Bracing for a Change

Phi Delta Kappan, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Bracing for a Change


In an increasingly popular position for politicians to adopt, the formula goes something like this: Schools are failing the students they educate. A conspiracy of teacher unions, university education departments, and bureaucrats is to blame. And our party, as the true guardian of the public interest, is the only one who can sort out this mess.

Politicians and even some leading school administrators in England have been articulating this line of thinking in various forms for at least 30 years. Now, it's coming to the fore in the run-up to the United Kingdom's general election, which must be held by June 2010.

The betting is that the Conservatives will sweep to power in that election and end 13 years of Labour rule. And the fact that this government-in-waiting is leading the attack on the "education establishment" suggests that its election would mean big changes for all who work in schools and the organizations that support them.

Among the likely moves are a "bonfire" of quasi-governmental education agencies and plans to allow all English schools the chance to become "academies": sponsored institutions similar to charter schools in the United States in which management gets greater freedoms to decide what pupils are taught and how much staff are paid.

British elections are traditionally won by politicians who capture the center ground, winning the affections of "floating voters" in marginal parliamentary seats. So David Cameron, the Conservative leader since 2005, has sought to present a moderate face to the electorate, trying to remove some of his right-of-center party's harsher edges with talk about the need to act on such issues as global warming and to take seriously the causes of poverty.

But in education, the rhetoric has been more confrontational. It was perhaps best encapsulated in a recent speech by Michael Gove, the Conservatives' spokesman on the subject. Gove attacked "dumbing down" in schools, which he pinned squarely on "bureaucrats"--officials in central and local government agencies--who, he said, regulate and limit so much of what goes on in classrooms.

"For far too long, out-of-touch bureaucrats have imposed faddy ideologies on our schools, which ignore the evidence of what really works in education," he said. "Teachers have been deprived of professional freedom, denied the chance to inspire children with a love of learning, and dragooned into delivering what the bureaucrats decree.

"We know that the countries with the very best education systems are those with the best teachers--and we know that the only way we can deliver real improvements in education is by strengthening the role of great teachers--and diminishing the power of the bureaucrats," Gove said in his speech to the party's annual conference.

As an example, Gove pointed to England's national curriculum, which no longer requires school history lessons to include Winston Churchill, the result of a government agency's decision. That same agency regulates school exams, which Gove derided as often featuring trivially easy questions. And he added that school principals need to be freed from regulations to expel children if they misbehave.

In addition, Gove's deputy, Nick Gibb, has attacked the "ideology" that the Conservatives argue is now dominant in English education. He has characterized this as the stance that "children should learn at their own pace and by self-discovery," a view that he traced to the American academic John Dewey. …

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