedly lobbied the Government over the marginalising of their subjects in schools, but with little or no success' (p.108).
Drama education, he suggests, is a good example of how 'years of successful curriculum reform and development' could be cancelled out 'in pursuit of one person's outdated ideology' (p.109).
In a chapter headed Knowledge is not understanding, Macfarlane argues that the fixation on traditional written tests and exams has led to growing concerns among university admission tutors about
the number of applicants entering university with an Egghead's facility for recalling a vast body of memorised facts and academic rhetoric, but little genuine feeling for their subject or understanding of the skills required to study it effectively at undergraduate level (p.125-6).League tables, both national and international, are an irrelevance, he says, because they are based on tests which measure only the facility to recall memorised information. The world, however, has moved on:
We are currently requiring teachers to drill children in procedures that can now readily be digitalised, automated and outsourced. In so doing, we are training the future generation for a labour market that is rapidly disappearing (p.130).Passive learning 'can overwhelm students and lead to tedium and disengagement' (p.132). By contrast, giving students 'a major role in the learning process ... greatly increases the opportunities that children have to develop their powers of oral communication' (p.138). Sadly, current educational priorities are 'a strong disincentive to good teaching' (p.142):
The heavy emphasis on standard procedures and uniformity of outcome, the preference for traditional syllabus content and, above all, the tedious routine of preparing students for narrowly-focused exams - all combine, with lack of funding, to discourage teachers from using a full range of experiences that enable children to become effective learners and well-educated adults (p.142).He still finds cause for optimism, however:
despite all the disincentives, dedicated and determined teachers continue to provide imaginative and innovative learning situations for their students. They find ways to get round or subvert the system: they show their pupils how to jump through the regulation hoops, whilst focusing on more important educational experiences as much as they can. They take on two jobs: the one they came into the profession to do and the one that's subsequently been imposed on them. They're inspirational teachers, despite the system. Society owes them a big debt (p.142).In his chapter on university learning and teaching, Macfarlane describes his involvement in Enterprise in Higher Education, the HE equivalent of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative in schools. It was, he says,
a typical highly publicised/low impact government initiative designed to show that politicians were aware of a problem and doing something about it: in this instance, the failure of HE to modernise its teaching methods, particularly in response to advances in technology (p.143).Although the exercise was 'absurdly top-heavy with accountability procedures' (p.144), it did reveal 'the gulf in status that existed between research and teaching and at just how little the latter featured in everyday conversation' (p.145). This was especially true in the case of the Russell Group of universities, for whom the recommendations in the 1997 Dearing report 'called for a seismic shift in attitude and policy' (p.145) towards teaching.
One of the problems, he suggests, is that, while most schoolteachers make a positive career decision to teach, the same is not true of university lecturers, many of whom have decided to continue with their scholarship by undertaking research:
Teaching is an additional responsibility that comes with their research role, and which may or may not be welcome. Untrained and inexperienced, they often don't know what to expect of their teaching commitment (p.161).Some of these issues, he notes, are being addressed, and reformers have been able 'to chip away at some of the out-dated attitudes and procedures that have traditionally maintained the inferior status of the teaching role in higher education' (p.170). Among these are the criteria for promotion, which in the past have 'blatantly ignored teaching prowess': if you want to know how serious a university is about its teaching role, he says, 'look at its promotion criteria' (p.170).
While the pace of change is 'frustratingly slow', the annual National Student Survey, introduced in 2005, is forcing universities to
think more about their provision, to attach greater importance to student opinion, and to respond to the various external and internal pressures to improve the quality of their students' learning experience (p.176).Macfarlane is critical of the highly specialised approach to sixth-form and undergraduate learning which produces 'young men and women with little interest in, or experience of, the world outside their narrow field of study' (p.185); and he regrets that, in the face of repeated budget cuts, comprehensive colleges are finding it 'increasingly difficult to maintain' (p.186) their more liberal attitude to the curriculum. Academic sixth-form colleges, by contrast, with their 'massive cohorts on the Russell Group conveyor belt', are 'meat and drink to the grammar school lobby' (p.188).
He expresses mixed views on the Teach First scheme. On the one hand, it has been 'very successful' in raising awareness of 'the desperate plight of many of our inner city schools' (p.194) and has encouraged young people with a social conscience to get involved. On the other, the scheme is 'a direct challenge to the principle that teachers need to be trained before they start work, as well as being mentored and supported in the early years in post' (p.193). Furthermore, Teach First promotes 'traditional and out-dated educational priorities' by its elitist approach to recruitment, which
focuses on all the familiar academic and political objectives - specialisation; academic subjects; improving exam results and league table positions; the need for nearly all pupils to follow a course geared to Russell Group university requirements; intensive grooming of high fliers for Oxbridge, and so on (p.194).The aim of giving all children opportunities to achieve academic success is 'thoroughly laudable', but when it drives the whole curriculum and is a never-ending focus of effort and resources, it denies 'the infinite variety of human aspiration and potential' (p.195).
