Monday, 17 December 2012

Barking up the Wrong Tree?

It would seem that everyone in education is continually looking for the silver bullet: that one initiative, that one approach, that one great idea, which will make everything better. Successive administrations appear to decide on their favourite countries and then try to cherry pick approaches that work there and bolt them on to the UK system.
But what if we are barking up the wrong tree entirely? And, more to the point, what if we are doing that deliberately because the truth is unpalatable?
Many people I know (and some I even like and respect), are forever banging on about 'Singapore Maths'. This approach to teaching mathematics is one based on mastery and mathematics results in Singapore are great. But are those results great because of the approach they take to teaching mathematics? Well, no.
When one looks at high performing jurisdictions around the world and tries to find comparators in the systems, we can see that the approaches taken in terms of pedagogy and curriculum are wide and varied. Yet, the results are high. There is certainly a correlation between Singapore's approach to teaching mathematics and its results, but it is not the causation.
So what is the common link?
There would appear to be only one thread that flows throughout all of the highest performing jurisdictions. It is not an approach. It is not the curriculum. It is not how much teachers are paid or the level of PD that they engage with.
The real common link is society's attitudes towards education.
But, you see, this is really not something that any UK government would like to admit. Because if it is the case, then the answer does not lie in a new DfE initiative or models of schooling or a national strategy. The answer lies in other departments. In the home office, in the justice system, in culture, in business.
It is not because the Singapore government take a mastery approach to mathematics learning that they are successuful, it is because the vast majority of society view education as vitally important and something that should be revered. They see teachers as high status professionals. They view learning as the route to fulfilment and prosperity.
This is evident time and again across high performing jurisdictions. It is because the model of society is one in which schooling is held in high esteem.
There are pockets of this attitude in the UK, particularly among Asian families. But as a whole, the UK society does not value education.
I cannot count over the years how many times I have had to deal with parents who feel they have no responsibility whatsoever for their child's learning and behaviour.
And behaviour.
This is the key.
In those societies that value education, classroom behaviour is much less extreme.
It's all about behaviour, dummy.
I recall, as a child, messing around in class. Hi-jinks, silliness. But one stern look from the teacher and we would get back on task. Or, horror of horrors, a letter home! My father would then make sure that messing about in class was not something I would do for quite some time.
But I regularly see and hear about occasions now of behaviour so extreme that it is nothing short of bullying a teacher. These children are not normalised, not socialised.
But what if we admitted that? Which government ever would or could?
It is far easier to blame the education system and tinker away at the edges than it is for a country to stop, look at itself and admit that something rotten has taken hold.
If we actually want education to get better in the UK, we need to make societal changes, but these take at least a generation.
And if you don't believe that something rotten has taken hold, ask a teacher friend if they would be willing to take a pay cut for guaranteed good behaviour and respect from all kids.

(JUST AN ADDITIONAL NOTE ON SINGAPORE:  The other thing that people always forget to mention when talking about the miracle that is Singapore maths results is that as a country it is nothing at all like England.  For a start, it's tiny, with only around 500 schools.  I often wonder how those results would compare to the top 500 schools in England.  Also, I'm not criticising the approach to mathematics, I happen to rather like it.  But we shouldn't kid oursleves - pedagogical and curriculum approach is a values decision.  Personally, I'm a constructivist and much prefer to teach mathematics that way.  There is loads of research to support constructivism.  But there is loads of research to support other approaches too.  We choose to teach in the way that we do for cultural reasons.)

