Failing to innovate? Failing to communicate

The response to Transforming Teacher Education has been really encouraging and it’s had some great coverage and produced real interest. A piece in the Times Higher published last week captured some of the argument of Jane’s and my book and I have been thanked, criticised and, of course, strategically ignored following its publication. Although mostly thanked, it has to be said. I didn’t quite realise how widespread the feeling was. You can read the piece by John Elmes here and I’m grateful to him for doing such a great job. I did actually say those things.

The focus in John’s piece on failing to innovate is something Jane and I emphasised in the book. The last real innovations in initial teacher education in England that were led by universities took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Three innovations stand out: the Leicester experiments in IT in Teacher Education and the focus on school-based research; the mobility of school teachers and university lecturers between sites for student teacher learning that took place at Sussex University; and the profound reconceptualisation of the design of ITE within the Oxford Internship Scheme. Everybody always talks about the Oxford scheme but the other two were also really important. (Ann Childs and I are currently working on an historical piece about the Internship Scheme).

The other failure, though, that didn’t come out in the interview and is worth restating loudly, is that universities have also failed to communicate – with the profession as well as the wider society – about why things like PGCEs or university involvement are important and why they make a difference. This failure to communicate has been strongly highlighted by the entry of Teach First on the scene. Teach First really knows how to communicate. They are very persuasive in their call to young graduates and their presentation of teaching as having a moral purpose. You can disagree with them – and the basis on which they argue – but at least there is a basis to argue with. Most of the time, universities have just assumed they are a good thing or that just because they are universities they have a right to continue as they are. Or worse, they have assumed that the teaching profession needs universities in order to reflect. Duh!

So having some strong arguments about what universities can contribute to ITE and the strengthening of the profession is something long over-due and urgently needed. I was part of a meeting yesterday afternoon that may well lead to such arguments appearing as we enter the general election campaign proper. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Learning Teaching from Experience: out in paperback in July

Learning Teaching from Experience will be published, with some minor revisions, in paperback in July. Janet Orchard and I were very honoured to have brought together so many different authors from all over the world to focus on the key question: what and how do teachers learn from experience? The chapters were originally drafted for a symposium in 2010 that was funded by the Society for Educational Studies.

The book includes contributions from Madeleine Grumet, Paolo Sorzio, Daniel Muijs, Anne Edwards, Ken Zeichner and the fabulous Californian teacher Torie Weiston, founder of the Youth Mentoring Action Network, among many others.

Learning Teaching from Experience was featured last week in the Times Educational Supplement in the UK.

And now it’s cheaper! Hurrah!

PUBLISHED! ‘Transforming Teacher Education: Reconfiguring the Academic Work’

After a really, really rapid turnaround in Bloomsbury’s production department, Transforming Teacher Education is now published and on sale in good bookstores everywhere (OK, UK bookstores now; Europe in a few weeks; rest of the world in a month). Discount coupons for different markets are available here for the USA and here for everywhere else. Today we noticed that amazon.co.uk had sold out of paperback copies on day one. Kerching? Probably not but promising nonetheless.

Although Jane and I knew that the book addressed a key topic, we didn’t realise that it would be quite so topical given the recent publication of the government’s Carter Review of ITT and the chaotic destabilization of the system that took place under Michael Gove and his allies. Now, in England, we are facing shortages of primary school teachers and specialist STEM teachers; regional teacher shortages; several universities have withdrawn from initial teacher education with others considering their own future; we’re seeing probably the greatest risk to quality in the last 30 years consequent to the fragmentation of provision and the largely failed experiment of School Direct (if it worked, it worked because the universities baled it out behind the scenes, snaffling most of the £9K fee). In sum, teacher education in England is now heading in the opposite direction to that taken in countries whose schools systems we seek to emulate (e.g. those in east Asia and Finland), led by a neo-Victorian rhetoric of pupil apprenticeship and missionary work.

I’ll be posting something about the argument of the book in the next few weeks, prior to the launch seminar on 16th March in London. The preface and Introduction will soon be available to download in the Chapters section on this site. But, in essence, Jane and I are arguing that while teacher education certainly does need to change, reformers’ ideas have not achieved and will not achieve the kind of systemic change in relationships between higher education and the profession that we need. We need to transform teacher education – not ‘reform’ it; not defend it. Transformation means changing the basis on which we understand the activity; changing the frames and terms of reference, the values as well as the rhetoric.

