Wales must free itself from the educational myths of the 1980s

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

Terry Mackie

Let us not waste our time in idle discourse, as Beckett wrote. The Commissioner for The Office of Future Generations for Wales is to schooling as Ronnie Corbett was to basketball.

Sophie Howe may be expert in many areas for all I know (she was called a ‘Labour insider’ on appointment), but if you want proof that she has not listened to the evidence on educational thinking, current trends and research, look no further than the report she commissioned from Professor Calvin Jones of Cardiff Business School, called Education Fit for the Future in Wales (October 2019).

It is an early Xmas turkey. It is authored by one of Wales’ leading economists, but he has no discernible school experience and scant awareness (theoretical or practical) of how teaching and learning operates in our classrooms. It launches from the wrong platform, which is that 3-16 education’s main destination is jobs (as if school were just an employment conveyor belt) and that its main thrust should be skills (when it must be knowledge and skills).

It may have some futurology sense to it about robots and IT in years to come but Jones, like Howe, appears firmly rooted in educational myths belonging to the 1980s and earlier. His report cites barely one current major educational thinker.

 

Serious

It gets worse; Professor Jones is wrong on analysis of what our Welsh 3-7 year olds have actually learned, that is their ‘attainments’ (Foundation Phase being the name of the 3-7 curriculum).

A department of his own university has confirmed these learner outcomes as not good overall – and unsatisfactory for our disadvantaged pupils. His claim that a ‘Foundation Phase approach’ will become the template for the new primary curriculum 7-11 year olds start in 2022 has been explicitly ruled out by a recent government publication called “The Curriculum for Wales – Dispelling the Myths – Part 2”. That’s on the official record.

The report also mixes up large historical increases in classroom assistants for 3-7 years olds for proof of public service productivity (evidence?) and uses this error to plead for more funding for New Curriculum for Wales 2022. We may need more overall resources, (to his credit Jones is at least ‘brave’ on proposing a new Welsh income tax for schools – good luck on that one), but we don’t need more classroom assistants.

In his sensationalist recommendation for the scrapping of GCSEs he advances the proposition that “narrative based assessment” would be favoured by employers in the future. In other words, dump exams. Not only is that moot and would lead to more ‘gaming’ of public assessments, but it ignores all other stakeholders who are at least equal in this concern: parents, students, FE colleges and HE, Qualifications Bodies (the Welsh spokesman has already rebuffed his proposition), Welsh Government and not least teachers.

His “strong rationale” for calling GCSE  “not fit for purpose” is weak. Argument in this regard predicated on the future jobs market and skills (highly contestable), as well as a setting up some sacred parameter that we ignore the Wales Future Generations Act at our absolute political peril, is just flawed.

Serious consideration of GCSE and 16 plus qualifications in Wales is already underway and thankfully it will not be the sole concern of employers – or academics. The former also tend to have atavistic experience about learning and teaching. Their vision of schooling can often be from the wrong end of the telescope.

Better

Ms Howe and Professor Jones would be well advised to read the outstanding work of Daisy Christodoulou. Had our Commissioner completed her own homework, before diving headlong into the rough seas of schooling without even passing her 25m certificate, she would done herself more favours on TV by not espousing the likes of critical thinking, presentational skills and the joys of project approaches to curriculum and assessment. Christodoulou crunched up these obdurate 1980s ideas of ‘teachable skills’ in her critically received The Seven Myths of Education.

This is the book our renowned educationalist Dylan Wiliam cited as so important “that schools that are genuinely interested in unleashing the power of education to transform lives should buy a copy for every teacher”. The great American scholar E.D. Hirsch called the book “ a cleansing breeze….splendid, disinfecting”.

Our Miss Daisy drives right through seven insidious educational myths including:

  • that teachers should be passive (Jones’ howler that YouTube could replace teachers is best forgotten)
  • that such a thing as twenty-first century knowledge and skills exist
  • that we can actually teach transferable skills
  • that project learning trumps teaching by subjects.

Regrettably, these debunked myths run through this presumptuous report as if it was a stick of Barry Island rock.

Christodoulou is also right about effective assessment processes and has dedicated her recent work to fostering more collaborative, precise and efficient teacher marking.  She speaks of marking, assessment and exams from classroom experience. She is in little doubt that GCSE-type summative assessments (that is mainly using exams) will always be required at certain landmark points in a student’s learning journey. The way forward is to make summative assessment better, not pretend it is inherently unjust.

Jones lionises his Commissioner as ‘the guardian of the interests of future generations’. Oh dear. If she knows not much about schooling, she should either steer clear or hire some better advisers.

The latter is one of her big problems. Presently The Commissioner is a chronic absentee on schooling stuff. She has nobody in her office of ‘change-makers’ who knows the field of schooling.

Don’t waste any time on this wholly speculative, rather idle discourse on the future of our schooling.  Mythology and astrology are to be avoided.

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