Monday, 10 December 2012

Goodbye Britain

Everything. And by that I really do mean every single thing. Was better in the past.
How I adored the days when a drive to the coast would be preluded by hours and hours checking the car, filling up with coolant and oil, adjusting the tyre pressure and fiddling with the engine. Only, of course, to break down along the way just the same.
How I adored the days when TV consisted of just two channels, when the entire population would watch the same episode of Morecombe and Wise and talk about it the day after. (Of course, there was also ITV, but that was only for the 'common' children.)
How I adored the days when you would arrange to meet a friend for dinner, cinema, theatre, sports, dates or what-not and you simply had to turn up on time. No text messages about running late. No turning up at the wrong place and quickly sorting with a phonecall.
How I adored the days when, not only were your parents allowed to smack you in the street, but could also smack any other child who was being mischievous. When bank holiday Monday meant long hours sitting stationary on single carriageway A- and B- roads. When there was no such thing as health and safety, when children were allowed to play on badly made British swings and slides that would slice their legs on protruding shards of metal. How I adored the days when nothing worked. When loading a computer game took whole minutes and then didn't play anyway.
How I adored the days when VHS and Betamax battled for supremacy. When a trip to the cinema was like sitting in a flea pit. How I adored the days.
Nothing is better now. Nothing.
And how I adored the days when teachers were teachers and kids were kids. When it was normal to be clipped around the ear, when a teacher could call you a moron and your parents didn't try to sue for emotional damages. How I adored the days when messing about in class meant having the shit scared out of you by a mortar-boarded, cape adorning demon headmaster. How I adored the days when teachers told you stuff, told you what to do and you did it. And not just you, everyone. The days when ADHD was recognised for what it is – a whinging, irritating and badly behaved kid. How I adored the days when teachers were funny. When it was ok for a teacher to have a laugh with the kids and to take the piss out of them without some lily-livered, flaccid, middle-middle-class bleeding heart parent calling for them to be sacked.
How I adored the days before 'learning styles', 'personalised learning', 'student voice' and 'parent choice'. How I adored the days when schools were what they were – a place where you were lucky to go to, where it was your responsibility to learn. And your family would make sure you bloody well did. How I adored the days when my teachers wrote these words on my school reports: "as Mark opens his mouth to sing, the other boys leave the room", "I have met boys with less talent in art than Mark, but none who managed to be so consistently bad", "One year without being excluded? How about it? There's a good chap."
How I adored the days.
How I adored the days when, as a teacher, I could have a laugh. With colleagues we would send kids to another classroom to ask for a 'long weight (wait)', we would play the 'stand behind the ugliest kid game' in exam halls, we would go off on elaborate stories in lessons, we would ignore inspectors and government initiative. How I adored the days when we had spunk.
Nothing is better now. What has become of the profession? I continually meet these po-faced, weak spirited, uninspiring teachers. These young, fresh-faced wimps straight from college. They believe all the diktat. Do as they are told. Stay out of trouble.
How I adored the days when teachers were strong. When teachers were professional, they knew about learning and got on with the job and did not bow to idiotic policy makers.
How I adored the days. But I guess I am ancient now. I guess that what this new Britain wants, in all its X-Factor consuming, male-grooming, ladette form is to be controlled. To be nannied by the State and to be numb to any notion of having to think for oneself. I guess what this new Britain wants is a society that thinks there is no difference between private and public behaviour, that it is ok to boo and jeer at anyone, that there is no boundary between adult and child and that it is perfectly ok to raise your kids to be rude. Yes, I am ancient now. But I'm not sure that what we have now is what we had dreamed.
Everything was better in the past. Goodbye Britain.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Speech at Nesta, 15th November 2012