We were absolutely thrilled to get the following endorsements from many of the key thinkers in the field. I think Bloomsbury were thrilled also and they decided to print a selection on the back cover and all of them on the inside front pages. Jane and I are honoured. Thank you.

 ‘This book is an insightful and highly readable analysis of the work of

teacher educators in England, but its value extends far beyond that

setting. Combining original studies of teacher educators with trenchant

critique of education policy trends in England and elsewhere, this book is a

must-read for those who reject the “defend or reform” dichotomy and instead

want genuine transformation of teacher education.’

Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Cawthorne Professor of Teacher Education for Urban Schools, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, USA

‘This excellent book is a very timely and insightful analysis of some of

the consequences – both intended and unintended – arising out of a time

of unprecedented change in the teacher education sector.’

Samantha Twiselton, Director of Sheffield Institute of Education, UK

 ‘In this thoughtful volume, Viv Ellis and Jane McNicholl offer a deliberate

plan for the transformation of initial teacher education. Transforming

Teacher Education represents a vision that neither defends nor reforms but

uncompromisingly takes bold steps towards collaboration and collective

creativity, a vision for remaking initial teacher education such that another

future for our work is possible – not just in England but elsewhere in the world

too.’

A Lin Goodwin, Vice Dean and Evenden Professor of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, USA

‘The politics of teacher education have been destabilized in most countries,

often resulting in derisory discussion of both teachers and teacher educators.

This book provides a helpful framework to think pro-actively about teacher

education as a field and offers a seriously challenging agenda for transforming

that field of practice. It considers the much neglected daily work of teacher

educators and their positioning in higher education institutions and comes

up with an important agenda in which public universities and the profession

might better work together to develop and change the practices of teacher

education. Such a provocative agenda offers the potential for researchers and

practitioners in many countries to build both scholarship and practice in ways

that invite multilateral international networks to develop.’

Marie Brennan, Professor of Education, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia

‘Written by authors with a deep understanding of developments in teacher

education, Transforming Teacher Education is a timely and important book that

captures the complexity of the work of teacher educators. Based on their

extensive research and offering a transformative agenda, it is an important

source for practitioners, managers and policymakers who are dedicated to

transform teacher education and improve the work and academic status

of all those who work within the field.’

Anja Swennen, Researcher and Teacher Educator, Faculty of Psychology and Pedagogy, VU UniversityAmsterdam, The Netherlands

‘This is an important book. The authors offer a rich, complex and detailed

approach to an alternative “transforming” perspective, drawing upon a

wide range of theory and research which they link to practical outcomes.

They have put forward versions of this analysis at conferences in different

countries – notably the USA and the UK where the neoliberal alternative to

“transformation” has been prominent – but now the publication of the book

can provide teachers and scholars with a substantial basis that will enable

them to review and build on these constructive ideas in their own work.’

Brian Street, Professor Emeritus of Language and Education, King’s College London, UK

 

The Week of ‘The Landscape for Preparing Teacher Educators’

At Teachers’ College, November 2014

It was a real privilege to spend the week at Teachers’ College as guest of the Department of Curriculum and Teaching and a Sachs lecturer in the colloquium The Landscape for Preparing Teacher Educators.

The bust of John Dewey in the main hall of Teachers College
The bust of John Dewey in the main hall of Teachers College

One of my favourite parts of the week were the many conversations I had with faculty and doctoral students over breakfasts and lunches. (To be clear, it was the conversation that was the favourite part rather than the breakfasts and lunches, as nice as they were.) I also enjoyed teaching some classes – a doctoral class on curriculum theory and a mixed doctoral/master’s class on qualitative research methodology and a doctoral seminar on my book (with Jane), Transforming Teacher Education. And then the dinners – two stand-out meals: one at an Italian about two blocks north of TC and another at soul-food-scandi fusion restaurant in Harlem.

