Fed up with faddish teaching fashions? Weary of whingeing schools with their ‘we know best’ left wing teachers? Sceptical of the Blob’s chorus song of self-congratulation? Then, might salvation be at hand via an education support group founded last September that calls itself, “Parents and Teachers for Excellence” (PTE).
Its slick website presents it as “a new movement to promote reforms within the education system and to spread good practice to help deliver excellence in schools across the country.” It adds that it is “unacceptable that top universities and the most prestigious jobs are dominated by those that went to private schools.”
In the cause of social justice the group wants all schools to be excellent. This is to be achieved by identifying and disseminating key characteristics of the best schools. Rightly, these include “a challenging curriculum that stresses the importance of knowledge and learning facts.” Regular testing and high standards of behaviour are also included alongside the recognition of the importance of parental support.
It all looks very convincing but, if I have learnt anything from my 35 years of teaching, it is that little is ever quite what it seems in the world of education. “Never judge a book by its cover,” is what I told my pupils. I decided to lift that cover before deciding if I should sign up for PTE.
I was surprised that what PTE identified as the key characteristics of the best schools did not mention the one on which everything else depends – teaching quality. Equally perplexing was the claim that in the best schools, “Exams are tough to ensure children are prepared for university and the workplace.” Given that GCSE more or less exercises a monopoly for 16-year-olds, how can the best schools ensure exams are ‘tough’? From the top of the school league tables to the bottom there is, effectively, only one academic exam on offer – the discredited GCSE – which the BBC recently exposed as being set at the level of primary school teaching in South Korea.
My concerns about PTE increased when I investigated its claim to be promoting a knowledge-based curriculum. The group’s founder is former head teacher, Dame Rachel de Souza, who is now the CEO of a chain of academy schools. Earlier this year, in an article for The Daily Telegraph, she spoke of her commitment to a knowledge-based curriculum. She, then, boasted: “I recently hired Christine Counsell from Cambridge to create the best knowledge-based curriculum in the country in my schools.”
Ms Counsell, a prominent teacher trainer, is a member of PTE’s ‘advisory council’. She is the co-author of popular school history textbooks. One, Minds and Machines, Britain 1750-1900, illustrates an interesting perspective on ‘knowledge’. In order to provide children with knowledge of the British Empire, for example, it states that, “we have tried to imagine what they [“ the ruler and the ruled”] would tell us if they were to come back from the dead.” This imaginary ‘knowledge’ from the mouths of the ‘undead’, turns out to be less than flattering towards the Brits. “The British punished survivors by firing cannon balls through them at point blank range”, according to the pretend words of one historical figure.
Making knowledge of the past dependent on quoting, with speech marks, what historical figures are imagined to have said when they came from the dead, is symptomatic of how ‘learning’ degenerates when left in the hands of the educational establishment. And yet, at the heart of the new PTE campaign is the pretence that control of teaching methodology has slipped out of the hands of the Blob. “We support moves to allow schools to control themselves,” says PTE, as though schools are in the clear when it comes to flawed teaching ideologies and our national under-performance.
In fact, it is because the Blob exercises growing control of what goes on the classroom that the attainment of our youngsters has fallen so far behind the best in the world and that they do less well than their grandparents in terms of basis employment skills.
In a recent piece for The Spectator, Roger Scruton, a philosopher whose writings I admire, has backed the PTE. In his defence, the ‘front cover’ of the PTE does look appealing. But I am left reflecting on how easily even our brightest minds can be taken out of their depth by well-intentioned idealism when it comes to schools and teaching!
Who would wish to join an education group associated with a definition of knowledge as something you make up in your head? Not everyone, it seems, is fooled. As it approaches its anniversary, the PTE Facebook had only 100 followers when I checked.