Home > Labour Party News > Mind-boggling power? Balls on Education

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.

Categories: Labour Party News
  1. elizabeth
    March 19, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Wow that was fast!!

    Thanks for your perspective David, I wasn’t actually expecting a defense of “the rampant centralisation of education”.

    I expected to find we shared a view on this.

    Only time to scan, am expected to help in some crazy experiment in the kitchen, may come and chat later



  2. elizabeth
    March 19, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    “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.”

    This interests me, I guess you think there may be a way for the state to regulate and improve this situation, I’m not sure I do, increased regulation of ideas will not produce better ones imo

    You might be interested in the Taking Children Seriously Philosophy.


    I’m sure you’ll tell me if I’ve guessed wrong!



  3. March 19, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Well, if by “this situation”, you mean teaching creationism (which is what I meant), then yes, State regulation can provide a framework to redress the balance between make-believe and reality. Naturally I’d prefer a different solution – such as the radical redrawing of the entire education system from the ground up – but none are forthcoming right now.

  4. elizabeth
    March 19, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    By “the situation” I meant that people, be they teachers or home educators, can indeed be too directive in what they teach and their facts may be wrong. I didn’t realise you were being as specific as creationism.

    I think that if we have enough freedom to speak and freedom to learn that children will be able to work out when we are wrong. If we give them the chance to challenge and question us they will create better theories and ideas than we have.

    Even the children brought up in fundamentalist christian homes will be able to see those adds on buses that he secular folks put up, the ones about there being no God, such approaches will get them thinking. What is important is that we maintain and develop a society where people can challenge the prevailing views and create better ones.

  5. anthy
    March 26, 2009 at 4:21 am

    Does it matter what they learn in school, as long as children are being safely indoctrinated by courteous and humble followers of state guidelines, rather than their own silly ignorant fathers and mothers? After all, you wouldn’t want to let them spend too long in the company of parents with outrageously deviant views, such as – gasp – Christians!

    No prejudice on this blog, then. Of course, I’ve nothing to fear, as long as I read what you want me to read, think approved thoughts, and don’t belong to a minnority group. Very enlightened.

    Yes, I tell our children about naughty and nice, right and wrong. “Indoctrination” is always the cheap slur thrown at people who won’t fit in with the new dreary grey ideology of the 21st Century. Well, I’m guilty as charged. I teach our children things they need to know, about their heritage, about trees, about God. I bake biscuits and make my own meals from scratch, too. And all without your permission.

    I did find this blog enlightening, though. I did not realise that there really were arrogant state-control junkies out there itching to get more power for the DCSF – I thought it was a rumour in blogland.

    What makes me think that my husband and I more equipped to judge what’s best for our children than a guy with a clipboard? Well, if school is so great, then my own schooling should have prepared me for anything, shouldn’t it? I am certainly at least as brainy as you are. Whenever anyone asks you awkward questions or exposes a flaw in your logic, you swear at them and state that it’s not worth continuing the discussion.

    Perhaps I was wrong. I might not yet be brainy as you are — but I will surpass you in the end, because I don’t think that being a teacher makes me the world authority on *everything*.

  6. March 26, 2009 at 6:42 am

    Er right. You realise that you can launch into a bunch of ad hominem attacks without swearing right? So your comment here is an exercise in irony or one long exercise in hypocrisy.

    Seriously though…

    a) I’m not in favour of more state control. However, I am constrained by the realities around us but am open to new suggestions.

    b) If you actually read some of the other comments on my post on HE/Unschooling, you’ll see that a few other HE-supporters actually want HE in order to get away from people like you.

    c) I don’t know what you are describing as “grey ideology” for the 21st century, but if it can be found on this blog, it’s only in the comments section. You can say what you like about my ideology, but implying that it is 21st century orthodoxy makes you out to be an idiot.

    d) Whoops, that was an insult!

    e) What makes you think you know God and can tell people about him, especially children? And I’m arrogant?!

    f) Whoops, there I go again.

  7. anthy
    March 27, 2009 at 1:45 am

    I will try to comment on some of your observations.

    An ad hominem attack is designed to avoid the main topic of the debate. But here, people’s ability to raise their own children is the topic. Morerover, since you imperiously dismissed those who posted awkward comments as being unworthy of your attention, it’s fair to consider what that implies about your view of other people. I used sarcasm in my posting, not irony; a fine British tradition.