Milbank Chapel, Teachers College - venue for the colloquium lecture series
Milbank Chapel, Teachers College – venue for the colloquium lecture series

My public lecture on the Tuesday evening took place in the Milbank Chapel and was a full-house. I spoke for about an hour and then there was about 30 minutes questions. Even though I was horribly jet-lagged by then, it was very enjoyable and people were generous and kind. Cruelly, the TC people recorded it and it is available to view below. Next time I will demand a trailer and a Oscar-winning cinematographer 😉

During my trip, I also managed to meet up with Dr Lila McDowell who now teaches at John Jay College of the City University of New York. John Jay is a specialist college focusing on justice and Lila was teaching an introductory criminology course. It was great to be part of her class and meet her students. The last guest in her class was an FBI agent and then they got some random Brit.

Educating for Justice - the theme of CUNY's John Jay College
Educating for Justice – the theme of CUNY’s John Jay College

It was an honour to be invited to TC and to be a part of the Department and the College for a week. I learned a huge amount and even got to visit a school on the Friday afternoon. An honour – and a fantastic experience. Thank you.

Bloomsbury commissions new book series: Re-inventing Teacher Education

Bloomsbury have commissioned a new series of books on teacher education to be edited by Marie Brennan, Meg Maguire, Peter Smagorinsky and myself. Entitled Re-inventing Teacher Education, the series will publish books that have the potential to change the way we do teacher education, from initial preparation through continuing professional development. We are not looking for the ‘same old, same old’; we are looking for the kinds of books that will startle, infuriate, challenge, provoke and lead to a combination of ‘here, here’ and ‘how dare you’! Books you’ll want to read, throw at the wall or cuddle – perhaps all at once.

The first titles will see the light of day, we hope, in 2015 and we are working with potential authors now to identify topics and timescales. The series description is below. If you are interested in proposing a book in the series, please get in touch.

Bloomsbury award

Bloomsbury have once again won the trade’s own ‘Publisher of the Year 2014’ for its academic, educational and professional list.

Re-inventing Teacher Education

Series editors: Viv Ellis, Marie Brennan, Meg Maguire and Peter Smagorinsky

The series aims to present robust, critical research studies in the broad field of teacher education, including initial or pre-service preparation, in-service and continuing professional development, from diverse theoretical and methodological perspectives. The series will become known both for its innovative approach to research in the field and for its underlying commitment to transforming the education of teachers.

Teacher education is currently one of the most pressing and topical issues in the field of educational research. Around the world, in a range of countries, there is strong interest in how teachers are prepared, the content of their education and training programmes, measurements of their effectiveness and, fundamentally, the role and function of the ‘good’ or successful teacher in society, either as a professional or, more recently, as a social entrepreneur or ‘leader’. The associated question of whether and how teachers should be developed professionally is also high on policy agendas around the world as teaching comes to be seen, in some jurisdictions, as a short-term mission rather than as a professional career.

In some countries, teacher education is seen as a vital tool in the building of national educational, scientific, cultural, technological and economic infrastructures. In others, teacher education has become a means by which those countries’ human capital can be improved, economic competitiveness leveraged and status as knowledge economies ensured. International educational ‘league tables’ such as PISA and TIMMS become strong drivers of teacher education policy and practice in national contexts. Across countries, private philanthropy takes its place alongside the resources of the state in funding and influencing the direction of policy.

While many of the drivers are common across these contexts, the direction of policy and how policies are enacted in practice varies considerably and the role of higher education in teacher preparation is often a significant variable. In many successful schools systems in east Asia and northern Europe (successful in terms of PISA ranking as well as other outcomes), universities play an important role in preparing teachers with up to five years’ study needed to qualify, and with a strong theoretical and research component. Meanwhile, in other countries, policy-makers seek to emulate the PISA success of, for example, Shanghai and Finland, by diminishing the role of universities, shrinking the attention to theory and research and, as in England, abandoning the requirement that teachers need to be qualified altogether. Contradictions in policy, practice and curriculum design are increasingly apparent and are, in part, related to the underlying cultural identity of teaching (as a profession, for example) as well as the distribution of wealth across those societies.

At the same time, renewed attention is being given to how teachers learn and where they learn most productively. Sociocultural theories of learning derived from psychology and cognitive anthropology have come to influence teacher education programme design as well as studies of workplace learning and from the field of organizational science. Increasingly (although still fairly rarely), consideration is given to the link between the development of teachers (individually) and the development or improvement of the school (collectively). Movements such as the Professional Development Schools in the US are one such example of attempts to bridge individual and collective development. Similarly, interest in Lesson Study, a model of teacher and school development popular in Japan since the nineteenth century, has taken off in many countries in the west. The same is true of Education Rounds, or Instructional Rounds, in Scotland and the United States – another means of stimulating individual teacher and school development by promoting opportunities for collaborative learning in schools. In China, Teacher Research Groups (a 1950s Soviet import) are common in schools with the purpose of stimulating collaborative inquiry with the support of external experts.

