25, November, 2014

“Teaching needs less ideology, & more evidence,” says Estelle Morris

Estelle Morris is the former education secretary and is now a life peer. She is a patron of the Education Media Centre and chair of the executive board at the Institute of Effective Education, University of York. This blog post first appeared in The Guardian on 25th November 2014.

“It would be churlish of me not to give half a cheer for the latest idea from David Laws. The Liberal Democrat proposal to stop politicians making decisions on the curriculum and assessment is a paler version of a policy I have singularly failed to persuade my own party to adopt for the next general election.

There is no doubt that the dividing line between politics and education is in the wrong place. In policy areas such as health, the equivalent of ministers telling teachers how to teach would not happen. To some extent, this is explained by their different approaches to evidence. Education doesn’t have the sort of shared evidence base that is available to medical staff – and politics fills the gap.

However, things could be about to change. There is an increasingly powerful voice in education that is calling for a shift in culture from one where ideas seem to re-emerge with a different label every few years to one where we build on evidence of what has gone before.

Seeds are being sown; the Education Endowment Foundation is spending millions of public money to invest in high-quality research; funding bodies such as the Wellcome Trust and Esmée Fairbairn, universities such as York and Durham, thinktanks such as Nesta are all looking at what might happen if evidence is placed centre stage.

Most encouraging of all, teachers are beginning to drive the change. The rapid growth in organisations such as ResearchEd – a grassroots initiative that brings together teachers who want to improve the links with research – shows a thirst to find out what works in the classroom and share it with others.

Laws’s idea tries to catch the edge of this revolution but I’m not convinced that he has the right focus or solution. He highlights the curriculum as being the area that should be free from political interference and while I couldn’t defend the constant meddling of recent years, it is a far more complicated than that. The knowledge and skills that children are taught are certainly not a matter just for politicians but neither are they a matter just for teachers, subject experts or universities. We all have a stake.

Laws’s solution is to entrust the responsibility to an independent body. Part of the turmoil of recent years has been the constant shift of powers and responsibilities, from government to local authorities to schools to quangos and back again. I can see why an independent body is seen as the answer but the prospect hardly fills me with excitement. Education already has its share of such organisations – Ofqual, Ofsted and the funding agencies, for example, and I’m not convinced that they are seen as significantly different from government.

I would focus the debate around where to place the boundary between education and politics on the issue of who decides how teachers should teach – after all, that is what makes the difference.

Parties currently have policies on how reading should be taught, whether pupils should be set by ability and even whether teachers should adopt whole-class teaching. Soon, a school’s rating could depend on whether it complies.

This is the debate from which politics should be excluded and where the line should be drawn. Pedagogy is becoming a case of opinion and prejudice rather than a decision based on evidence and professional judgment.

Although it would be tempting to follow the usual path of giving responsibility for gathering and disseminating evidence to an independent body, we need to be more imaginative. Freedom from unnecessary interference is important, but the users – in this case teachers – need to be able to shape it to meet their needs. The gain might not only be a change in the relationship between politics and education, but for the first time teachers would have access to good quality evidence to inform their decisions. It might have the potential to be a big idea for both politics and education.”


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