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Metaphorical Cathedrals

“Longpath” for Learning part 1

This article was partly inspired by reading the following article on Wired Magazine by Ari Wallach:

Photo from Wikimedia at

This is what education should be focusing on now. In a recent Inside Learning episode/show, I realised that political oscillations and playing idealogical football with education would not provide the long term thinking we need to take us forward. At present, education in Scotland is run by a combination of 32 local authorities, with central government setting the main direction and monitoring the work of these authorities through financial controls and of course inspections. Interestingly, we have had a change of government in Scotland and it has held reasonably true to the “Curriculum for Excellence” implemented by the previous administration, so in some ways, we have long-term thinking happening at present. Contrast this with the English situation in which Michael Gove’s department has radically changed the approach to governance and now examinations. The next UK election is reasonably close, and if the conservative/liberal alliance is not returned then who knows what way the next administration will go. In episode 89 we discussed this with columnist and activist Fiona Miller who is clearly close to Labour policy makers but got no clear conclusion about Labour’s way forward. Pity the English schools who are constantly wary of the next big political storm while still at the centre of the current one. In Scotland we are enjoying more stability than that at present, but if Independence fails to happen, and the current SNP government wanes, we could be looking at a Scottish storm-of-change in due course. My point, it won’t serve us for a long term future, we need predictable leadership of education that is relatively independent of government fluctuation.

Various governments have enjoyed the politicisation of education and have made capital from moral-high-ground-adoption about slipping standards and society’s ills. However, most serious commentators are now accepting that the system is becoming so complex that simple solutions don’t seem to work and that education has not made the clear improvements in the couple of decades since the 1976 “Ruskin” speech that politicians might have hoped for. Indeed there is a danger that politicians may be beginning to see strong policy initiatives as poisoned chalices that simply lead to disappointment being pinned on the responsible politicians. More school autonomy from the Curriculum for Excellence is lauded, but schools are confused and lack confidence. Reduced class size pledges from the SNP administration have backfired as they can’t be afforded and haven’t made much impact anyway. A decade of strong inspection hasn’t raised standards significantly and has cost huge sums of money while possibly damaging school creativity. In short, this is a complex business with few easy answers and a track record of initiatives that cost a lot in time and effort and successively seem to confuse schools more.

It could be argued that part of the problem is that we haven’t actually got a well formed vision for education. Graham Leicester of the International Futures Forum has said that despite a huge focus on international comparison using PISA and other tools, no-one can point to any one system that has got it right; we really don’t know! If you want innovation within a system to lead to sharing of great ideas leading to desirable system change, then we need a direction to work toward. We don’t need a plan or a map, because we don’t know the details of where we are going, but we need a “North” and a compass so that we can explore the complex territory and still head in the right direction. For me that “North” will be a set of simple and consistent statements backed by simple and consistent values that we can align-to as we try to develop education to better answer the complex needs of the modern world.

Is a political party with a 5-year mandate the right way to develop this? Are our 32 Authorities with their ever-changing political leadership the right local stewards of the complex changes? While leadership at local and national levels is trying honestly and working hard, I believe that they are unable to provide the educational leadership that is required. I believe there is a loose precedent in Blair/Brown’s decoupling of the control of monetary policy when they handed inflationary targeting to the Bank of England. Successive governments have been able to leave the optimisation of monetary controls to control inflation to a relatively independent body, and the result has been relatively stable inflationĀ  over a couple of decades despite the awful international financial situation. With hindsight, any current government is probably happy that they are less likely to be confronted with runaway inflation and there seems to be no political appetite to grab those levers again with the attendant danger of backfire then blame. The Bank of England does this relatively well because they can take a long view regardless of coming elections or prevailing political winds.

The financial analogy is limited, but I believe the time may be right to set up a National Education Council, decoupled from politics and with direct control of policy and practice. This body should combine academics, educators and representatives of business, industry and the arts. Perhaps similar to the kind of representation that the General Teaching Council Scotland has at present. The reason that the Bank of England decoupling has worked, is that a simple target for inflation could be set, (broadly 2%), in education our next challenge is to set targets, in a similar way for a National Education Council to work towards over the long term. Those targets cannot be the SQA exam results, as they tend to be at present, because that is not providing us the change incentives that we need at present; we mustn’t repeat the old targets and expect different results.

We can’t honestly say that short term political leadership has provided the great-leap-forward that our system needs. Perhaps the time has come, to quote Ari Wallach, when we should stop with the short-term planning and begin to “build metaphorical cathedrals”. Not using short term goals, but with an eye on our “longpath”.

What might these agreed targets be for a National Education Council? I will look at this thorny problem in a follow-on article shortly.

(Views in this article are personal and may not reflect my employer’s views)

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