Books in the series will address the following key areas among others:

  • Teacher learning and development;
  • The idea of the ‘good’ teacher and teaching as a profession or craft;
  • Teacher education programme design, pedagogy and content, including the relationships and division of labour between schools and universities;
  • Teacher education policy in local, national and global contexts, including ‘travelling ideas’;
  • Reform in teacher education – the meaning of reform as a concept in the field and its connection to broader political issues;
  • Histories of teacher education and of teaching;
  • Teacher education as a form of global higher education.

The series seeks authored books as well as coherent edited collections that address these key areas . It will publish mixed methods as well as quantitative and qualitative research but each book will have to demonstrate both the rigour of the research reported as well as its critical and original stance.

Trojan Linguistics: Underneath the headlines at Park View

A huge amount has been written over the last few months about alleged religious extremism among a group of schools in Birmingham – much of it nonsense, some of it deranged, very little that is insightful. And it is no surprise given that the whole affair played into the dispute between the Department for Education and the Home Office about the prevention of radicalisation; the turf wars between Mr Gove and Home Secretary Mrs May (it’s now clear who won that one); the volatile situation that Ofsted finds itself in after political briefings against it and as it fights for survival; the underlying Islamophobia in parts of British society; the attack on local authorities and their role in supporting and advising local school systems (a move that was really entrenched by New Labour); and on and on. And on.

I have no inside knowledge of what went on in those schools regarding extremism. I have no basis on which to know whether these schools’ managements overall were as they were painted in the Ofsted report and in the report from the former Met anti-terrorism police chief, Peter Clarke. That said, on the face of it, transcripts of postings to web sites do appear  to support the Clarke report’s central claim that some senior staff at the schools expressed racist, misogynistic, homophobic and hateful views online.

But I do know that something quite special had been going on for years at Park View Academy, the main secondary school in the Park View Educational Trust. Something associated with the school’s excellent examination results which, even though the school’s critics and conspiracy theorists might try to undermine them, are quite robust and not connected to cheating or teaching to the test, as some reports have implied.

For several years, teachers across the school have been working with a form of language study called Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a kind associated with British-born, Australian-based linguist Michael (M.A.K) Halliday and what became known as the ‘Sydney school’ of language and literacy teaching. In the UK, it was appropriated in part by the National Strategies in a somewhat vulgarised version and became associated with ‘genre theory’ and the teaching of writing based on ‘text types’. But SFL was far more than that, more sophisticated in its view of language and literacy and much more useful. When I helped to prepare English teachers at Oxford, I asked them to work a little with a brilliant multimedia package called Building Understandings in Literacy and Teaching (BUILT), developed by Kristina Love at the University of Melbourne.  My students often told me they learned more about language and teaching by engaging with BUILT than they did with any of the National Strategy documents. (A paper by Kristina about the use of BUILT in teacher education is available here).

M.A.K. Halliday, founder or sponsor of SFL
M.A.K. Halliday, founder or sponsor of SFL

SFL offers a social view of language as a system of meaning-making in context. It is often organised around three key concepts: field (basically the stock of words available in a given situation); tenor (the relationship between the producer of an utterance or a text and the receiver);  and mode (the specific channel of communication – at a fundamental level, for example, speech or writing; or within writing, specific genres). SFL regards genres as recognisable patterns of interaction rather than recipes. The word recognisable is important because it emphasises that it is a social process in which people see what other people mean.

Teachers at Park View have been learning about SFL for years (and not just the English teachers). They have incorporated the core ideas in their planning and have also taught some of the key concepts to their students. Teachers’ work with SFL at Park View has been recognised nationally and internationally, including at a conference earlier this year organised in collaboration with researchers at Aston University. A poster for one of these conferences is here.