I was very encouraged to read, throughout the report, experiences that resonate with the work that I have been focused on over the years.
I very much believe that technology has a place in education and that the potential for technology to have a real positive impact on student outcomes is something that we would be foolish not to tap into.
But. There are no silver bullets here. And it was nice to see that line in the report.
So much of what we say about technology enhanced learning is based on hunch and personal belief. For at least 40 years we have been trying to shoehorn technology in to learning. Taking software and hardware, designed for the purposes of business, and trying to work it in to our classrooms.
Almost without exception, the technology that has made it all the way in to the hands of our children has, as the report puts it, put technology above teaching, excitement above evidence.
If we are going to realize the potential that technology holds to improve education, I believe that the answer must lie in creating, from the ground up, evidenced based, values driven technologies that start from the point of learning and teaching.
But I don't mean teaching, do I? Because teaching is contrived to mean the way we teach now.
Technology can't be a bolt on. It isn't in the practices of classroom teachers that we should be looking. Instead, we need to grip that using technology to enhance learning necessitates new practices. Technology has its own pedagogies.
So what of this ground up approach? Who would do it?
This is where the biggest challenge lies, I think.
Within a research environment, maybe driven by grants, one can have the luxury of time.
But it is not HEIs that will bring technology in to the hands of children. It is, and always has been (with some very rare exceptions) the commercial sector that pushes tech into schools.
Research projects all too often result in cumbersome interfaces or uninspiring user experience. Which is of course fine, because that is not the purpose of the project. And developing tech is costly.
But. Technology needs to be practical and useable if schools are to adopt it.
So what do they see?
They see the trash that large, commercial organisations push on them.
And with little expertise in schools, and little time to grow that expertise, school leaders make poor decisions about the technologies that they invest in.
There is no surprise here. Why on earth would a commercial organization take an evidenced based, values driven approach? What incentive is there?
So instead we get pulp fiction.
£1 billion pounds spent in the last five years, the report tells us. And what impact has it had?
I'd wager almost none.
A good starting point for building learning technology, as the report points out, is to start by augmenting and connecting proven learning activities in current settings.
But if we are, as the report challenges us, to bring research into reality and turn the world into a learning place, we need to create a mechanism for bridging the divide.
Too often at the moment developers don't understand learning, and educators don't understand the endless possibilities of good coding.
Researchers and developers operate in isolation.
We need to bring together educators, developers and designers in one place, where ideas can really flourish.
This is why I'm very pleased to be able to announce a new initiative, in which we are creating an Education-Technology hub in central London that we act as an incubator for young start-ups, giving them access to experts in pedagogy, technology and design.
I'd be very happy to talk afterwards to anyone interested in knowing more about the hub. And look forward to seeing a new tranche of evidence and values driven, ground up developments for learning emerging.
There are already some examples of commercial organizations taking the lead. Many of you will know that I am part of Beluga Learning, where we have done just that.
This means that we have been able to go way beyond technology that simply replicates a transmission model of education. Much of the most used solutions are online based and seem to be stuck in this mode. Khan Academy is taking steps now, but has as yet effectively brought nothing new to the table.
Surely the potential of tech goes beyond simply increasing reach (though this is, of course, important)
I think, in fact I know through our work, that tech can move beyond consolidation and practice to true learning environments where young people can build their own knowledge.
Technology, as Seymour Papert knew, can bring constructivism alive.
And I was encouraged to read in the report the section "learning through making"
And although the report points out that few examples of learning through making have been subjected to rigorous academic research, I would encourage again researchers to come together with developers on real products in real classrooms to finally nail this. I'd be happy to put Beluga under this type of scrutiny if anyone is up for it!
Look. Practice has its place, for sure. Practice makes perfect. But there has to be more, surely. I don't think we should kid ourselves that practice and drill software is technology enhanced learning.
Yet nearly all solutions out there don't get beyond this sort of approach.
Let us break away.
Let's build upon the promise of collaboration, allowing learners to work with each other. Let's create robust scaffolds of experiences that incorporate representational tools that can be manipulated to build understanding internally and communication tools that give opportunities for reflection.
For me, the potential of technology is in bringing all the aspects of a great teacher in to the hands of an individual learner.
So in the same way that, as a teacher, you will kneel down next to a child and listen, observe and understand what is happening so that you can adapt their experience, provide support or challenge, tech can also, in real-time, analyse learning and adapt the experiences.
There are lots of challenges to overcome.
We need to pause and look at the world.
When I was a child, school was where innovation was. It was the place that I saw my first computer. It was the place that I watched TV in colour for the first time. But a complete reversal has occurred.
Now, the tech that our young people have in their lives is leagues beyond much of what exists in our schools. So let's tap in to that. Let's tap in to the digital literacies that our young people bring to the classroom with them. Not suffocate them.
I despair each time I inspect a school and hear about mobile phones being banned. For goodness sake, what are we doing?
The report highlights that mobile devices can be distracting.
We need to stop saying this.
This speech was given at the Nesta Digital Education Report launch on Thursday 15th November 2012 as a panel member response to the report.