He suggests that only the universities have the power to do anything about 'this absurd situation' (p.207), and he notes that a few of them are attempting to do so. He describes two innovatory courses - English at Nottingham and medicine at Exeter (both Russell Group universities) - as examples of 'imaginative and well-taught alternatives to the characteristic tired fare of the Russell Group' (p.212).
In his penultimate chapter, The Curse of Competition, he argues that current education policy is 'driven by much the same principles as those underlying our investment in sport': the aim is to 'define as early as possible the winners and losers in our society' (p.216). As a result, we are no longer educating children, but
drilling them in a limited number of skills associated with high academic achievement, in order to create the impression of progress. In the process we're stunting children's growth and potential and wasting our most precious asset (p.221).Equally disgraceful is the 'naming and shaming' of so-called 'failing' schools, which become pariahs, 'losing middle-class pupils, receiving less funding because of falling rolls, finding it increasingly difficult to recruit staff, and generally lacking support' (p.224).
He expresses concern about the regrettable effect which competition has on teachers:
The ideals and aspirations that brought them into the profession are being eroded and their desire to work with young people to build a fairer and more just society is being stifled by the pressure to focus single-mindedly on the politicians' arid agenda (p.227).Macfarlane begins his final chapter by contrasting the British and Finnish education systems. He notes that in Finland, where schools are 'fully comprehensive and unstreamed' (p.240), local responsibility has been increased and changes have been made collaboratively. 'In Finland the changes were widely supported. In the UK they have deepened the corrosive divisions in our society' (p.240).
He decries 'the appalling political double-talk that pervades the UK education system' (p.246). The government's green paper Schools that Work for Everyone (2016), for example, declared that all children would be given the opportunity to achieve their potential, but its proposals were
a ragbag of all the familiar British obsessions with academic priorities, examination success, elite institutions and Thatcherite market forces. The aim is not to do away with privilege, but simply to enable more children to benefit from it ... The whole document is a masterpiece of chicanery and secondhand-car salesmanship. And delivered with the confidence and authority of a logical argument (p.247).When a hundred academics wrote a letter to The Independent criticising the 2013 National Curriculum, Gove made no attempt to respond to their arguments, but 'poured out a stream of abuse' against the signatories, describing them as 'Marxists' and 'enemies of promise' (p.248).
The same dismissive attitude greeted the Cambridge Primary Review, led by Professor Robin Alexander. The Review had been 'impressively thorough and wide-ranging in its research and consultation' but it got 'the usual short-shrift treatment' (p.254).
It is easy to become disillusioned - and it is certainly 'getting harder and harder to hold on to fundamental educational principles' (p.258), but Macfarlane reminds us that there are still plenty of examples of good practice throughout the education system: 'imaginative syllabuses, outstanding classroom practitioners and innovative whole school policies' (p.258).
Day after day, classroom teachers look for ways of nurturing children's natural curiosity and creativity; encouraging their imagination and problem-solving; developing their independence, resilience and adaptability; helping to shape their character and moral values (p.258).Sadly - and increasingly - 'they are working in a culture that no longer prioritises these ideals, indeed often denigrates them' (p.258).
Who Cares About Education? is not the first book to provide critical analysis of the education policies of successive governments - Melissa Benn's School Wars (2011) and Peter Mortimore's Education under Siege (2013) covered much the same ground - but that does not make Eric Macfarlane's contribution to the debate any less valuable: each of these authors brings to the subject their own particular perspective.
Macfarlane writes with the authority of someone who has had a wealth of experience in a variety of educational contexts; with the passion of someone who cares deeply about what our education system does to children and young people; and with the wisdom of someone who has been around long enough to understand political motives and societal pressures.
Who Cares About Education? is extremely readable and should appeal to a wide audience. The text is jargon-free and enlivened by numerous anecdotes involving Macfarlane's own experiences and those of relatives and acquaintances: his attendance at 'a prestigious single-sex Royal Grammar School' (p.37) where education was 'something that boys had done to them, not an experience that they actively engaged in jointly with teachers' (p.41); his 'good fortune' in living and working in Hampshire, where his children were able to study music to A level, learn musical instruments, and play in orchestras and bands, all funded by the LEA (p.113); his little grand-daughter asking him to help think of names for two butterflies she'd just watched hatching (p.1); and the grand-daughter of a neighbour obtaining a higher degree in 'Breast-feeding in Biblical Times' - 'there must be more urgent issues requiring researchers' attention' (p.149), he suggests.
Although much of the book is taken up with criticism of the education policies of successive governments (that is, after all, its purpose), it is by no means negative in tone. Macfarlane has included numerous examples of teachers determined to do the best for their pupils in spite of the system in which they are required to work, and he retains throughout a sense of optimism and hopefulness.
He ends with a clarion call:
Let's take every opportunity to stress the educational, social and cultural benefits of our genuinely comprehensive schools. Good teaching and exciting courses, at all levels, should be widely publicised - by parents and students, as well as educationists ...It is to be hoped that Who Cares About Education? will be widely read by teachers, parents and school governors - indeed, by all those with an interest in and a concern for the life-chances of the next generation. Our political masters would benefit from reading it, too: they might begin to understand where we have gone wrong and how we might start to repair the damage.