Students’ levels of attainment at Park View have been consistently high for years. This situation was recognised in the current, post-controversy Ofsted report; given the strength of their results, it couldn’t be otherwise. It also led to the school being graded as outstanding in their previous Ofsted report. The school isn’t in an affluent area; most children have the advantage of being at least bilingual; most don’t have much money in their families. So the usual indicators (which of course we might question) suggest a school that might be doing much less well in purely academic terms.

There is huge expertise among teachers at Park View that has served its students well for many years. Whether it is a question of poor leadership, a real culture of hate and extremism or a set-up job by a compliant inspectorate or a hatchet-job by a former copper who never actually visited the school, it would a tragedy if the momentum of good work in language and literacy teaching was lost at Park View. As far as I know, it was more advanced here than anywhere else in the UK. And it has – and still does – make a difference.

Bob Bibby 1942 – 2014

Bob Bibby, former Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and English Advisor for the West Midlands borough of Dudley, died on June 6th. Another former Chair of NATE, Shona Walton, has written an obituary on the NATE website here.

Bob interviewed me for my first job as an English teacher at a ‘new school’ in Dudley (that’s all it said in the job advert). My training with Tony Adams in Cambridge had prepared me for the teaching of texts and the use of computers in schools (bloody big old useless ones attached to cassette recorders) but it was Bob, through his leadership of the borough’s English, Drama and Media advisory team, that gave me opportunities to develop as a teacher that were, I now see, literally priceless. It was the way that Bob worked with heads of English – such as the legendary Pat Montgomery – that created the conditions for the rest of us.

Bob’s Dudley team involved me in the National Writing Project (advisory teacher Chris Morris), the Language in the National Curriculum project and the National Oracy Project (advisory teacher Rachel Robinson). Through this involvement, I extended and deepened my knowledge of pedagogy – the art and science of teaching, at the same time both a practical and deeply intellectual activity. The children I taught (I think) benefited from increased attention to rhetoric and process in my teaching of writing; emphasis on the relationship between varieties of language and power, grammar in the proper sense of understanding and manipulating a meaning-making system; oral language development, the relationship between narrative and the development of higher level thinking. My students’ work appeared in books and reports and, horrifyingly, I appeared in Common Bonds, the Oracy Project video. I wasn’t special. You will see the work of lots of Dudley English teachers in these projects’ publications.

As an approach to teachers’ professional development, Bob’s style might be described as that of an organic intellectual who sought to transform the activities of the teaching profession by getting them to articulate their own scientific knowledge. These days a sentence like that can sound like a fine example of Blob-ism or simple wanker-dom. And that’s a problem with the times we live in and their dominant discourses. It’s not Bob’s problem or, dare I say it, mine. (OK, it may be mine).But an English advisor like Bob didn’t think that an MA would save your soul as a teacher. He didn’t indulge in cack-handed liturgies about epistemology and ontology and your ‘stance’ as a teacher-researcher. First and foremost you were a teacher – one word, teacher, that was good enough. You were given opportunities to read things you hadn’t read before; talk to people interested in the same questions; try out some new ideas in the classroom; reflect and engage in some robust dialogue. You learned new stuff; you grew as a teacher; your students were joint beneficiaries.

That’s an important point: they were joint beneficiaries, meaning you as the teacher benefited too. It wasn’t only about the students as data, their test scores, your performance targets. The assumption was that if you were enabled to flourish as a teacher it was more likely that your students would flourish and also do better in measurements of their progress.

Bob became a thriller writer post-retirement and this one opens with the discovery of a dead Ofsted inspector mid-inspection
Bob became a thriller writer post-retirement and this one opens with the discovery of a dead Ofsted inspector mid-inspection

Bob was one of the last, great English advisors, people of great expertise, close to the practice of teaching and with a license to help teachers improve it by understanding its complexity. There were quite a few stellar English advisors in the West Midlands alone. They are now virtually all gone. First, they were required to become inspectors. Then they were required to pursue a ‘school improvement’ agenda. By then, they were mainly handlers of ‘data’, meaning numbers not words. Finally, they were retired early, given voluntary severance or employed on fragile contracts subject to the political whim of councillors. If they survived, they focused on leadership and management – running NPQ franchised tick boxes, pandering to the narcissism of ‘future leaders’ who wanted to know everything about ‘leading’ and sweet FA about teaching.