Mark McCourt, Nesta, 15th November 2012

It seems to be forbidden in education to say, but it is not the mobile phone causing distraction. It is bad teaching. It is not the tech.
Would you ban dictionaries? They aren't distracting, are they? Well, sure. What about the silly boys looking up rude words and giggling?
Anything can be distracting.
So you have rules, you build a culture. You set out expectations, and good teachers orchestrate classrooms so that the kids aren't distracted.
Having blanket bans on mobile devices is simply wrong. It's idiotic. Let's open up schooling to involve the world that the child experiences beyond its walls.
But by far the biggest challenge in bringing about real impact through technology is how to incentivize commercial organisations to invent solutions that will actually enhance learning.
So, I would call on Nesta and other organisations to take a leap of faith. We can't continue with the divide between research and development.
But developing in this way is incredibly risky and expensive. There is no list of ingredients that will make a magic piece of technology. Funders will need to join those of us in industry by putting their money at risk.
Sometimes it will work, sometimes it will fail. But the payoff of working together will be great.
I'm enthused that the report calls for collaboration. So let's do it.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Are A Levels Getting Easier?

So it's A Level results day. And the press will be full of the usual debate around standards falling while at the same time parents, teachers and students will be in uproar saying that A Levels are something to be proud of. This happens every single year, has done for, well, basically forever. And always will.
Ok, let's start with this. Kids: you've done well, good on you. You should be proud. We are proud of you. The exams were probably the hardest thing you've ever done. Celebrate. Enjoy life.
But... here's the thing. I'm sitting here with the A Level mathematics papers from 2012, 1992 and 1972.
Is the paper from 2012 easier?  Yes.
Much easier infact.
In terms of mathematics, in terms of being a mathematician, the problems are simply not as demanding. They do not require the same level of thought, they do not require the same understanding of interrelated concepts, they do not even cover material at the same level of difficulty (some bits do, granted).
The papers are easier. It really is undeniable.
But are A Levels easier that they used to be?  No.
Seems like a contradiction, I know. But it's about the journey. It's about the preparation and readiness.
For the kids who sat the 2012 paper, they were every bit as daunting and demanding, every bit as challenging and as difficult. Their triumph was every bit as great.  The A Level was not easier.
Because their experience until that point had readied them only for that level of paper. They would not be able to do the 1972 paper, not because the paper is more difficult (which it most certainly is), but because the educational experience they had encountered throughout their schooling had set the bar much lower.
There are many reasons for this. For one, the curriculum is much broader now and mathematics is being used to serve many more purposes, so the time for really getting to grips with the subject is less.  It's not a dumbing down of mathematics as such, more a replacing mathematics with something considered more appropriate to the masses.
A Level mathematics is an easier paper now. Sorry, but it is.
But imagine a moment, if you will, you are taking part in a high jump competition. Suppose your entire build up to the competition was practising jumping bars set at 1 metre. Your competitor on the other hand had been practising bars set at 2 metres. At the competition you are asked to jump 2.1 metres. You'd have no chance... all of your routines would be useless... it is the experience leading up to the challenge that matters.
Should A Level mathematics be more difficult? I'm not sure. Rather depends on what you want it to achieve. If it is a qualification that is supposed to ready you for a mathematics degree, then heck yes, it should. If on the other hand we want it to serve as something more diverse, then perhaps not.  As a mathematician, I'm biased.  I'd go for a much more rigorous curriculum and demanding exam.
But if it should be more difficult, this means tracking the mathematics curriculum all the way back in to primary and setting the bar much, much higher so that it is actually possible to achieve on a much more difficult exam come Year 13.
Let me just end by saying, though, to all those who got their results today: well done. Your achievement is equally as great as those in 1972 and don't let any sod tell you any different.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Mathematics Shouldn't be Easy

On a few separate occasions over the last couple of weeks, I have asked groups of teachers 'what does a good maths lesson look like?'
A very common response was that the kids get everything right.
This is so sad.
Mathematics is not about wading through question after question of the same old tedium – effectively repeating what some teacher has just spent 10 minutes showing on the board. Jesus.
Mathematics is about discovery. It is creative. It should take real thought.
Above all, mathematics should not be straightforward. The joy of the discipline is that it takes huge amounts of creativity and inspiration. Mathematics should be about overcoming apparently insurmountable problems. That's where the learning of mathematics happens. Through the struggle, the connections, the inventiveness.
Drill has a place. Most certainly. But they are not the good lessons.
The good lessons are the ones that make kids struggle, where they have to dredge up long forgotten knowledge and create new ways of working, new ways of seeing a situation.
The response from these teachers that kids should get things right also makes me worry about the subject knowledge of the profession. Where are all the mathematicians?
When I was a mathematical modeller, my colleagues and I would spend weeks, months, maybe years on a single problem. Struggling. Fighting. Getting within tasting distance and then having it all fall away.
It is through the rigour that complex problems demand, that mathematical learning becomes rich and lasting.
So a plea to mathematics teachers everywhere: don't design lessons for kids to get everything right, design lessons that stretch their minds and their understanding of the beautiful field of mathematics.
There are simple, practical ways in which to achieve this. Instead of demonstrating and then asking kids to repeat, ask them to prove from first principles. Instead of asking kids to remember some division facts, get them to prove it always holds. Instead of lists and lists of repetitive questions, get one meaty question and let the kids have 3-4 weeks fighting with it. The mathematics will come. Trust the nature of how mathematics arises.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Blended Learning 2015

