Mind-boggling power? Balls on Education
Following a request to write out some of my views on Ed Balls’ latest proposals, I read the following Guardian article. It outlines proposals from the apprenticeships, skills, children and learning bill that would give the Secretary of State huge amounts of control over precisely what is taught in a classroom. The guidance notes accompanying the bill apparently state that the Secretary could specify which authors and their works had to be studied in order to pass an English literature-based GCSE or A-level.
Presumably, since I was asked by a homeschooler, I’m supposed to defend the rampant centralisation of education. I am, of course, not going to. It is a frightening thought that for a government that continues to make noises about empowering communities, the man in charge of DCSF seems intent on grabbing an insane amount of power. Despite claims that it would only be used to counteract something like the scrapping of Shakespeare, one wonders if this government actually believes its own communitarian rhetoric.
As it stands, the system is far from perfect. Each exam board carries its own restrictions on what can and can’t be studied, meanwhile Chief Examinations Officers have a nice little sideline in pawning their mutterings on a given subject because they know what’s going to be on the exam. This power is set to increase in certain subjects as coursework options – ranging from ‘a local study’ to pretty much anything – are gradually phased out. Again, I’m mostly talking about history, since it is what I know.
The choice by heads of department as to what exam boards are followed is largely based on what pupils will score highly in, and what the department staff can actually teach. Important subjects such as the French Revolution therefore have no chance of a look-in, since they are perceived as more difficult to grasp by pupils and many staff in history departments simply aren’t qualified to teach them. Not to impugn other subjects such as the Risorgimento, German unification or Russia under Stalin and Khrushchev, of course.
I am just as guilty of this as any teacher – I’d rather eat my own liver than teach a course on the Suffragettes. Not because I am against women’s rights or women’s history, but simply because I find the whole course boring. Yet imagine the question of what is taught being removed from the classroom environment – in such an environment, the preferences and skills of the teachers and pupils are important. Teaching at A-level would go from being responsive to classroom needs to dependent upon some arbitrary opinion of the Secretary of State.
Frankly that would be disastrous.
Do I think there’s a sinister element about the whole thing? No. Rhetoric about 1984 is far from my mind – more important is focussing on the hypocrisy of the government and the needs of students. That said, the apparatus will be in place to restrict the study of certain books – and none of the new apparatus addresses the rather appalling ability of independent schools to teach whatever they want – whether it’s true or false or questionable. The state system isn’t perfect at addressing that – but there are means towards improvement.
Bearing in mind that Shakespeare will never be scrapped from the English Lit syllabus, made even less likely by the fact that numerous English departments now do Shakespeare outreach to make it cross curricular (this equals orgasmic bliss for SLT), what I want to know is this: for what reason does Ed Balls really want this power? For those who hysterically scream about “state worshipping fascists” the answer might seem obvious, but normally for powers such as this there are obvious reasons – and right now, there are none that I can see.