Here, at this conference, where what seem to be major – and imminent - changes in the content of what children will be taught at primary school were being discussed, a civil servant was talking about how teachers would be trained in making the reforms work.
And the answer for conference attendees seemed to be: “Have you got any ideas?”
As an insight into the way our policy-making has moved from what was widely felt within the profession to be over-prescription under Labour to the opposite of this in the form of a complete lack of central stipulation under the coalition – at least in those areas of policy where the present government has chosen not to favour centralisation – it could hardly be bettered.
I think the debate in this area actually has a lot to reveal about dysfunctionality within England’s over-politicised policy-making system. But more of that later. First, the detail of what I heard.
The occasion was the annual conference earlier this month of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, an organisation I have seemed to quote in every recent blog and whose conference discussions I also quoted last week but whose interaction with the government certainly make it worth keeping an eye on.
A panel of four was asked by Colin Matthews, a mathematics consultant, what was being done about preparing teachers for the new “national” curricula in English, maths and science, the draft programmes of study of which were published last month and which is supposed to be in schools next year, ready for first teaching in September 2014.
From the finalisation of the new curriculum to its introduction, there would be only a single academic year for preparation, Mr Matthews suggested.
He said: “Where is the CPD going to come from to support the primary practitioners who have to teach three new programmes of study, and have 40 weeks [to get used to it], during which they have to continue to teach?”
Hardip Begol, acting director of the curriculum and qualifications reform group at the Department for Education, was one of the panellists.
He responded: “That’s something we are thinking about at the moment. We are not going to design a national CPD programme and apply it to every school out there.
“Are there existing programmes out there? Can we scale them up, run by professionals? We have a teaching schools network at the moment, so how can we use that? We want to hear what’s happening locally, and see if we can build on that.”
Again, this was amazing. Allowance could, and perhaps should, be made for the fact that this government seems to have limited funding to put together another version of Labour’s much-debated – and oft-criticised - national teaching strategies. Labour itself, of course, had already announced plans to abandon these before leaving office.
But the coalition seems to be putting forward a swing to the polar opposite now: a move towards simply relying on school-by-school autonomy and the notion that professionals, free from interference by the state, will find their way to the right answers.(Note 1) This sits well with a right-of-centre administration which can make play, in part of this sphere of policy at least, that the state does not have the answers. But is it the right approach, I wonder, if one were forgetting about politics for a moment and thinking how to promote the best possible scenario for as many pupils as possible?
Before moving on to discussing that explicitly, some background is needed, here. For not only does the proposed curriculum represent a new framework for what should be taught. In maths, at least, Government claims that the subject is being “toughened up” ie made more demanding, appear to be borne out by the detailed content, at least as far as most of my maths sources are concerned, with some topics which are not taught now until secondary brought forward to primary, and others brought forward years within primary.
(As another speaker, from the secondary sector put it at the conference, the new primary curriculum would make a lot of demands on pupils which traditionally have been reserved for later in their school careers.
He said: “If everyone comes through [to year seven] doing what they are supposed to be doing [as set out in the new curriculum], there will be nothing left to teach them in secondary school.”)
So what seems to be happening is that the Government is proposing a very ambitious move: increasing the demand of what is taught, supposedly so it bears comparison to that taught in the most ambitiously demanding educational jurisdictions in the world. And how is it going to support teachers to make good on that ambition? The answer seems to be: “We’ll see about that.”
I am not alone in my scepticism, it would seem. Another of the panellists was Lynn Churchman, chair of the National Association of Mathematics Advisers, Inspectors and Consultants and formerly a leading figure on maths at both the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and within Ofsted.
She said: “We can all see that there won’t be a £100 million national intervention programme [like the national strategies]. But that does not mean that some of the approaches of the past cannot be re-used.
“At the start of the National Numeracy Strategy, every head teacher and primary teacher in the country had a one-day training programme. We have 20,000 primary schools in this country; do you want 20,000 schools re-inventing the wheel?
“Look at Wales with their numeracy drive. They are creating professional learning communities [see http://bit.ly/MlK9DM ] , and funding those. So we can learn from some of these strategies. It does not have to be 20,000 schools left to their own devices. That’s not what’s going to get us to where we need to be.”