Blended learning will become an increasingly important methodology in delivering education at school level. There is already good research emerging that indicates that a blended approach can lead to greater student gains than either a purely traditional face-to-face or a purely delivered online course.
The definition of blended learning has evolved over the few years that it has been around, but is generally accepted now to mean a course of learning that includes some face-to-face (co-location) work and some distance work through an online element. Its success seems to make obvious sense; by adding in the distance learning element, students can continue (and are encouraged or required to) their learning beyond the usual timeframe. They can have time to reflect, and community elements of the online environment means that they can also act in the role of knowledge creator, contributing their own thoughts and ideas.
Blended learning is settling in to a definition that requires co-location and distance work. But what if, just as we are agreeing on a definition, the definition itself is about to become redundant?
There are different cognitive activities taking place when working face-to-face compared to distance individual work. It is about the human interaction, the ability for the learning to adapt to reactions, the being a part of a learning network, the access to external expertise (usually in the form of a teacher), the skill of the teacher to plot an infinite number of routes through the learning based on the reactions and emotions of the group, and the whole spectrum of human emotions that come with feeling a sense of togetherness with peers.
Suppose, then, all of these aspects could be replicated without co-location. Would that element of blended learning be necessary?
Increasingly we, and particularly children, are forming social and emotional relationships without face-to-face interaction. Social media and Web2.0 have enabled this. But add to the mix intelligent algorithms that can lead to true Learning Analytics and Adaptive Learning, then we could have an online element capable of high level artificial intelligence, able to play the role of the external expert.
Learning Analytics is not the same as data analysis. It is not tracking. It is not taking data from tests and the like and then spitting these out at a teacher to interpret. Learning Analytics is real-time, live analysis of the interactions that students are having with a learning environment. Imagine the thought processes that a teacher has when watching a child working on a problem – they tweak the experience, they prompt, guide and assist, based on what the child is doing and their own experience of observing hundreds of children attempting the same problem in the past. They have built up an understanding of the behavioural patterns and are able to predict where the child is heading and therefore how to best intervene.
Learning Analytics brings the same observations. And Adaptive Learning plays the role of guiding. Combined, if the algorithms measuring behaviours can be got right, Learning Analytics and Adaptive Learning can behave as an artificial intelligence.
The learning environment can operate just like a teacher with a class of varied students.
Co-location is now no longer necessary.
We're not there yet. The algorithms are really tricky. But as I explore early artificial intelligence – funded and driven largely by the gaming industry at present – I can see how close a truly intelligent platform might be. 2015, I'd say.
So perhaps in the very near future we might have to revisit the definition of blended learning once more and ask ourselves seriously whether or not co-location is a necessary ingredient anymore.

