These comments were sent to John White re his article ‘Transforming Education’ (2021).
The comments are published here in the hope that it will encourage people to read and consider the arguments and suggestions that John White has made in the context of English schooling. Quotes from White are in italics. The comments are framed in the context of Australian schooling. It is possible that some of the comments are worthy of consideration in their own right.
Written during and partly in the light of the Covid pandemic, this article presents a picture of how education especially in England but also elsewhere needs to be transformed to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by five current and ongoing global events (p. 1).
I am reading your paper ‘Transforming Education’ while in Covid isolation on board an internet-free small cruise catamaran off the Western Australian Kimberley coast. I hope to forward these comments when I return to an electronic environment.
- I think that you are concerned about transforming schooling by changing the educational aims of schooling and thereby provide a better service to a changing society.
- The official aims of English schools currently in force, no more than half a dozen lines in length altogether, are skimpy, vapid and imprecise as a guide to what schools should be doing (p. 2).
I assume these aims are deliberately so framed to deflect consideration of the actual aims in use and that you identify as related to exam performance.
- So what are schools’ aims in practice? The main emphasis here, according to the head of OFSTED, is on achieving test and examination results, enabling students to go further in their education and gain desirable paid work (p. 2).
I am enlightened by what (mainly primary school) children say when interviewed by TV on their first day back at school after lockdown. They are looking forward to seeing their friends again. I did not see any (I do not watch a lot of TV) mention of their teachers or, more significantly, of learning something interesting or important. So, for many children, the primary aim of schooling is to provide them with a safe environment in which to enjoy being with their friends. Insofar as there is an educational aim (unrecognised by the children) it is to enable the development of sound social relationships. This is what I believe might be meant by your transformed social and civic curriculum. My current take on this is to frame it in terms of understanding how to trust others and to be trustworthy.
- Five factors making for change: Internet. the rise of the internet is likely to transform our familiar concept of education (p. 4).
A consequence of this is that the role (or even existence) of many teachers and university lecturers would change. I think the COVID experience in Australia has shown waiters are likely to have more long-term job security, at least the government gave waiters’ employers COVID pay supplements whereas universities had to let their staff go.
- Keynes’s optimistic prediction in 1930 that in a century his grandchildren will be enjoying a fifteen-hour working week (p. 5).
Keynes prediction of the 15-hour working week has become a reality for many. Australia has reduced its unemployment rate by counting as employed those who work one hour per week. What has not come about is the counter-balancing requirement to pay a living wage to those working 15 hours a week. Instead, the ‘economic rationalists’ in the Australian government have instituted a real wage decrease for those whose pay is set by industrial relations awards by doing nothing (this is the same strategy they use for climate change, by letting the market decide) while seeing executive remunerations increase substantially in line with wealth shift more generally. Universal Basic Income is an important step in conjunction with transformed schooling.
- The economic goal of increasing GDP (p. 6).
While increasing GDP in line with population growth (itself an issue) plus productivity is not an issue, redefining GDP away from the narrowly conceived current notion would be a useful step. For instance, including unpaid labour such as domestic work or volunteering could be helpful. Expect the usual objection, ‘How do you quantify that?’
- Climate change educational implications (p. 8).
Does this mean the schools should practice a ‘less resource-dependent’ life’ and children should discuss the meaning of ‘the good life’ as part of the curriculum? I see the answer to this question later in your paper re ‘flourishing’. My current proposal related, in part, to this is my ‘Welcome to People’ on PESA Agora.
- Educational transformed (p. 7).
Schools currently serve a non-educational aim that you do not emphasise. The Australian government recognised this function, reducing the youth unemployment rate by removing eligibility for unemployment benefits for those aged 15 to 17. Although the compulsory age remained at 15, those up to the age of 17 were deemed to be at school, in training, or in work. It is my understanding that compulsory schooling was only possible in a society with sufficient economic capacity to do away with 25% of its population in the workforce (e.g., as shepherds or child-minders). It serves as a holding pen (to continue the sheep theme) for economically useless people (teachers included). Moreover, schooling provided a way of removing that population from Fagin-type influences. The spectre of a French-type revolution by the unemployable was quite real in mid-19th century England and compulsory schooling was a partial solution (cf. Robert Lowe). What has yet to be discovered is how post-schooling has anything to offer the new and increasing population of those who are not in full-time paid employment. What Australia did, contrary to this direction, is to cut schooling costs by eliminating non-work-related courses from Technical Education and, even worse, to privatise work-related training with the predictable scams. The Education Department of Western Australia’s economic rationalists closed its school camps as they were not part of the Department’s ‘core business.’ These camps had provided transformational experiences for some school children and helped them in their subsequent schooling. My own Orientation Camp for mature-age GradDip (Primary) students was crucial in helping these student transition to a form of higher education they had never experienced. For instance, the camp experience taught these students that the lecturers involved were committed to helping them become successful teachers rather than them getting high marks in the final assessment of each unit (these marks would play little part in their employment prospects). What employers looked at was the final Teaching Practice mark. When I left the university, the camp was removed from the course because it was too much extra unrecognised and unrewarded work for staff. Likewise, the amount of school experience in the one-year course was reduced from 86 days to save paying teachers to supervise student teachers. A popular solution is to increase the course to 2 years (call it a Masters) and double the money students must pay in fees to the university.