If there were two positive aspects of the recent Labour Party policy review, for me they were the explicit proposals for regional connections between schools (Labour being unable to use the word ‘local’ after what they did to local authorities with the academies programme) and the tacit acceptance that CPD in England has focused too much on leadership and not enough on pedagogy. Advisors like Bob were the real experts in developing teachers’ pedagogical knowledge across networks of schools in a particular geographic area. That kind of person is now all but gone, human infrastructure lost in the service of a political goal. Professional knowledge and wisdom purposely evacuated from the system on the basis that we should always look to government and the political class for guidance..

RIP Bob. Thank you for everything you did to start us all off and for helping me enjoy the job so much. But how can we plan for a new generation of locally-embedded pedagogical experts such as you?

The Guilin Conference: Education Reform and Social Change

The conference in Guilin was fascinating and thrilling. Co-organised by East China Normal University and Guangxi Normal University, its focus was on educational reform in the context of social change. They have both in spades in China and they invited a small group of international speakers to share experiences.Professor Yang Xiaowei, Director of the Institute for School Reform, about to open the conference in the video above, introduced by the Dean of Guangxi Normal University’s College of Education.

Guilin is in Guangxi province, in the south west of this enormous country, a relatively poor area and quite unlike the metropolis of Shanghai where East China Normal is based. One of the challenges in this region of China is to ensure that high quality education is extended to large parts of the population in rural areas and to minority ethnic populations that have, historically, been poorly served. One of the most impressive features of the conference (it was simultaneously translated) was the persistent attention to equity and social justice in the presentations; to the extension of a broad and balanced education in opposition to rote learning; and a mistrust of PISA as a measurement. So quite unlike the discourse in England and many other western countries. Instead, the discourse at the conference reflected the Chinese National Plan for Medium- and Long-Term Educational Reform that was published in 2010 with its strong emphasis on equity, social justice and attention to all schools, not just those for an elite.

The fantastic student helpers - all students from Guangxi Normal University
The fantastic student helpers – all MA students from Guangxi Normal University

An important part of the conference was devoted to the work of teacher educators and researchers at the two universities who were working with schoolteachers to change schools and teaching for the better. I heard thought-provoking presentations about improving science education by increasing practical activity; I learned that around 60% of school children in Shanghai never do any kind of practical science and are often unable to apply their school science to real world situations. Instead of making a connection between a place on the PISA league table and a country’s economic competitiveness in abstract terms, the Chinese speakers were making a link between not being able to do real world science and lagging behind the rest of the world in technological innovation. Rote learning of science in schools was linked to being a ‘Foxconn economy’ rather than a knowledge economy. Foxconn is the company that makes Apple products in low-wage, high-stress Chinese factories. The strong message was that unless China does something to reform its schools and science teaching, it will always be manufacturing smartphones for western companies rather than designing them.The conference day-trip was a cruise on the Li River for all invited participants – four hours in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity plus on-board buffet and beer!

Another theme was the growing suspicion of PISA and the ongoing discussions over whether to enter Shanghai in the next round of PISA assessments. It has always only been Shanghai and Hong Kong SAR that have been entered into PISA rather than the whole of China. If England only entered London, it would probably be positioned much higher up the league table. But Shanghai sees its position at the top of the Maths table, for example, as a distraction to the real problems affecting its system: an over-reliance on memorisation; a lack of critical debate and problem-solving; a deference to the status quo and a wariness about creativity; a lack of consideration of the whole person. In response, they have developed ‘The Green Index’, an alternative measurement to PISA that includes reading, mathematics and science but goes beyond these core PISA domains. Included in the 10 item Green Index is a measure of happiness. I can’t see that catching on in PISA-obsessed western countries. But the concern for the wellbeing of its sometimes highly motivated students is at the core of these reforms. A professor from East China Normal translated a TV news broadcast for me from three years ago that reported on suicides among school-aged students and declining mental health in schools. In one classroom they visited there were posters on the walls saying ‘I will get into Fudan University or I will kill myself’.The conference dinner at Guilin – gifts and Gan Bei (a Chinese toast)

I always come back from China slightly shell-shocked and embarrassed to have been invited. To see and hear such a vast and developing country confront its educational problems so honestly and to be working so hard is very humbling. And as I left for China, 60 Maths teachers were heading to England from Shanghai. We have much to learn from China – and from Shanghai in particular – but we won’t accomplish that by fetishising some rapid fire maths exercises. A Medium- to Long-Term Plan for Educational Reform might be a good start rather than a series of short-term, knee-jerk, headline-grabbing trivia? I think the last thing our school system needs is more policy tourism.

