We asked Laura McInerney for her views on the rules of education reform. Laura was a teacher for 6 years in London and is the co-founder of Teacher Tapp.
Last night I had a dream about a faceless nameless education secretary. In the dream I invited him to watch a play I was directing. The play was three hours long, but I assured him that despite length it was spectacular enough to be life-changing. As the play opened, the on-stage scene was elaborate – props, fabulous actors, tantalizing costumes – the politician looked eager. Then, just as the first actor began to speak, I called for a scene change. Lights off. Rearrangement. Lights up. New props, actors, costumes. Again it looked great, again – as the first actor went to speak – I yelled “Scene change”. On and on this went dizzying process, after an hour, the politician stood in fury.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “This story isn’t going anywhere. It has no purpose, I can’t make head nor tails of it. What makes you think I have three spare hours for such nonsense?”
The cast cackled. An actor stepped forward: “But this is what you and the others like you have done to teachers over and over again. And not just for three hours – for decades. Tell me, why should we put up with your nonsense?”
The simple answer to this question is that politicians are voted in to make decisions about monies and legislation across many areas, including education. We must put up with politicians’ nonsense because it’s a good idea to have a dedicated group of people be in charge, just as it’s a good idea to have one theatrical director. But if the politician, or the stage director, never lets things get going before starting all over again then the results are repeatedly unsatisfying.
Calls this week for a reimagined Royal College of Teaching part arose from such frustration. There is a feeling among teachers that people familiar with the profession need to be on hand, speaking out about issues, and moderating the whims of reform-zealous politicians. The report , “Towards a Royal College of Teaching”, suggests the new body could be responsible for setting stabilising codes and values that would underpin the teaching profession, and members of the College would be called to advise – and potentially moderate – zany education secretaries.
But without careful thought this advisory body runs the risk simply being seen as a ‘barrier’ to change, and without agreement on the processes for consulting with teachers via the Royal College (and processes by which the views can be ignored or compelled into policy), it would be all too easy for a future Government to denounce the new group as deluded and then ignore them.
So what sort of procedures could be created to ensure stability in education reforms? First, the government could introduce an independent Curriculum Review Board, selected by political parties but working independently, and who revisit the curriculum at pre-arranged intervals rather than when politically expedient. Hong Kong looks thoroughly and carefully at each grade once every ten years – no more, no less. In doing so there is guaranteed time for teachers to understand curriculum changes, and to develop, improve and share their materials. Why couldn’t we do this here?
A second idea is getting an independent teaching body to write “reviews” of Government education policy documents, and – here’s the important bit – completing the Government to publicly respond. This mirrors the Education Select Committee process where cross-party MPs scrutinise education policies and require governments to respond to their criticisms. However, MPs usually lack specialist education expertise. A Royal College of Teaching (or other such body) could instead follow the example of the US National Education Policy Center, who assess education reports published by “think tanks” commenting on their academic quality and rigour. Holes found would then need to be defended in a published Government response.
Finally – if these processes sound cumbersome or too likely to be overtaken by ideological zealots – how about something as simple as a “Reformer’s Manifesto”? After three decades of school reform under his watch, US educationalist Charles Payne’s wrote the book So Much Change, So Little Time. In it he argues that reformers do damage when they constantly rip up prior programmes without due regard for what was positive in them. He therefore wrote a School Reformer’s Pledge of Conduct urging politicians to follow maxims such as “do not to try to scale up prematurely” or always “give people realistic estimates of the time and money it takes to implement my program”.
But we can do even better than these platitudes. Surely we can sit down and think of a few golden rules for education reform that, if followed wisely, would make a big difference. That, if followed wisely, would stop the endless scenery change, would constrain the director and would – finally! – help us realise where the story is going.