Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Knowsley - The Curate’s Egg

When you read the material supporting the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ it really is the proverbial Curate’s Egg. There’s some progressive educational theories, spin, Blairite ‘newspeak’, consultants’ verbal diarrhoea, paying homage to Microsoft and the downright dangerous.

No teacher who has lived through the arid desert of testing could disagree with ideas about independent learning, problem solving, scrapping rigid timetables and changing the school day. However, at the heart of the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ is an over-reliance on computers and ICT. There’s a great book by the American academic Larry Cuban – ‘Over Sold and Under Used’. He writes about how ‘Integrated Learning Systems’ were promoted as the solution to educational under achievement, all you needed to do was place a pupil in front of a computer with a diagnostic learning system, teachers would become redundant, all you would require is technicians to keep the machines running.

Cuban outlines the problems with ILS and computers in education-

1) Without excellent technical support computers will not function, he cites a lecturing response system that would ‘revolutionise’ higher education, ten years later it’s in disuse – too costly to maintain.

2) Teachers need to be trained in use of computers and software. After lesson observations and talking with teachers he found a high percentage didn’t use ICT because they weren’t confident and they hadn’t received any training.

3) Built in obsolescence means that Computer systems require expensive upgrades, i.e., your faithful old times table game won’t work on Windows XP.

4) ‘Well done, you have achieved Level 4, I will print a certificate’. Somehow that robotic voice never could replace the human voice. Children need to learn social skills and rather than being isolated in a computer booth they need to learn from and with other children.

5) Computers are very good for using with multiple-choice questions but not for higher learning – discussing opinions and interpretation.

Knowsley have been keen to jump into bed with Microsoft, the organisation that has made a fortune from education. The danger is that schools have become techno-junkies, reliant on the next fix from Microsoft. There are much cheaper alternatives like Open Source.

You also have to consider the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ as part of the national picture, will the government and Ofsted allow a council to conduct a genuine experiment? You certainly have to acknowledge the previous Chief Education Officer’s (Steve Munby) consistent monotheism, because his only God was exam results. Yet Knowsley is participating in a race that it will never win. Despite massive rises in Key Stage 2 SATs results Knowsley still lags behind other councils. At the recent Primary Standards Conference the message from the DfES to Knowsley Heads was, ‘we know you’re working hard, but basically you’re crap’. Will the new ‘Learning Centres’ be models of progressive learning or test based exam factories? No prizes for guessing the answer to that.

‘Poverty is not an excuse for failure’. Like all trite sayings or slogans it does contain a kernel of truth, teachers should have high expectations for all children regardless of background. The other side of the equation, that New Labour has always been in denial of, is that results follow the map of poverty. Some children have complex educational and social needs. You can’t always replicate a school with well-motivated children and supportive parents in another setting.

The best ideas from progressive education were child-centred learning, a broad curriculum, topic based learning, problem solving, higher order learning and autonomy for teachers over the curriculum. A tiny minority of educators took this to extremes, we had “open learning” where the idea was that children would learn through osmosis or “organic spontaneity”, teachers were “facilitators” and that correct spellings or punctuation was an imposition of “bourgeois orthodoxy” on working-class children. In the 1970s the press managed to seize on the problems in one London primary school, William Tyndale Junior School, to pillory progressive teaching methods. In a similar fashion the murder of Sharon Tate was used to attack the ‘counter culture’, just that 99.9% of hippies were peace loving vegetarians and not psychotic killers.

Of course teachers can become conservative, relying on ‘tried and tested methods’ and fearful of experimentation. So how exactly do you bring teachers on board? Once again the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ is an example of how not to do it. First of all you start with the blame game. There’s that marvellous sentence, “Too many in secondary schooling expected little or nothing of local children and this had to be addressed.” Great you dedicate your life to teaching, struggling away with difficult classes, but you are the problem. Secondly, you give all the teachers P45s and make them re-apply for their own jobs. One of the council officials actually said that ‘insecurity and risk’ was an essential part of change. Lastly, when you do try to sell your programme to teachers organise ‘lectures’ where time for questions is limited and any dissenters are belittled as a Luddites or heretics.

OK, so what’s the alternative?

· Work with teachers and the community instead of imposing change by outside consultants with minimal knowledge of the local context
· Integrate social services in schools, so nurses, youth workers and social services can work with children
· Improve children’s basic skills through early intervention programmes like Reading Recovery
· Invest in well-funded nursery education with qualified staff
· Train teachers with professional development courses that treat them as pedagogues rather than ignorant technicians
· Put in more funding streams like Excellence in Cities

Maybe we should be asking why Knowsley is involving an American company like Microsoft in its ‘experiment’? What can the American education system teach us? ‘White flight’ to the suburbs and to private schools has undermined the inner city schools and the public education system, there is a high drop out rate, there is inequality in funding between different areas based on wealth and social mobility is the worst of any advanced country, the child of a lawyer with similar intelligence scores to the child of a janitor is 27 times more likely to end up in the top 10% of American incomes.

Compare that with Scandinavian countries – high social mobility, almost equal educational achievement between social classes, excellent nursery education, teaching a high status job with the equivalent of an MA needed, teacher autonomy over the curriculum and high spending on public services.

Over the last thirty years which country do we now resemble?

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Excellent article.
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