‘English as a Subject’ published

The Routledge Companion to English Studies, edited by Brian Street and Constant Leung, has just been published. My chapter (rather worryingly Chapter 1) is ‘English as a Subject’ and (in a measly 5000 words or less) tries to cover some of the history of the subject English in schools and universities, with a particular focus on how the language English figures in constructions of the subject in anglophone countries, especially in relation to the study of literature.

To try to achieve this near impossible feat, I chose to focus on two contrasting stories about the emergence of English as a subject: first, the story of English as an instrument of colonial and class domination; second, the story of English as a progresssive project of social transformation. The first of these will be familiar to many who know the literature on linguistic imperialism and the role of English in creating loyal English ‘subjects’ in different parts of the former empire. I also draw on the related research about the role of English in enforcing a social standard within the British isles, particularly in relation to the working class and the role of literature, especially Shakespeare, in establishing ‘middle class’ cultural norms. Alan Sinfield’s fantastic work was very useful in this respect.

Harold Rosen, former head of English at Walworth School and Professor of English at the Institute of Education
The late Harold Rosen, former head of English at Walworth School and Professor of English at the Institute of Education

The second story concerns the relationship between the development of English and the expansion of higher education towards the end of the nineteenth century and the transformation of secondary education for the masses in the mid-twentieth. I refer to the work of Australians Ian Hunter and Ian Reid but also that of John Dixon and, more recently, John Hardcastle and Peter Medway, who have been researching the histories of the practices of English teaching in a few influential London schools and its relationship to the work of teacher educators and researchers at the London Institute of Education. A key figure in their analysis is Harold Rosen (the father of Michael). The story here is one of a more democratic view of language and a consistently socially transformative view of pedagogy. It is story in which the language and the literature studied in English could be that of the students, the children themselves.

Neither story is ‘the truth’, of course. It’s about the stories themselves and where they came from and how they are told. But somewhere in the midst of this contradiction of domination and development lives English as a subject and, as I argue, the very model of a modern subject.

You can download a PDF of ‘English as a Subject’ in the Chapters section. It was incredibly badly copy-edited by Routledge with new sub-headings inserted against my wishes. So apologies in advance for that sort of nonsense.

The Object of Disaffection: ‘Dear Mr Gove’

First of all, have a look at this video, a poem called ‘Dear Mr Gove’ by Jess Green. It was uploaded to Youtube in March and caused a bit of a stir. I believe Jess Green is (or has been) a teacher and it is part of a show she will perform at the Edinburgh Festival this year.

It’s certainly passionate and performed with conviction. I’m not sure how good a poem it is but it is persuasive and engaging, especially given its author’s status as a teacher.

What I find most interesting, though, is the way that ‘Mr Gove’ has found his way into the popular imagination of the teaching profession (and perhaps more widely among the liberal-left) as a bogeyman figure. It has been a while since we’ve had a Secretary of State for Education who has aroused such strong and personal feelings – in my memory, probably only John Patten (a former Conservative Education Secretary from the early 1990s) and David Blunkett (the first New Labour Education Secretary) have figured so large. Can you even remember some of the others? We went through quite a few under Blair and Brown. Estelle Morris, remember her? Resigned because she didn’t think she was good enough only to write a weekly column for the Guardian in which she offered her advice to all and sundry. Ruth Kelly (who?), Ed Balls, Charles Clarke, that nice man who wanted to a pop star when he was younger? Remember them? Maybe – but for what?

But Mr Gove has achieved almost mythic status in his relatively long tenure as Education Secretary, a popular and courageous figure if you follow the right wing press (where he used to work and where his mates still do) and a bogeyman among the unions, teachers, university people, Guardian readers, etc.. Of all his predecessors, it is probably only David Blunkett in his early years that could claim to have had such a (positive or negative) impact and such wide name-recognition. And Gove shares with Blunkett one thing: a passionate commitment to improving schools, attempting to change the education system for the better (on his terms) and trying to make policy on the basis that poverty or disadvantage need not be a child’s destiny. With both Gove and Blunkett you get the sense that their own histories and experiences as children and pupils have had a lasting influence on how they think about education and schooling.

