"Have faith in yourselves, your wonderful professional selves and don’t be budged from it!" Professor Meg Maguire July 2015
Last week Meg Maguire, a well known educationist and Professor of Sociology of Education at Kings College in London, shared the UK educational story. During her presentation she made it very clear that the UK had been hit by a 'non stop tsunami of reforms and change' and that they were currently in the centre of the storm - and at all costs, we in New Zealand needed to avoid it! She then went on to outline some of the reforms and changes, telling stories of 'hit squads' catching 'coasting schools'.
I thought initially that I must have misheard her.
Hit squads? Really? Surely not?
Am I the only person who thinks the words 'hit squad' and education are not a natural pairing?
When I asked TechnoMan what the words 'hit squad' conjured up in his head (as a control experiment because he is not in education), his first response was '1930's gangster movie'. When I asked if it was something he'd associate with education he just gave me that bemused look as if to suggest I was taking the preverbal. I then read to him the following headline "Cameron orders hit squads to be sent into 'coasting' middle class schools, in crackdown on poor teaching" - his bemused look turned to one of 'are they mad?'.
You see, his 'don't be ridiculous' look sums it up perfectly. It is not normal. Automatically you conjure up an image of a double breasted suited individual packing a tommy gun, with a .38 special calibre pistol tucked away in their inside breast pocket, ready for any up close and personal kind of non compliant interlude! You can see them now, storming down the hallways, rounding up failing teachers and terrorising Headteachers (Principals) whose data fails to stand up to the Governments regime.
That image might be a bit over the top, but it does leave me wondering.
In what world does a supposedly well educated politician that is leading a country ever think it is perfectly sane to use the words 'hit squad' in relation to education (or anything for that matter), let alone in the media? On an unapologetic note, I think it is disgraceful. The language is emotive and divisive. The message it sends is to the public is that teachers and schools - even those in middle class areas - are failing - and the message it sends to teachers and their leaders is that they are failures. It is a very orchestrated ruse designed to help the Neoliberal GERM (you can read a prior post of mine on that HERE) movement entrench itself and allow the privatisation bulldozers to reimagine public education into one of Charters and Free schools.
The thing is, on the surface of it, the rhetoric sounds reasonable.
Lets take a closer look at some of the words used in the public domain (just from two newspaper articles on the 'hit squads' and 'coasting schools') by Britain's Prime Minster David Cameron and Secretary of Education Nicky Morgan.
"We all know the difference good teaching makes..."
"...I want every child in Britain to have access to great teaching..."
"...Every day a school fails is a day too long..."
"We'll introduce powers to intervene not just in failing schools, but in in 'coasting' schools. It's not ok to be just above the level of failing."
If you are an average 'Joe/Joess Blog' reading that kind of rhetoric in the newspaper or listening to it on the radio or watching them on the 6 o'clock news, then it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that all schools are providing access to great teaching and that any 'failing' school will be dealt to. None of us want an ineffective education system and none of us want our respective Nations children going to an ineffective school or being taught by a ineffective teacher.
BUT, and this is the crux - when politicians use language like that and only give a partial story, it paints only part of the story. What they, and the media that reports it, fail to provide, is the full story. There is no discourse on how they will do it, what evidence they have and what the drivers are. Instead they wind up the public with pithy sound bites, and by doing so, it lays the foundation for further GERM infections. As mentioned above, it is all a very carefully orchestrated process and part of the 'shock doctrine'.
It is the story that is not told publicly that worries me the most.
The data that these people are judging schools on is based on some very scary practices. When Meg related how some of these 'standardised' tests are created and administered, and how teachers are having to administer tests to very young children - some who are new to speaking english, and others with special needs and who have no hope of passing - then you have to question the validity of these.
In addition to failing pass rates (from tests designed to fail students), the news articles talk about rising inappropriate behaviour disrupting classrooms across the UK and that these 'hit squads' will deal with that as well. Rising misbehaviour? Really? Well duh. Can you imagine having to go to school, and have to sit a test you have no show of passing, and 'learn' things you have no interest in and that are merely for seeing if you can pass a test - and actually enjoying that or wanting to be there? Of course students will be disengaged. Of course students will hate it and of course they will start to play up. Its called human nature. And, more importantly, any educationalist could have predicted this would be an outcome.
And then there is the way Ofsted make these judgements. I am no expert on the UK's schooling review system, but I have read enough from those who are having to endure these inspections and I have yet to read one that inspires confidence. I will leave the critique of Ofsted to the educationalists who know best - suffice to say that from what I have read, and from those I have spoken to, I do have some significant wonderings about it.
