"The White Paper aspires to bold reform and is a candid admission that the independent sector model is worth imitating"

Posted on: 07 Jun 2016
Posted by: Keith Budge

Reflecting on the government's recent education White Paper and looking back to various past reform, Keith Budge, headmaster of Bedales School, says we must look beyond the 1950s for inspiration in education reform, and it may be a bumpy ride.

So when the chips were down, government blinked – with what has been widely described as a U-turn on plans for a blanket conversion of state schools into academies.

Evidence of chaos say critics – the result of a welcome willingness to listen on the part of the Minister, say supporters. My own take is that we must not overlook the real nature of the concession. It will be less a case of ‘if’ than ‘when’, with the government keeping as its aim the full-scale conversion of state schools into academies.

In placing the governance of schools under academy chains and putting trust in headteachers to “use their creativity, innovation, professional expertise and up-to-date evidence to drive up standards,” the authors of the recent Education White Paper seek to break the “geographic monopolies” of the local education authorities and mirror what happens in the independent sector.

I am all for independence, and yet aspects of this version of it puzzle me. In accepting that “the country’s best school leaders know what works”, and that these leaders are to be found in both the state and independent sectors and pursuing a range of philosophies and approaches, policy makers suggested a willingness to embrace diverse approaches to education.

I have no quarrel with this sentiment, but would observe that such an ambition perhaps sits uneasily with the current ministerial appetite for traditional ‘chalk-and-talk’ teaching methods, the ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ and distaste for all things ‘progressive’. It is something of a government mantra that the middle of the twentieth century saw the beginnings of a creeping and harmful educational trend in which confidence in direct instruction was replaced with a misguided belief in children’s ability to discover knowledge for themselves.

I doubt I am alone amongst independent school heads in feeling some alarm at this sentiment – it is surely a serious impediment to any reconciliation of the traditional and the progressive implied in the White Paper. It is also an interpretation of history that invites challenge.

Whilst it is true that the Plowden Report legitimised the idea of a child-centred education in the 1960s, with an accompanying stress on sociological understandings, similar attitudes were to be found in government prescriptions from decades earlier. As early as 1904, the government’s Elementary Code recognised children as total beings with specific and different needs.

A year later, the government’s Blue Book stressed that uniformity of teaching practice was not desirable, and that teachers should think for themselves and work out their own methods. Teachers must sympathise with children it says and, tellingly, the authors argue that facts are not to be dealt with in isolation but in relation to the experience of the child. A child-centred education, then, by another name.

A decade later, in his foreword to the 1917 Education Bill, H A L Fisher – president of the Education Board under Lloyd George – comes across as almost impossibly modern in his thinking about the purpose of education, and how we should understand our obligations to our students. How tempting it must have been in this time of global flux for government to retrench in comfortable certainties; instead it struck out for social reform, autonomous teachers and the idea that education is not something that lives only in the classroom.

The 1950s educational orthodoxies held so close by this government have little equivalent in prescriptions from the decades before or afterwards. To locate historically the orthodoxy of rote learning in which it places such faith we must go back to the monitorial system of the early 19th century. It was against such a narrow version of education that the great non-conformist educational innovators such as Owen, Wilderspin and Stow reacted so very strongly. Indeed there is a case to be made that these three figures might be considered the architects of much of what we understand to be a liberal and humane modern education – certain blips notwithstanding.

The White Paper aspires to bold reform and is a candid admission that the independent sector model is worth imitating. This is gratifying, of course, but the jury is out on whether the fledgling academy structure is ready for the expansion envisaged, irrespective of the government’s recent rowing back. The bottom line is that reaping the creativity and innovation to be found in the independent sector will require government to overcome a powerful attachment to certain understandings and methods.

It was encouraging to hear last week, Sir Michael Wilshaw speaking at our Liberating Leaders conference which we ran in partnership with the TES. As has been widely reported, Sir Michael apologised for any perceived over-prescription of a particular teaching style by Ofsted, and called for more maverick teachers and school leaders in the profession. The development of our education system has been hugely reliant on dissenting analysis from the independent of mind, and Ministers must be aware that such interventions have invariably challenged rather than supported the status quo.


About Keith Budge

Keith Budge is headmaster of Bedales School, a coeducational day and boarding school in Hampshire.