Why is England’s education revolution faltering?

It has been over a year since I wrote a post on this blog, and my writing in the year before was infrequent at best. There are a range of reasons for this, mostly involving a young child, finishing a doctoral thesis and setting up a new teacher-training course. It is hard to feel justified in writing a blog post when you are sat on multiple missed deadlines and the urgent need to draw fire engines. 

Alongside this was an acceptance that people increasingly used Twitter threads rather than blog posts for putting content online. My online contributions over the last year have been entirely in this form. A few weeks ago, however, I realised that I was not satisfied with this arrangement. Stuart Lock asked me about a blog I had written in which I argued for a reconciliation of the educational thought of ED Hirsch and Michael Young. This had not been a blog post, but rather a Twitter thread, which I duly shared, but it made me think that Twitter is a poor medium for posting content: it has limited scope, threads quickly become disjointed as they spawn numerous sub-threads and the arguments posted are remarkably transitory. 

Perhaps the biggest issue though was that I found I had run out of things to say. The curriculum reform cycle was complete by 2018, and I felt I had made the points I wanted to make about issues in history education concerning curriculum design, assessment and resourcing. For each of these, the next step would be to develop worked examples of what I think we should be doing, and this takes a great deal of time and trialling, and in any case I would probably submit such work to Teaching History. On wider educational philosophy, much of my writing was about picking apart commonly-used concepts in the education world and trying to say something that might move the arguments on by helping to better understand the intellectual challenges we face as teachers. On this front I think I just ran out of steam.

What the last few months have made me realise, though, is that I do have more that I want to say. Much of it comes under the heading “why is England’s educational revolution faltering?” There can be no doubt that teachers on social media have driven bulldozers through a number of educational orthodoxies that were dominant in the early twenty-first century. Some of these needed to be bulldozed into the ground, whilst others could have done with a more careful process of dismantling and reclamation, but there can be no doubt that the landscape in 2020 differs significantly from that of 2010. What started a decade ago as a counter-cultural movement has turned into the mainstream. Attitudes towards curriculum design, classroom teaching, assessment, resourcing, CPD, behaviour management, school evaluation, and a myriad of other things have shifted significantly over the last decade. The ideas that have emerged over this time – some of which will be passing fads, but others likely to remain for the long haul – have now begun their long march through the institutions, whether that be the inspectorate, teacher training and professional development organisations or the education publishing industry.

Yet, as most revolutionaries have found over the ages, few radical ideas survive contact with reality intact. Knocking things down is generally far easier than creating something new: in part this is because ideas get distorted and simplified, but it is also because ideas might well be found to be inappropriate or insufficient for the context in which they are applied. It is not difficult to point to examples. The idea of a knowledge-rich curriculum gets reduced to the question of whether schools have ‘knowledge organisers’. The exquisitely-put idea that a curriculum can be understood as ‘knowledge structured over time’ becomes a pictograph road map to stick on a classroom wall. Teaching approaches derived from what we think we know about the learning process get turned into checklist strategies in whole-school teaching and learning policies. I am concerned whenever I see such things shared on Twitter, and increasingly so as time goes on.

It is thus my intention to return to blog writing. Although I am aiming to write on a variety of issues (I have things to say about the idea of a teacher education core curriculum, for example), much of my focus is going to be an answer to the question ‘why is England’s educational revolution faltering?’ In practice, much of what I say is going to come down to the same point: ideas about leadership at a school and system level has not kept pace with ideas about curriculum, teaching, assessment and teacher development. I shall elaborate on this as I progress with my writing, but it will not surprise regular readers of this blog to know that genericism will feature heavily as an object of my criticism.

A final word here is needed on why this is necessary. It is well known that the educational world moves in cycles: long-serving teachers (and there are precious few of those these days) will wryly note that you are right twice in your career. I remain convinced that many of the criticisms and new ideas that have developed over the last decade are important contributions that should either (a) survive and thrive or (b) disappear because they have been properly examined and found to be wrong. At present, I think the way our system works prevents us from achieving either of these ends, with the potential worrying consequence that, faced with the turning of fortune’s wheel, these creations end up borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

3 Comments on Why is England’s education revolution faltering?

  1. Carolyn Roberts // 5 February 2020 at 07:46 // Reply

    Michael, I devised 10 Principles combining Young and Hirsch in Knowledge and the Future School (Young, Lambert, Roberts and Roberts, Bloomsbury 2014) which is often twitted about. Happy to discuss! Carolyn Roberts

  2. James Kilsby // 5 February 2020 at 08:38 // Reply

    Hello Michael – delighted that you’ve decided to re-enter the fray, and on such an important issue. I completely understand and share your concerns about the emerging zeitgeist; although it’s frustrating that in the spirit of Tantalus and Diana Ross, you’re keeping us hanging on! James Kilsby

  3. Looking forward to it, but please tackle the impact of Ofsted as part of this, we just can’t ignore its vast shadow of ‘normalisation’and fact it removed subject specialists but now wants them back!

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