Monday, 16 January 2012


I recently had supper with a chap as a sort of job interview. Nick is 6'5", handsome, witty, intelligent, thoughtful and kind. He makes for really easy company. He is equally a good listener as he is able to entertain with urbane bon mot. On the surface, Nick has everything going for him. He walks with a confidence and air of friendliness that make him attractive – people want to spend time with Nick. Having graduated from Oxford with a first class degree, the world is his oyster.
Or at least it should be.
Throughout the evening, I ask him about his life and what dreams he has for the future. I like him a lot. Several times during our meal I think to myself that I will be pleased to offer him the job.
But there are tell-tale signs. Signs I have witnessed many times in people that I have met over the years.
As we order, I ask Nick what sort of wine he would like with the meal. He tells me that he doesn't really drink alcohol, and I accept this and move the conversation on. But he subtly becomes submissive – his eye line lowers, his hands pull in to his body. Just tiny movements. And he tells me that he'll drink whatever I am drinking.
As it happens, we have some shared history. I'm always pleasantly surprised how often this happens when meeting complete strangers. His parents live in the same small town in Cambridgeshire as I do. We talk about some local restaurants, walks, bars, shops and characters. It turns out that he attended the fine public school that dominates our little town. How small the world is.
I ask him carefully about his career to date and his achievements. There are words that he uses, facial expressions, the crossing of his arms and other almost invisible giveaways that lead me to proposing that perhaps his weakness is a tendency to procrastinate. He agrees – and far more willingly than a man in a job interview should. He tells me that he finds it difficult to get motivated. But that he is very loyal, and accurate in his work. Precise, is the word he uses.
As each course is served, he waits for me to begin eating. As conversation flows, he continually gives way to any point I make.
I ask him to tell me about his best qualities and he struggles to talk.
And so I ask him: "were you badly bullied at school?"
We talk long in to the evening, retiring to the bar. Nick tells me about the constant mocking and abuse that he suffered at the hands of the boys at school. They would tease him for being so tall, they would berate his inability to play football well, they would sneer at his intellect.
At home, his father would constantly tell him that he wasn't doing good enough. And in Nick's mind nothing would ever be good enough.
Nick is 30 years old. And still he carries with him the scars of bullying. The procrastination, the lack of belief in his own opinions, the automatic submissive role that he will play in debate.
He has had a string of unsuccessful relationships. He has few friends and finds it difficult to feel close to anyone. Nick's career has been a patchwork of dead end jobs and time spent in academia, where he feels safer.
I have met far too many people like Nick.
I need to confess that I have never been bullied. I have no idea what it truly feels like to have suffered at the hand of a bully. And so, and this makes me feel ashamed, I struggle to empathise with those who have. There is an ingrained belief in our society that for bullying to occur there must also be a victim – that this person has some deficit, that they are equally to blame for the situation. I don't believe this to be true, but it has taken me many years to overcome that commonly held prejudice.
Nick is not a bad person. But for whatever reasons life had not equipped him in a way that would prevent him from being bullied. He was different; by age 14 he was already well over six feet tall. So there was a hook. There was something notable about him that could be commented on. And for whatever the reasons, be that his upbringing or other influence, Nick was not able to respond to the taunts with a shrug of the shoulder. He was not able to not feel hurt.
Thousands of adults carry the same burden as Nick, the same self-doubt or loathing, the same tendency towards procrastination, the same low aspirations.
On paper, Nick is a complete success of our education system. He carries with him in to the world the currency of 12 top grades at GCSE, 4 good A Levels and an honours degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
But what if we measured the success of our system in a different way? What if we traced individuals on their journey through life and considered their success? This success could be their ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way, their ability to form loving and lasting relationships, their motivation and aspirations. This success could be – come the end – whether or not they had a happy life. Of course these are difficult things to measure, but what if our schools were benchmarked against these in addition to their exam results? What would that mean for the way in which they operated?
Even at the cold, hard level of economic success – which it can be argued is a key function of the education system – it would be seen that those who carry the burden of being the victim do not contribute as much as their happy peers. The lack of drive and ambition, the procrastination so often a feature of the bullied, harm the economy.
Bullying debilitates its victims for many years, maybe a lifetime. It is utterly corrosive.
But it is also a hidden disease. Nick is beautiful and charming, as dashing and entertaining as a movie star. To the world around him he is the happiest of men. But to Nick, every single day of life is a struggle. Every day means convincing himself that there is a reason for going on. He knows he can't talk to anyone about how he feels, he is full of self-hate and pity.
You will know someone just like Nick. But of course, you probably won't know.
I do not believe that it is the role of schools to solve all of our society's ills, but it is a fact that schools have the ability to create a period of safety in young peoples' lives. It is also true that schools have the ability to create environments that ignore bullying and treat the bullied as invisible citizens.
The culture that schools create, the values that are espoused and how individual staff choose to act on bullying can make a huge difference.
Don't let it pass. Don't allow the Nick's of the world to be sentenced to a life of pain. Stamp it out. Now.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

National Curriculum Review?