This seems to me a very plausible argument. There is, clearly, a very strong case that teaching strategies were over-centralised under Labour. The Cambridge Primary Review, for example, documents the concerns about a “state theory of learning” having developed within the last 20 years, with controversy focusing particularly on the national literacy strategy. The review quotes the former Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke as having promised, in 1991, that the government would keep out of pedagogy because “questions about how to teach are not for Government to determine” and laments the fact that New Labour reversed this approach. When today’s Conservative ministers tell teachers that they want to keep out of prescribing how to teach – if not what to teach – and when they mean it (which is not always the case…a subject to which I will predictably return at the end of this blog) many professionals will, I guess, agree.
But it doesn’t seem to me that the alternatives in this field should be seen as just two: lesson-by-lesson intervention and advice from the centre, as it was under one political party, versus “well, you work out what to do yourselves”, as seems to be the case from the other.
Have I got it wrong on the latter? Well, a couple of further examples of conversations I’ve had over the past year suggest themselves.
Exhibit one was a chat to a contact about a speech Michael Gove gave to the heads of the government’s new “teaching schools”programme last autumn. “Teaching schools”, which are meant to be leading the way on professional development, have been a rare area of coalition education policy which have been relatively lacking in controversy so far, and they need to be given fair wind.
But what interested me was what was said in the speech, at least as reported back to me by my contact. Essentially, Mr Gove had said to the heads: “You know more about this subject than me. Now go and make it work.”
My head teacher contact thought it was refreshing to hear this from a minister, but, if I have remembered the conversation correctly, then wondered if enough support was being put in place to help heads do exactly that. More generally as a head, my contact said, there was a sense of swinging from one extreme to another, with the old days of huge amounts of guidance from local authorities and the ministry to “tumbleweed” now.
More recently, a contact said he had been at a languages meeting where a DfE civil servant had said, with regard to advice from ministers – in this case in the context of new arrangements for the teaching of languages at key stage 2 - that “nothing is or will be top-down”.
My source suggested that their perception after the meeting that it was likely that the existing key stage two languages framework “will be binned in due course and schools left to plot their own course, with no funding and very little training or support, as most of the local authority primary language advisers are no longer in post”.
The source continued: “Teaching schools and specialist leaders of education were mentioned but, as one colleague put it, where will they get their ideas and strategic direction from if ‘nothing is top down’.
“Secondary schools have not really embraced the idea of acting in a consultative role in order to build capacity in the primary workforce. So it looks like another Gove soundbite unsupported by any serious investment, and schools expected to make it work.”
I’ve had a look at the consultation document ( http://bit.ly/OhlrXO )setting out the Government’s move to make teaching languages compulsory at key stage 2, and there is no mention of any implications in terms of training the workforce in the main section of the text, which runs to only five pages. Again, as I’ve written in relation to the new primary curriculum more generally, that looks a very sketchy treatment for what would be a major reform.
In fact, the only reference to training in the document is in the form of two questions. These read:
“If the proposals do go ahead, what do you think the priorities will be for training and professional development of teachers?” and “Do you have any suggestions for how schools and other stakeholders could work together to meet these needs?” This sounds remarkably similar to the Mr Begol’s response to the maths question.
On the “impact assessment” paper (http://bit.ly/OZ1S2S ) which was published alongside the languages document and which sets out a little more detail, there is some acknowledgement of training needs, although there is a suggestion that much of this professional development will need to come out of existing school budgets, since the paper says: “Funding for CPD is already included in schools’ budgets.”(Note 2)
The impact assessment paper adds: “The Government’s approach to teachers’ CPD was set out in the White Paper ‘The Importance of Teaching’ (24th November 2010). It makes clear that we will focus on improving the capacity of schools to take the lead for the training and development of teachers.”
The paper accepts that Labour’s Rose review, which lasted 15 months over the period 2008-9, had already proposed making language learning compulsory at KS2 and that the policy hiatus since this time - the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats blocked Rose in the run-up to the 2010 general election – may have led some schools to believe languages were less of a priority at KS2 and therefore some of them may have scaled down on provision.
Perhaps more relevantly to the argument here, it also says that the Government currently does not know precisely what the training needs for teachers would be in this field.
The impact assessment paper says: “We do not hold systematic and up to date data on the actual number of primary school staff currently involved in teaching foreign languages, or their levels of capability. The current readiness of the primary workforce to deliver foreign languages effectively at Key Stage 2 is therefore not yet accurately known, and nor is the volume of training required.”
More work, says the paper, will be done on this as part of the consultation process.
One final piece of written evidence to throw your way: Ofsted’s unpublished submission to the national curriculum review, also mentioned in my last two blogs here.
