Rousseau for the Digital Age

Throughout the English-speaking world, the educators who control our children’s schools pursue an anti-intellectual agenda which is strikingly at odds with the values of the societies they serve. To some extent, this is a reflection of more general attitudes amongst the Western nomenklatura; mandarins who have been educated at elite universities are seldom aware of the extent to which free inquiry has been stifled by ideological constraints. Peer review ensures that funding is denied to academics with heterodox theories.

However, the viruses that have taken hold in education are of a different order: as one science teacher from the North of England recently told me: “The drift away from content has become so pronounced in recent years that many young and ‘successful’ teachers find it laughable that we might want to reinstate knowledge and understanding as the central tenet of education.”

This didn’t surprise me. Over the last two years, we have been studying England’s complex educational arrangements in detail. At the outset of the credit crisis, I recognised that financial constraints would enable a future Conservative government to make cuts which would otherwise be politically impossible. Our work was inspired by Just in Time by Sir John Hoskyns, the businessman who planned the Thatcher revolution. His detailed staff work at the Centre for Policy Studies translated the free-market ideals of the late Sir Alfred Sherman into a political action plan which overcame the engrained prejudices of the Treasury’s civil servants, whose economic illiteracy had sent Britain to the IMF.

My proposal to conduct similar (albeit much more limited) investigations into education was accepted by the Centre for Policy Studies. Although I have been writing about education for almost twenty years and we make our living as educational publishers, I was still shocked at what we found. The waste and incompetence were one thing, but the “twenty-first-century skills” agenda was quite another. Working in concert with the e-learning industry and consortia of architects and builders, progressive educators are “Building Schools for the Future”, and training a new elite to change the face of education forever.

The twenty-first-century skills movement is nothing less than Rousseau’s Emile repackaged for the digital age. Once again, pupils are expected to direct their own learning, and conduct their own “investigations”—but now they have a wonderful new tool, the internet. They are taught “critical thinking skills” which, quite remarkably, allow them to analyse and understand the material that Google trawls up for their inspection. The new schools going up around the world dispense with traditional classrooms in favour of “learning spaces” which are liberally equipped with computers. Educational software is designed to resemble video games, to make it more “accessible”. Once again, it is fashionable to call teachers “learning facilitators”. Their job is to “personalise” learning for each pupil—never mind that high school teachers may have 200 pupils to plan for. In addition, the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning agenda demands that teachers act as amateur psychotherapists, fostering the personal and social growth of their pupils. Self-assessment and peer-assessment take the place of formal tests. In any case, these are now somewhat problematic: if children are in control of their own learning objectives, what test can possibly determine whether they have achieved them?

Of course, bringing about this brave new world isn’t easy. Teaching is a conservative profession, and the great majority of serving teachers still think of themselves as teachers. Over the last generation, British teacher training colleges have quite rightly fallen into disrepute, and politicians have created new routes into teaching to minimise their impact. The educators promoting the twenty-first-century skills agenda have responded by insisting that teaching should become a masters-level profession. The “young and successful teachers” referred to above by the science teacher generally have an MA in “Teaching and Learning”—it should be noted that the North of England is where these courses were first introduced by New Labour.

The international nature of the twenty-first-century skills movement confers it with an aura of inevitability, but Michael Gove, England’s new Education Secretary, is determined to restore traditional academic subjects. Under New Labour, these were replaced by “areas of learning”. Gove, who is only forty-two, is widely regarded as one of the most able men in Parliament. He does not underestimate the magnitude of the task he faces, and he fully appreciates the limits of political power. He is further constrained by the realities of coalition government: his Liberal Democrat allies are unlikely to have much enthusiasm for wholesale slaughter of the not-so-innocents, the bureaucrats and educators who are set fair to have our children playing video games and visiting social networking sites (or worse) in school as well as out.

Crucially, Gove cannot entertain measures to remove the barriers that prevent the growth of fee-paying independent schools: this is the price we pay for having an Etonian Prime Minister, and a Chancellor educated at St Paul’s. England’s private schools are among the best in the world, and our state schools among the worst, but we cannot bear to draw the obvious conclusion: public finance is a curse. It blights the schools it supports just as surely as it wrecks the lives of those lured into a life on the dole. Gove’s plan for state-financed independent schools may be better than nothing, but what one government gives, another can take away.