    Swearing can be heartfelt, but I saw what I felt was swearing used as a weapon. So I challenged it.

    In the 1960s and 70s, people used to move house to get away from people like me. Being despised for my faith rather than my colour will make a change, I suppose. Only a very few home educators are falling for the idea that as long as they distance themselves from those nasty christians, then nice Mr Brown will leave them be. After all, anyone who rejects the great cultural riches of the National Curriculum is a freakish dissenter and must be monitored.

    I mentioned a dreary grey ideology of the 21st century. It’s hardly going to be a 16th-century one, is it? If knowing which century I’m in is a sign of idiocy, I’m happy with that. It’s dreary and grey, because it makes very little room for individual teachers and children to affect what they do together. The National Curriculum was the main reason we could not consider school for our children — what it lacks in depth and breadth, it more than makes up for in tedium. The culture which has grown up around that curriculum is about what the Americans call busy work. My beef is not with the teachers who work hard to provide the most interesting experiences they can, given the dog’s dinner of a system that hinders them.

    You might not have grasped my last point. It’s a pretty blunt and confrontational point, but not a simple straightforward insult. I don’t think we can decide that it’s enough to be born clever, or to have acquired qualifications. My mother told me that a person who knows everything won’t learn anything. So, I found out as much as I could by listening to other home educators. I am still busy learning. (That’s why I came to this blog. Sometimes I come across thoughtful critiques of home education, that help me to sharpen my mind. I saw two yesterday that had interesting, respectful and elegantly-expressed arguments against home edding.) So I will keep growing, and overtake the people who think that the state knows better, full stop. I accused you of sitting in a trench and not moving out to see what other ideas are out there.

    Finally, I don’t know God. It’s the other way round. It is not arrogant to talk about beauty or art or God. If I talk about God, it says nothing about my excellence or worth, so it is not arrogant at all. And why did you use the phrase “especially children”? Why on earth would a mother talk to everyone else about death, sex, electricity, sunsets or God — but not to her own children? That’d be really odd and artificial, surely.

    Of course, you can disregard all the above and decide I am just an idiot theistic child abuser. But some people just call me Mama.

  8. March 27, 2009 at 6:39 am

    I will reply to your comment about ideology first. You said that indoctrination is the slur thrown at people who don’t fit into the dreary grey 21st century ideology. Which is either an attack on me by association – because you think I’m trying to force you to conform, to which I responded that such a view is nonsense, on the basis that I don’t conform to any prevailing ideology myself – or completely irrelevant.

    The comment about whether or not it’s the 16th century or 21st century is just drivel.

    Some of what teachers teach is busy work, but to be honest that’s got nothing to do with the national curriculum. If every class had ten pupils, even if we followed the national curriculum, every lesson and every exercise would contain something of value. The new National Curriculum is a shiny document for politicians to bloviate about, ITT colleges to tick off boxes with…it has little relevance in classrooms. And in fact, the whole emphasis of the new National Curriculum has changed from subjects we might regard as pointless to skills-based education.

    State education isn’t standing still – in some ways it is getting worse, in some better. Teachers are by default unable to sit still when it comes to their teaching because the standards by which we’re assessed change around us. So it’s preposterous to say I’m sitting in a trench – and moreover, it was me who brought the issue of HE to this blog.

    Moving back to the subject of religion: in order to teach, one presumes knowledge. If you don’t know God, then on what do you base your teaching? Guess-work? Finally, my only problem with Christian HE is that I’ve met too many who are oh so willing to prejudice the development of their children if it means corresponding to some arbitrary, religious tick-box.

    Your attack on me, that I don’t want children spending time with Christians, is rubbish – and I challenge you to find evidence to back it up. What I said was, every child should have the widest possible range of experiences – and my contention is that people who HE for religious reasons are likely to be in default of that.

  9. anthy
    March 27, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    “And in fact, the whole emphasis of the new National Curriculum has changed from subjects we might regard as pointless to skills-based education.”

    And there is greyness in all its glory.

    I asked our son why whether or not he thought History was pointless. He is six years old and not a hothoused prodigy at all. He said, “No because it’s very interesting and I like the battles, the colouring of the outfits, the kings and queens. It was very strange that they had no towns but they had villages with fences all around them.” We work in a logical, chronological fashion, so we’re about to look at the development of towns in the later Middle Ages. His choice. I thought he was too young for History, but he’d do it all day if I let him.