You see, Ofsted is meant to be like our ERO (Education Review Office) reviews. It is an organisation that is tasked with critiquing the quality of education provision within a school and as such, when it comes into a school, it SHOULD be something that aligns with what you are doing. It should be contextual based, and understand that context is everything. It is the ultimate form of self review in that it should assist a school to look at what is happening, where to next and it should be a welcomed opportunity to get a fresh set of eyes looking over what you do - and where appropriate - celebrate the good practice going on. If, during the course of the review, issues are uncovered, an external review organisation should assist a school to inquire more deeply into why that might be, and in an ideal world, direct the right resources into assisting them to improve.
What external review organisations like Ofsted should NOT be, is something that inspires fear. Too many stories from the UK indicate that the phone call from Ofsted automatically put the frighteners on. Imagine knowing that from one review you might lose your job, have the school closed and then reopened as a Charter or Free school. No recourse or debate about it - and you would just have to do as you were told. How disruptive is that? How does that inspire confidence and allow for innovation and best practice to grow?
A call from Ofsted should not induce fear and anxiety but be an opportunity to celebrate the journey a school is on! And now we can add 'hit squads' to the scaremongering tool kit at the UK Governments disposal. Imagine that feeling when you have Ofsted onsite and you know its not going as well as you would hope - to add to the heart tightening feeling that you already have from Ofsted, is the terror that the 'hit squads' impending visit will induce. This is not education - this is something reminiscent from WW2.
As an educator it concerns me no end that the research and evidence for school improvement is disregarded in favour of policies that are making things worse. The more Meg spoke about the conditions educators are facing in the UK the more worried I became for the students, their parents and the teachers who are faced with this every day.
I has left me with some questions.
What do these policies mean for schools that have the most vulnerable and at risk?
It doesn't bode well. The irony here is that the policy makers claim that all these changes will improve the quality of education for these students and the teaching and learning in schools will improve, but the reality is far from that. These polices are making the gap wider, not closing it. Inequality is growing and the gap between those who have, and those who have not, is so big that you can barely see across the chasm.
What does it mean for recruitment and retention?
Why would you want to be a teacher in this climate? What would inspire our young people to want to make a difference to those students who need them the most, knowing that they will be blamed for all the issues, and that instead of being a teacher, they will be a test prepper, test scorer and test deliverer.
What about engagement in the learning process, a learning process that is authentic and the social and emotional wellbeing of students?
When all that is needed to engage students is sucked away with testing, hit squads and obsessive teacher bashing and counter intuitive measures, then there is a real danger that those that are most vulnerable are the most likely to be marginalised and lost. School is meant to be a safe, secure and exciting place to be in order to sow the seeds of being a life long learner. In schools with complex communities, where the students arrive at school operating from a place of fear, anger, angst and crisis, there will be no academic progress until these basic needs of being a human are met. Poverty, abuse, and all the inherent issues that come with that, that our students are encountering before they make it to school each day, makes students stressed. To suck the fun out of the one place that is meant to be safe and a joy to be at, is only going to exacerbate the stress in a vulnerable students day. That should NEVER be an outcome of any education system. Ever.
How can you engage children in authentic, creative learning opportunities if you are living in fear – fear that you may be labeled inadequate or a failure?
This is not just our students, but our teachers. School should be a place of joy and wonder. To be an educator is a priviledge. It can be the most fun you will have in a day, and one of the most rewarding things you can do. It is hard to be inspired, innovative and enjoy your job when you are living in fear. Fear is NOT a word that should be associated with education and the terminology 'hit squad' should never have been coined.
It is an educators life's work is to improve the lives and outcomes of the students they work with. I cannot imagine how tough it must be to work under the conditions outlined above. If a Government really was concerned about outcomes for children, then they would do what was right, fair and just. They would ask their educators what needed to happen, put their support behind what the research shows supports a quality public education system and make it happen. It is all about priorities. The fact they don't but instead employ neoliberal tools and privatise public education despite the bulk of evidence and research that shows it is destructive, suggests to me that they don't care about quality outcomes. They care about profits and they care about making the rich richer. The fact that the UK Government is now going after middle class 'coasting' schools (although they have still not really defined what coasting is) in order to continue to privatise, shows how relentless the GERM is.
At which point does the education fraternity of the world say enough? I would have thought 'hit squads' was getting pretty close!