If private finance of education is a question that will have to wait for more enlightened times, the twenty-first-century skills movement must be derailed now, while there are still teachers left who have worthwhile knowledge to transmit. In England, we took on the educational establishment on the teaching of reading, and won. Although this has yet to translate into widespread improvement in literacy standards, it does prove that the progressive juggernaut is not invincible.

However baleful the effects of progressive education, it is not helpful to demonise the bureaucrats and academics who control our schools. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England from 1994 until 2000, refers to them as “the blob”. The term is apt—relatively few of them are postmodern purists burning with zeal to destroy the foundations of Western civilisation and culture; despite agreement on a few general principles, progressive education is a broad church. When you meet these people, they are usually pleasant and helpful—quite ordinary folk, really. But being ordinary is no prophylactic against preposterous notions—such as the belief that teachers could possibly “personalise” learning for each of their pupils, or that pupils who misbehave can be redeemed by uncritical (and unmerited) praise.

Of course, the blob is in control of a vast industry, one where failure generates growth. If we were to think of education as nothing more than the transmission of knowledge and culture, their salaries and index-linked pensions would disappear. Teaching, as an induction to knowledge, is one of the most basic human instincts; all that is required of a teacher is mastery of the subject to be taught, and the ability to earn the respect of one’s pupils. Until teaching became a “profession” in the nineteenth century, teachers’ salaries were so low as to preclude all but the shabbiest pretence of respectability. The new “normal” schools trained prospective teachers in the new discipline of psychology, and it was argued that they alone had the key to the moral regeneration of mankind. Horace Mann, the educator who introduced progressive principles (and the closed shop) to American schools, put it like this:

Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.

To this, Andrew Coulson wryly appended, “In 1998 the Los Angeles County School Board voted to arm its public school police with shotguns.”

However, the introduction of progressive principles actually necessitated teacher training. In the words of psychologist Jerome Bruner, discovery learning “is the most inefficient technique possible for regaining what has been gathered over a long period of time”. Motivating children to acquire the intellectual tools that distinguish man from beast can be challenging, to put it mildly. How can pupils develop an interest in subjects of which they are all but ignorant? In practice, experienced teachers do not expect their pupils to master Pythagoras or Ohm’s Law without a fair measure of direct instruction, but the charade of discovery learning—which fools no one, least of all the pupils—wastes enormous amounts of time.

In England, education’s wayward elite has been under concerted attack ever since 1976, when Prime Minister James Callaghan delivered a speech at Ruskin College citing “the unease felt by parents and others about the new informal methods of teaching”, and setting out “the strong case for the so-called core curriculum and basic knowledge”. After this speech, Bernard Donoughue, Callaghan’s policy director at Number 10, recalls the Department of Education as being “deeply shocked that a prime minister should have the impertinence to trespass into its own secret garden”.

Reform began in earnest under Thatcher—but thirty years on, educational standards are far worse than before. Politicians had little choice but to trust civil servants to implement their reforms—but in reality it was they, more than the teachers, who were the problem. The top-down measures they instituted effectively set progressive practices in aspic. Such good practice and common sense as had survived in our classrooms were ruthlessly extirpated. This process has accelerated under New Labour, despite the efforts of Tony Blair, who sent his own son to London Oratory—a Roman Catholic school whose traditionally-minded head was strong enough to ignore Blair’s mandarins (who in turn were strong enough to ignore Blair).

However, Blair managed to succeed in one key aim: the teaching of reading. In 1998, his officials launched the National Literacy Strategy (NLS). Although it was hailed as a “return to phonics”, it was nothing of the sort. Rather, it was a political compromise designed to appease all factions in the “reading wars”, but the dominant themes were straight out of the whole-language handbook. Such phonics as it contained were lost in a swamp of progressive practices, all spelled out in mind-numbing detail.

At almost the same time, the Scottish Office announced the results of a remarkable experiment in Clackmannanshire, an impoverished rural authority. In controlled trials, schools using a strict synthetic phonics methodology vastly outperformed those using methods similar to those specified in England’s NLS. Synthetic phonics involves teaching children to identify written letters and letter combinations with their most common sound equivalent, and blending these sounds to form words. Irregular words are not taught until this basic skill has been learnt, and children are never encouraged to use context or picture cues to identify unfamiliar words. Educators hate this approach because it is strictly mechanical, and it depends upon direct teaching. The comments of one of the head teachers in the Clackmannanshire trials neatly sums up the situation:

The scheme might have been contrary to my educational philosophy, but very quickly we were impressed by the results for the less able as well as the able. The children have developed remarkable listening and concentration skills as well as confidence and self-esteem.

The Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), which controlled schools only in England and Wales (Welsh schools have since been devolved to Cardiff), at first dismissed the trials as “unfair”. Soon after this, a similar study by the prestigious Institute of Education leaked out, and the story was taken up by the BBC and the Daily Telegraph. The DfEE was forced to change its tune: they argued that the NLS did indeed embrace synthetic phonics. In fact, only five of its 315 teaching objectives even mentioned blending sounds.

Clackmannanshire pupils’ test scores continued to outpace norms, and by 2005 they were fully three years ahead of their peers. Since one of the major arguments against synthetic phonics was that initial gains would disappear, the official line became increasingly difficult to maintain. And then word of another Scottish experiment began to emerge; in West Dunbartonshire—next to Glasgow, the most impoverished local authority in Britain—illiteracy was all but eliminated by a program which used synthetic phonics as an exclusive approach to teaching reading.

In educational circles, it was no secret that Tony Blair was losing patience with his officials, who continued to defend the NLS. One of his own sons had been saved from the ignominy of illiteracy by synthetic phonics, so when the Commons Education Committee reported in its favour, he was able to force the issue. Significantly, the key figure behind the report was Conservative MP Nick Gibb—who has just become our Schools Minister.

Andrew Adonis, the head of Blair’s policy unit, was elevated to the Lords and appointed as an education minister in order to knock official heads together. Jim Rose, a retired Chief Inspector of Schools with a reputation for handling political hot potatoes, was appointed to head a commission to implement synthetic phonics. Much to my surprise, his report did not fudge the pedagogic issues; indeed it is a revolutionary document that should be read closely in Canberra and Washington.

Alas, it’s been all downhill from there. In the first instance, Reading Recovery (an uncompromising whole-language program) was revived, receiving £155 million. Our research revealed that in England, each “successful” intervention costs over A$10,000, making it by far and away the most expensive remedial reading product used in British schools. The only plausible explanation for giving such favoured treatment to a whole-language program so strongly at odds with synthetic phonics is that it was the price Lord Adonis had to pay for official acquiescence on synthetic phonics.

Next, the government chose to create its own synthetic phonics program, Letters and Sounds, despite the success of existing commercial programs used in Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire. Although Letters and Sounds is a great improvement on the old NLS, it still contains far too many trivial learning objectives, which tends to dilute the attention paid to essential skills. Even worse, Reception pupils (four- and five-year-olds) receive no reading instruction at all.

None of this is very surprising. Entrusting the implementation of synthetic phonics to officials who had spent the previous six years fighting it tooth and nail was bound to fail. And fail it has: reading results, even as measured by our debased, user-friendly National Curriculum Tests, haven’t improved at all.

As the publishers of a remedial synthetic phonics program which has been adopted in three of England’s local authorities as an alternative to Reading Recovery (and by other schools across the UK), we talk to primary school teachers all the time. They want the best for their pupils, and very few of them are strongly committed to child-centred pedagogy. Faced with thirty children every day, you can’t afford to be too dogmatic. On many occasions, teachers have told us that they wished they could use our program with every child who needed it. It’s not so much the money that is the problem; rather, under New Labour officials have gone berserk issuing surreal directives to implement personalised learning, social and emotional aspects of learning, community cohesion, healthy eating, staying safe, twenty-first-century skills, ad nauseam. And teachers are understandably confused when officials promote two contrary methodologies—Reading Recovery and synthetic phonics.

Although relatively little progress has been made, it cannot be doubted that the report by Jim Rose has had a profound effect: now it is “safe” to use methods which would have been career-threatening a few years ago. Both Michael Gove and Nick Gibb are strongly committed to synthetic phonics, and we are certain to see a renewed emphasis as the Tories take control. It would, however, be wrong to expect instant results: the West Dunbartonshire program took ten years to wipe out illiteracy, and there were only thirty-four primary schools involved. England has 17,000.

The key to our success was winning the war of ideas. The battle on twenty-first-century skills has not even started, for the simple reason that hardly anyone outside the world of education understands what is at stake. Educators have taken great pains to present their agenda in soothing rhetoric, and the last thing they want is an informed public debate. It’s up to us to see that they get one.

Tom Burkard is research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies in the UK. He is co-author of Reading Fever (1996), a defence of the phonics approach to teaching reading, and a major critic of the New Labour government’s attempts to reform reading education.

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