    Of course, he could be having a skills-based education – yawn. I don’t want that curriculum and its attendant culture. The National Curriculum has affected classrooms, and homes, too – most of our friends with children under 10 spend their evenings on homework assignments rather than spending time on family activities.

    You *do* support the attempt to force mothers and fathers to be directed by bureaucrats — told every jot and tittle of how their children are to be taught, a change from the concise headings currently used. In a previous posting you stated that “we” should get to decide what children are taught. Some sort of school board was your suggestion.

    The law currently states that parents should ensure that their children receive an education appropriate to their age, aptitude and ability. Three words. The Early Years Foundation Stage, which would apply to our three-year-old child, has 500 headings. That’s a perfect picture of what’s gone wrong — three words in 1944 to sum it all up, and by 2009 the political management of education requires pages and pages of learning outcomes and skills and Powerpoint slides and and and

    “What I said was, every child should have the widest possible range of experiences – and my contention is that people who HE for religious reasons are likely to be in default of that.”
    That’s right: Christians have no neighbours or family, we never go to the shop, the library or the park, we don’t go on fortnightly visits to care homes, we don’t do volunteer work and most important of all, we don’t know anyone who is not a christian! Purlees! I can add that to the NSPCC and the govt labelling us child abusers. Mind you, I don’t let the kids stick their fingers in the electric sockets or play on the M25 – so I guess I am denying them all the experiences that they *could* have.

    “If you don’t know God, then on what do you base your teaching? Guess-work?” Sorry – I confused you by being too brief in my reply to your sneering “what makes you think that you know God”. I didn’t want to go into a whole lot of detail, but here’s what I meant: God is revealed to us, so I am not the clever one, God is. Revelation is not just the name of a book of the Bible, it’s a one-word summary of God’s relationship with humankind. Some atheists imply that christians think we are in possession of some secret special access to the Creator of the Universe – super duper people who get to talk with God. So people say, “Who do you think you are?” and so on. Special hidden knowledge of the divine is gnosticism, not christianity.

    I have noticed something really interesting. My comments and questions are continually labelled and assessed – drivel (F), preposterous (D), arrogant (D)irrelevant (E). Other posters have received the same treatment. You know, most bloggers just agree or disagree with their posters. This is the first blog I have seen where people’s thoughts get *marked*.

    I’m not going to bother you any more with my irritatingly ‘different’ observations, but I am grateful for your courtesy in refraining from swearing at me. I appreciated your restraint – I have been gradually kicking the potty mouth habit myself, and the effort is worthwhile.


  10. March 27, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Your observations aren’t different, they are just irritating.

    On religion, your answer to my query about where your special knowledge comes from is disingenuous (in that it neatly dodges the problem of actually having to substantiate whatever it is you believe – since you can simply say that God has chosen not to “reveal” himself to the people asking the questions).

    Also, let’s not begin a pissing contest about Christian sects – I daresay I know a bit more than you; Gnosticism wasn’t merely about knowing something, it was based on “revealed” knowledge and moreover, it was about being one of the elect – which was in turn established by divine revelation. Gosh, I can’t think of any Christian sects today with a similar attitude, who regularly protest about the education system…oh, but wait, I can!

    On education…the scene you described is a scene I have watched many times in a classroom. Take a look at any Year 7’s book and they’ll have details about Gladiatorial games, the Roman Empire, the battle of Hastings, a diagram of the feudal system, a drawing of a Motte and Bailey Castle and so on and so on. History, however, is about more than dates, names and drawings, however good or entertaining.

    The skills aspect to history is of learning how to construct a rational argument, or how to interpret sources – which can be as useful in reading a newspaper as looking at Herodotus as debunking contradictory accounts of the same events from the Bible. Perhaps you don’t consider these things important – but I do, and I suspect most other Home Edders do too.

    As for this complaint about the size of documentation on education, gosh, how terrible it is that we have specialists researching different aspects of education and publishing reports. Have you read the academic research into HE? Or are there too many pages? Seriously, normally I don’t sneer but you’re offering yourself up as a target at this point…

    There may be other points I haven’t addressed – flag them up for me if you return.

  11. anthy
    March 27, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    “I daresay I know a bit more than you … Have you read the academic research into HE? Or are there too many pages? Seriously, normally I don’t sneer but you’re offering yourself up as a target at this point.”

    ‘Nuff said, I think.

  12. March 27, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    If you say so.

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