One of the most uplifting moments I’ve experienced as a school parent came when watching a nursery school teacher – let’s call her Doreen – working with a class that included one of my children. Groups of children assembled in turn by an aquarium while Doreen gently encouraged each to talk about what they could see, making sure they didn’t talk over one another – that they listened to each other as she “echoed” what they said, repeating back key words. She gave value and power to each child as they described what was going on the aquarium: “That one’s chasing the stripy one …” “Chasing … yes?” The moment she saw one child getting distracted, she “herded” the child back into the group by gently saying their name, asking another question such as “What do you think?”.
Through this teacher-led open-ended dialogue, the children became absorbed; they built up shared ideas and meanings; developed trust with one another and the teacher, and found voices to express what one of their senses (sight) could perceive. These were three-year-olds.
With this in mind, I was very interested to read the text of the speech you gave earlier this month to the Foundation for Education Development on “education and building forward together”. One of the first sentences that flew off the page was the one where you said that “traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class are powerful tools for enabling a structured learning environment where everyone flourishes”.
I immediately thought of Doreen and my child’s class clustered, group by group, by the aquarium. Oh dear, did Doreen get that wrong? Should the whole class have been in their seats, facing the same way, looking at Doreen and not the aquarium? Apart from the usual Govean trick of saying that your view is “evidence-based” (without naming the evidence), I’m not sure why you are the expert in this matter. Given that this was a “let’s all pull together” and “back to work” speech indicating what is going to be important in the future, I scratched my head as to why you would single out this particular theory at this moment of crisis.
And while we are on the crisis, I thought of the terrible lack of thought, reflexive action or – apart from vaccination – lack of creative solutions that your government has shown in the face of this pandemic. And worse: a profound and scary lack of ethics towards people who were old or sick as the virus arrived. Surely your speech would reflect this, I thought, so I scanned the paragraphs for an indication you would be calling on schools to be environments in which invention, curiosity, creativity, research, investigation, flexibility, interpretation, empathy, social concern and humane values would flourish. Nope. Not there.
You had a different focus. To reduce it to one sentence, you said: “Now, more than ever, we need schools to create an environment which makes it easy to behave and hard not to.” You really warmed to your task on this. Judging by your speech, “behaviour, behaviour, behaviour” could be your party’s next election slogan, though hearing your leader uttering those words may have an effect opposite of the one intended.
I thought back to Doreen, the children and the aquarium. I thought of the way they had “behaved”: talking, explaining, discovering, inventing, listening, sharing, exploring and learning. They “behaved” (or were learning how to) because they had a reason to do so.
You had more to say, though. I was pleased to see you think cooperation between schools is a good idea: “partnerships are … fundamental between schools. We know that schools benefit from being in a strong family of schools”, you said. These are “powerful vehicles for improving schools – by sharing expertise, working collaboratively and driving improvements”.
Yes indeed, I thought, this was the bedrock of the local authorities, with their teams of locally based advisers, calling together local teachers’ conferences, running courses, putting expertise into all the schools in their locality, producing learning materials suited to the area, all under direct local democratic control. But then I looked again, and of course you weren’t talking about this, were you? You were talking about multi-academy trusts.
In other words, after years of massive disruption, vast amounts of cash spent, and local accountability removed, we have ended up with your “discovery”: that schools co-operating with one another is a good thing … which is what they were doing anyway.
It’s a bit like reinventing the wheel but only the kind that you approve of.
Yours, Michael Rosen