Avoiding a state theory of learning

A thought-provoking evening last night at the RSA, where there was a discussion about the newly released Cambridge University/ Esmee Fairbairn Foundation Cambridge Primary Review Final Report . This has come in for a lot of press comment in the last few days and seems to have been (perhaps inevitably) misrepresented and over-simplified. From what I have read and seen, the report looks like a truly worthwhile contribution to the debate about how we should educate our children in and for the twenty-first century and I share much of its philosophy.

Overall it was particularly interesting to me for its critique of the last twelve years of Labour education policy – with Strategies, SATS and DCSF-commissioned research mostly focussed on retrospectively evaluating the Department’s own initiatives rather than on exploring alternatives, we are coming worryingly close to what they called “a state theory of learning”. Their experiences mirror my own in schools and some teacher training organisations, where sometimes there is very little questioning of the “party line”, and a resulting lack of the values that I think are the most important in any educational endeavour – a constant awareness that you should keep questioning what you are doing and how you are doing it. The Cambridge team were (reassuringly) committed to empowering teachers and learners to think and work for themselves, and believers in evidence-based policies that should constantly be debated . They talked of education being moral rather than instrumental, which I firmly believe too.

The irony is that Labour seems to have been moderately successful in their ruthlessly focussed and very laudable mission to raise the “lowest common denominator” of standards: more children are leaving primary school being able to read and write well enough (although the statistics are still hardly great reading). But their highly controlling method of doing this has been at considerable cost and has disheartened the more creative teachers (and probably learners). I am gradually coming to the conclusion that a lot of really good state schools in England keep their heads under the radar and just get on with doing what they believe in, rather than make a fuss about their achievements and attract the unwelcome attention of policy makers and target-driven bureaucrats. They empower themselves in spite of the pressures from above by treating the simplistic target culture with patient resignation. Whoever our next government is, let’s hope that they don’t have to carry on doing this.

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