- The creation of interest-based post-school institutions (p. 7).
(I would eschew using the term ‘university’ as this has passed its use-by date.) This is laudable but needs to be undertaken in light of the experience of the Mechanics Institutes. My current version of this is the retired worker who now does not die within two years of ceasing work. Some go fishing (most Australians live on or retire to the coast), some play golf, some go to a gym, some play bowls or bingo (not so many now), some take to the road with a caravan, and most watch football on TV. With prohibition of drink-driving, fewer now go to the pub for social interaction but drinking at home is more prevalent and brings with it attendant social problems. Fewer of the recent retirees consider volunteering even although there are ample suitable opportunities begging. Not many, even of those with tertiary qualifications, would consider going back to a current money-oriented university to extend their interests. The dominant ambition of many retirees is to buy a lottery ticket in the misguided hope of becoming instant millionaires and thus achieve happiness. The life-set of these people is reinforced by various TV game shows or Married at First Sight (between men with bulging muscles and women with bulging other bits). Such TV glorifies instant gratification in the face of predictable frustration. Much educationally worthwhile TV is readily available but is not watched by many so what would it take to get them to enrol in post-school institutions? This is the new challenge of the 21st century with a new 25% of the population without meaningful employment. Now both the bottom quartile and top quartile age groups have nothing to do – school was the answer in the 19th century but that required compulsion. Must government implement a Study for the Pension Scheme?
- A unitary network of local, comprehensive universities broadly equal in status and so lacking the hierarchical distinctions, e.g., between Russell Group and other institutions, that we have now. The only exceptions would be a few research universities associated with work of outstanding, globally recognised significance (p. 7).
I would designate the ‘research universities’ as Research Institutes providing post-graduate courses for future researchers. This would relieve the current universities of the counter-productive need to pretend that they and all their staff are leading edge researchers and allow their staff to resume their roles as scholars and skilled practitioners to focus on their role of passing on their passion for scholarship and practice to those who are interested. Nothing should prevent those staff or students doing original research as the opportunity or need arises, but it would not be their reason for being. This should include post-graduate courses for those wishing to extend their scholarship or practice. I saw too many highly skilled and caring practitioners in teacher education whose careers were destroyed by being required to do insignificant ‘research’ and likewise scholars whose field does not suit ‘gold standard’ quantified research. Australian universities are also now de facto immigration holding centres for those rich enough to afford the fees and wishing to obtain permanent residency via skilled migration policies.
- Aim (c) is that schools should help young people to see that they have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent the destruction of life on earth and of the physical environment that supports it (p. 8).
Current Australian schooling has achieved a significant outcome in greening its student population. The attitudes (perhaps not all the practices) of the cohort of students that have gone through schools in the last fifty years are more aware of environmental issues. The political dinosaurs are a problem, and we hope for a local extinction event (Australia has just held an election but I do not know the outcome as we are incommunicado). Schools are supposedly a politics-free zone. Perhaps, like local government when accused of being political in Yes, Minister,the response is ‘No, we are not political. We are all Conservative.’ I am in favour of schools, and society in general, being conservative in keeping what is deemed good from the past and only accepting change that has withstood appropriate tests. An attitude that is good for science is also good for society more generally.
- I begin with the curriculum, using this word to mean the content of learning that can be derived from a set of general aims (p. 9).
Is content ‘derived’ from aims or ‘justified’ in terms of aims? Is curriculum content selected from a body of knowledge, and thereby trustworthy, and efficacious in terms of educational aims and thereby justified? Only then does the further question arise ‘Is this content better in some way than that which it displaces?’
- Aims to do with helping others to flourish (p. 10).
Does this include animals and plants (including microbes and fungi)? It is just a matter of getting people to see the interconnected nature of the world and our reliance on bits we cannot see or have not appreciated. It is only recently that the group with whom I have been rehabilitating the swamp behind my house (Lake Claremont) have recognised the significance of fungi for the growth of the plants they have put in, as well as the significance of those plants for the people in COVID lockdown.
- Tomorrow’s schools should be providing age-appropriate sociological, psychological and historical understanding of all such matters [gender, race, poverty] (p. 11).
Schools also need to provide ways in which children can negotiate the conflict between what is taught at school and what is practised by their parents and the local community. I include that in what counts as teaching them how to trust what is trustworthy. This includes recognition of difference and ways of accommodation or tolerance. I do not think ‘schools can lay the first bricks in the wall’ unless, of course, one assumes that the preschool experiences in the family are the foundations upon which the wall is built. The school may regard some of those foundations as unstable.
- The mantra that education should be about students doing their best or striving to reach the limits of their capacity (p. 12).