It says, in relation to a new national curriculum [the submission was made in spring 2011]: “There is likely to be a significant need for professional development and it is unclear where the strategic leadership of this lies. For instance, if the curriculum places more emphasis on deeper understanding, then there are implications for teachers’ subject knowledge, particularly in primary schools. The burden is greater in primary than secondary. There are also implications for initial teacher education – trainers and trainees. Higher education providers could play a key role in this.”
Again, the point about “strategic leadership” seems apt at the moment. It is worth pointing out that, in the same submission, Ofsted comments favourably on curriculum development in Finland, highlighting the case of a move towards a more “problem-solving” approach in maths in the mid-1980s curricular reforms there and how this was led from the centre:
“The National Board of Education provided in-service training for teacher trainers and textbook writers and, subsequently, for teachers. Thus, a consistent interpretation of problem solving developed.”
My impression, then, returning to the current context in England, is a sense of a lurch from “state knows best” to “state knows nothing; go ahead and do it yourselves”.
This may, of course, be something of a caricature of the two positions. But the whole thing has the feel of polarised, caricatured policy-making, in my view.
Abandoning the notion of state-directed pedagogy need not mean the Government simply retreating completely from any notion of co-ordinating approaches to training, which otherwise seemingly must be directed piecemeal across schools.
To put it another way, in a saner world the question would not be: “state intervention: good or bad”, but “state intervention has advantages and disadvantages. How can we cut down on the disadvantages while using the power of the state where necessary to support teachers in making these changes, since they will need all the support they can get if these reforms are to work?” It sounds a bit like the “Plan B” model talked about in relation to the coalition’s economic policy – calls for which seem likely to intensify following this week’s hugely disappointing GDP figures – which sites policy somewhere in the space between hyperactive Government intervention and what we have now.
Hopelessly idealistic, I know, and not without economic cost. I suspect , though, that framing policy against that second question above is not unknown in other countries.
To sum up, issues of teacher preparedness to meet the high expectations coming their way through this proposed new national curriculum should go beyond politics: to borrow a phrase from New Labour, what works should be what matters. I don’t get any sense that that practical, non-political (Note 3) idea of helping schools achieve what is being asked of them – if necessary using state power where it would be useful - is really to the fore here. Given the scale of what seems to be about to be asked of schools, this is worrying.
And finally, of course it is necessary to acknowledge that the notion of “nothing is or will be top-down”, as reportedly stated by the civil servant in relation to languages, does not stand up to scrutiny. While current government ministers have professed not to be centralisers, policies ranging from the imposition of academy status on school communities which seem not to want it to the demand that local authorities presiding over the foundation of new schools must make them academies, the stipulation as to how phonics should be taught in primaries or the seeming requirement to teach long division in a certain way make for some fairly obvious exceptions to that statement. It is interesting to contrast, too, the seemingly hands-off stance to professional development discussed here with the highly detailed prescription involved in the draft primary curriculum itself, in the form of year-on-year requirements of what should be taught. I’m not going to elaborate on this contradiction here, as I have written at length about aspects of the process of centralisation under the current government which run counter to what is discussed above.
In my view, the need for new thinking on where central Government can usefully have a role– perhaps providing some strategic direction for improving the skills of the workforce might be one – and where it should back off is crucial. It might be something for Labour to think hard about in opposition.
I’d be really interested to hear what readers of this blog think of the Government’s current approach. You could either comment directly below this, or email me at email@example.com. That is if, of course, your minds haven’t already turned to the need for that well-earned break in the sun…
Note 1: Civil servants might argue, I guess, that we are still relatively early in the national curriculum development process, as we are technically in a “pre-formal” consultation phase for the new national curriculum programmes of study in English, maths and science. But with the curriculum supposed to be finalised in just over a year, it does not seem too much to ask that the DfE should have thought in detail about the central question of teacher capacity by now.
Note 2: Providing extra funds for this specific scheme might be costly: £100 million of dedicated funding for primary languages support cited in this paper – I have seen other estimates of £200 million - sounds a lot but it is less than the extra bill the academies scheme is loading on the education budget as a whole, at least according to some estimates.
Note 3: I guess, knowing this government, that the idea of cutting down/removing state intervention in this field has at least partially been formulated bearing in mind the notion that their ministers feel the need to free up space for non-state organisations to take a greater role in training provision. I wouldn’t want to say there would be anything inherently wrong with that, so long as I was convinced that this policy were being pursued with ideology not to the fore. In other words, the thought was of using whatever means – state- or non-state approaches to professional development - which would be most effective in helping schools improve. I suspect we haven’t got that in this case.