And the connection between the two is more than personal, of course. As John Harris noted (and as I mentioned in a previous post), much of Gove’s machinery of reform was bequeathed to him by New Labour and it was probably the zealous, even messianic fervour of that first Blair administration that has carried over most strongly into the Coalition’s policies. Gove listened to Blair when he said that he wished he had gone further and faster in the reform of public services and that he should have been prepared for the resistance of vested interests such as the teacher unions, local politicians and university education people (the latter memorably termed ‘the Blob’ by Mr Gove).

So why, when in Mr Gove we have a Secretary of State so clearly interested in education, one who appears so passionately committed to state education (and one who, unlike some New Labour figures, chooses a state school for his own child); someone who says he isn’t good enough to be prime minister but wants to stay on at Education and see things through; someone who is said to be funny, a good mimic, charming company on social occasions; why, when all these things might suggest that he would be a good choice to have oversight of an education system in a modern democracy, why is he so loathed by the profession and by Jess Green?

Well, there are probably at least two main reasons. First, a very personal one. His way of doing politics is arch, to say the least, veering on the high camp and snickering. Listen to ‘Today in Parliament’ on Radio 4 and you will hear someone who likes to poke fun, sneer, spout hyperbole. Speaker John Bercow recently described him as a ‘very excitable man’ in a gentle ticking off for some unruly behaviour. I have heard him demean individual officers of teachers’ and subject associations in the Commons in a way that inevitably polarises opinion, whether designed to or not. This is the side of Mr Gove that leads people to describe him as a ‘loquacious sixth former at a minor public school’. Old enough to know better but nonetheless eager for popularity and advancement.

The second is more to do with the policy machinery and his way of operating it. Early in his tenure, he described his approach as ‘disruptive innovation’, essentially the same approach as New Labour. Disruptive innovation as a concept comes from technology entrepreneurship where the goal is always to make things easier, cheaper and more convenient for the consumer. But Coalition policy has rather been marked by what mid-twentieth century Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’. It is marked by continual interventions into the system intended to destabilize it, create new opportunities for private capital, and change the system of values on which the system is built.

So in education, you undo the professionalization of teaching (no qualifications required); you open up the establishment of schools (the ‘provision of school services’) to everyone; you appear to denigrate those who choose to make teaching a career choice in preference to ‘elite graduates’ who teach-to-the-test for a while; you devalue professional knowledge (and its gatekeepers) in preference to ‘things that work’ (to improve test scores) as demonstrated by pseudo-randomised controlled trials or anecdotage from your preferred think-tank.

It is no surprise, then, why Mr Gove has become the object of disaffection for so many people, so many teachers like Jess Green. And of course, he will, he does, take all this in his stride. It is a mark of his success (to him and his followers) that Jess Green should upload a poem like this. Look at the comments beneath her videos on Youtube.

But if this is creative destruction, there is a risk that Mr Gove hasn’t planned for and that is because it can’t be planned for. The risk is that this creative destruction leads to …. destruction, in terms. The education system in England begins to truly fail – not enough teachers – shortages, especially in urban areas; idiosyncratic or even fanatical free schools that last for a few years then close; low-cost, perhaps for-profit schools that do a worse job than the very worst ‘bog standard’ comprehensive; PISA results on a decade-long, declining trend; 16+ qualifications that genuinely no longer mean anything; an eventual choice between state-supported schools for the poor that teach to certain gate-keeping tests and private schools that incorporate attention to the arts and culture, meaningful engagement in practical science, sport and extra-curricular activities – a genuine education.

The problem for Mr Gove is that he is Education Secretary in a country where not only has schooling been seen primarily as the responsibility of the state (the central state, especially since Jim Callaghan’s 1976 Ruskin College speech), it has since become something that the state seems to have the responsibility to comment on at a very micro-level. Only in England, I think, would the Education minister be expected to have a comment on the failings of a specific school somewhere in the country. So, if you destroy the system through your/the state’s ‘creativity’ – a system that politics demands you have the ultimate responsibility for – how do you comment on that? ‘I was radical in my approach to reform and, whoops, it all fell apart, sorry’?

Passionate commitment and fervent beliefs are not enough to make an education system function to its best. And wisdom is hard to come by when politics has been reduced to five-year election cycles. Who will write a poem about that?