The Centre for Equity in Education (University of Manchester) have just published their pre-election statement Learning from what works. Its authors Mel Ainscow, Alan Dyson, Sue Goldrick and Kirstin Kerr argue that ‘successive governments have failed to deliver an education system that offers better opportunities for all children and young people.’ They question the story of sustained improvement:
If there have been gains in achievement over those three decades, they have been bought at the cost of narrowing the meaning of education… there are real doubts about whether students know and can do more, or whether schools have simply got better at drilling them through tests…
If education is about passing tests, it is also about knowing things that matter, and developing skills that are useful in employment and in other aspects of individual’s lives… It is about developing young people’s abilities to contribute to society, to understand how society works, and to change society for the better.
This succinct document condemns the excessive, arbitrary and bewildering power exercised not only by the Secretary of State but also the Chief Inspector:
Ofsted has become more and more powerful, sometimes seeming to be the Secretary of State’s attack dog, and sometimes seeking to establish its own, independent power base.
The authors call for an end to centralised control through ‘a perverse set of accountability measures’, which encourage schools to follow centrally-determined procedures, including gaming the system. Policy makers should recognise the complexities of schooling, rather than reducing everything to numbers. Accountability mechanisms must ‘avoid blaming schools for what they cannot control’. New governance frameworks are needed which offer ‘both leadership and developmental support’ and ‘actively promote a common purpose’.
The authors argue for within-school improvement processes which engage staff in collective enquiry; for supportive partnerships between schools; and (citing the example of the Harlem Children’s Zone) a joined-up neighbourhood-based approach to support families and enrich children’s lives.
Instead of offering detailed solutions, the document calls for a wide public debate about the purposes and practices of education. It will not be easy to bring about change, since ‘deep educational thinking has been driven out of the education system’ but ‘despite the most unpromising of circumstances, there are encouraging practices going on’ from which we can learn.
This Manchester-based team are able to draw on their own work with local schools over many years. They argue for a close understanding of local situations rather than simplistic quick-fix interventions:
‘what works in general’ has to be translated into ‘what works here and for these learners’… [but] there may not be ready-made interventions to address every issue… [so you have to value] the creativity that teachers can bring to bear on the situations they face.