I do not see why this mantra should be abandoned, only widened to include whatever it is that they are doing. Since when is second best, best? Only when achieving it is at the cost of other more worthwhile things. As an undergraduate, I did not do my best because there was so much else that seemed more worthwhile to do, drinking and gambling included.
- Taster courses for secondary (p. 12).
Yes, one should not reject something about which one knows nothing. More importantly for secondary schooling, it throws the onus on the teacher to make the ‘subject’ interesting.
- Self-chosen activities [secondary] (p. 12).
I am reminded of my choices made on returning from university to do my GradDip (Secondary) at a Primary Teachers College where the choices were designed for personal development of the students straight from school. I could choose Craft, but I lacked the attractive attributes to display to the Lecturer as I leant forward, so could not expect a good mark. I did not wish to learn the Dewey Library Classification System from a notoriously boring lecturer. So I had to do Art Appreciation and Music Appreciation. Self-chosen activity is very much limited by the resources available. I am also reminded that my office in the high school to which I was first appointed had been the Band Room in which the instruments were stored. They had disappeared before I arrived due to lack of on-going student/staff interest.
- Today’s schools urge students to think ahead to exams, university, a decent job.’ (p. 12).
Possibly some do before Year 10, but I suspect most students only accept what they are required to do based on the selection started in primary school (even without selective exams). They understand that the bright ones will do maths, sciences and languages and the rest will plod on till they leave school and see what is on offer to them at that time. My newly established (in 1953) Junior Agricultural High School did not offer sciences or languages for the sons and daughters of foresters, dairy farmers, and fishermen. Instead, my only choice in the Professional Course was between History and Metalwork.
- Alternatives to examinations (p. 13).
Cumulative summative assessment is standard in Australia but still produces the same outcome, compounded by nation-wide NAPLAN tests that serve League Table purposes for politicians (as do the spurious international tests/Tables). It seems no-one in decision-making positions has ever studied Comparative Education or heard that taking one element of a system and implanting it in another will not necessarily produce the same results. What these tests do confirm is that more money spent on schooling will not necessarily (and in general has not) improve educational outcomes however assessed. Australia has managed the unthinkable, spent more government money on the privileged schools and less on the under-privileged (cf. Gonski and its failure). It is a form of partial privatisation in the guise of parental choice. All this makes an even stronger case for your call to transform schooling, but it takes more than cumulative summative assessment. Exams are a symptom not the disease.
- Curriculum Commission (p. 14).
As I remember it, the Green Curriculum was written in 1933 by Inspector Miles, he being deemed by the Head of the Department of Education of Western Australia to be the most qualified person available to update the existing curriculum documents in the light of recent educational writings (mainly Dewey). Given that it had to be sanctioned by the Minister there were avenues for political input from government and community sectional interests. Given that the content was ‘suggestive’, a selection from the curriculum outlined had to be implemented by the school, local community input was possible and school level technical expertise was required to determine what was acceptable and possible. These were days when neither government nor the community were particularly interested in schooling, other than the provision of more schools for an expanding population. Even in the 1960s, the only time I recall seeing a parent at the high school was when one called at the classroom to bring the lunch a child had forgotten. Without teacher expertise and community support those curriculum ‘suggestions’ were not effectively implemented. Now the media (Murdoch) run a continuous political campaign for an economic rationalist agenda re schooling while social media is another universe I do not inhabit and so cannot comment. I am not sure a structural change like a Curriculum Commission will achieve the desired outcome.
- There should be a quota system restricting the numbers of currently privileged school students en route to these [leadership] positions and favouring various currently disadvantaged groups (p. 16).
How does selection of a person from a disadvantaged social background who has attended a privileged school fare? What if it turns out that the places allocated to students from disadvantaged backgrounds come disproportionately from women, the disabled, and the aged? Does a quota system also require a notion of minimum and essential competencies with all the issues of selection and identification of these in particular instances? Is this not a return to your examination system?
- The Head of OFSTED was right to look back approvingly to the ‘time (long ago) when teachers were taught the theory that underpins curriculum planning’ (p. 16).
I have little confidence that teachers I graduated twenty years ago have the theoretical competence to make the required sophisticated curriculum judgements and even less so with current graduates. Some of these students at the start of the course would challenge me with ‘I do not want all this theory stuff (and the university administration agreed with them) I just want you to tell me what to do to be a successful teacher.’ My response was along the lines of ‘What you should do in your particular situation is a judgement you have to make. What I am trying to do is indicate the kinds of questions you should ask, and the kinds of answers others have given before you. It is up to you to develop a coherent educational theory and make consistent judgements accordingly.’ I accept that many of the current teachers are relatively theory free, at least in sense of formal study of educational theory, but I reject the advice attributed to the Irish tourist guide ‘If you want to go there, I would not start from here.’
- If schooling were to be transformed in light of your educational aims, it may matter little what forms the particular organisational elements might take. That is, so long as they meet the requirements of your aims and are responsive to democratic community expectations.
May the aims of schooling be transformed.
Organisationally, ‘Let one hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools contend.’
White, J. (2021). Transforming education. New Visions for Education Group. https://www.academia.edu/45141820/Transforming_Education