What does the National Curriculum need to look like?
We are in the middle of another review of the National Curriculum. All new governments feel the need to assert their beliefs on the education system as soon as they can after taking office. Which is fine, because part of the reason that they were voted in was that citizens made decisions based on what they think our schools should achieve.
So, the government is starting to publish, bit by bit, its thinking around education.
What would you do if you were Secretary of State for Education?
It is really tempting, and understandably so because we are all human after all, to come to a view that the beliefs one espouses are the right ones.
I think there are several phases of wisdom. Firstly, one acquires facts and skills and can use them in a way that they have been shown. Then experiential learning leads to these being applied in ways that are effective. These then become embedded behaviours and people live within their own experiences. This, I guess, is where most people stop. These behaviours become beliefs, fundamentals, foundations, that shape our lives. We espouse these because we have internalised them and experienced their repeated impact.
But going beyond this, one can step out of one's own experience, as though looking at oneself through the eyes of an alien anthropologist. One can observe and notice oneself and the impact that one's actions have. Further still, one can detach oneself from belief systems and look at the evidence to be gleaned from others' experiences. Allowing these to challenge one's own knowledge and understanding. This journey never ends. It is this ability to go beyond one's own experiences, to critically analyse evidence and to continue to evolve thoughts and beliefs, that also allows one to say without fear, 'I don't know best'.
I believe that no Secretary of State for Education knows best. They can't. And that is a good thing.
But what if they don't realise this? What if they have not moved beyond espousing their own beliefs that are based purely on their own experiences?
Well then that could lead to a situation, understandably as I said, where a Secretary of State for Education believes that they know the right medicine to give the patient (to paraphrase Thatcher!) It could lead to a situation where they feel they should (and have the right to) prescribe in detail a National Curriculum and the methodology by which it will be delivered. This is a dangerous position. To dictate a system based on a sample size of one person is obtuse.
So what would I do if I were Secretary of State for Education?
There are conflicting pressures. Firstly, to not fall in to the trap as outlined above, secondly to serve the public who put you in office.
I believe that the public are asking from politicians for the schooling system to achieve certain things, and that as a democracy politicians are duty bound to deliver those. But they are asking for the outcomes, not prescribing the journey. At a local level they may wish also to do the latter.
So what I would do is this: I would work with the community to define the end points, the outcomes, the goals, the purposes. This could be as a set of criteria for students to achieve at the end of their schooling.
And then?
Well, that's it.
I would then leave it to those professionals working with children to define the paths that get them there.
At school level, headteachers and teachers would map out the journey children would take from entering the system to leaving it so that they have the best possible chances of achieving the national goals.
Secondary and primary schools would work together in doing this. Schools might want to form larger support networks too so as to share knowledge.
In otherwords, I would trust the schools entirely. Scary, eh?
A National Curriculum is in place so that children across the country receive a consistent offer, and I understand why this is desirable, but I think that centralisation has lead to a massive de-professionalising of the profession. By handing back true developmental issues to schools, by asking each and every person working in a school to contribute to creating the learning pathways and growing their own pedagogy, then the probability of students having a school experience that will lead to greater life chances greatly increases.
Autonomy for schools and for their communities.
With this, though, I would also insist on absolute accountability. Part of the reason that no Secretary of State has ever taken an approach such as this is because they fear that individual schools will fail due to poor leadership.
But true education improvement is, terrifyingly for a Secretary of State with an eye on remaining elected, entirely a leap of faith.
There are failing headteachers, this is true. Sack them.
But I think there would be fewer failing headteachers if their job were to lead rather than to respond to initiatives and whimsy. If they had autonomy, if they were able to feel and observe the impact in their driving learning, if they were able to focus on their learners and invest in their staff.
Because a handful of headteachers might not rise to the role is not a good enough excuse for controlling at a national level 25,000 headteachers. They know best. That's the point.
The Secretary of State could work hard to ensure that the route to headship actually leads to the highest calibre of candidate. They could ensure that serving heads are constantly engaged in learning networks. They could put in place rigorous accountability measures. They could give power to the local community. There are all manner of means for ensuring the quality. But treating a headteacher or school like a puppet on a string is not the way to achieve the most from out schools.
Secretary of State: go beyond your experience, try to see that the knowledge of those who have dedicated their life to education is valuable. Trust.
Take a leap of faith.