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Guest blog: teachers' unions have a 'leftist' academic agenda - what do you think?

(129 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 05-Apr-13 15:11:23

In today's guest blog Munira Mirza, London's Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, defends the government's planned changes to the national curriculum - and says that teaching unions who oppose the plans are still in thrall to a 'leftist' academic agenda.

Do tell us what you think - and if you're interested in this subject, you might want to have a look at yesterday's guest blog from the NUT, on why they're calling for reduced teaching-hours.

"Last week at City Hall, we held an event to launch a £24m London Schools Excellence Fund which aims to drive up standards in state schools and support better practice amongst teachers.

Amongst those present, there was particular excitement about the idea of teaching a more rigorous, knowledge-based curriculum. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm is not shared by some activists in the teaching unions who have reacted with hostility to the new national curriculum proposed by the Government. At the National Union of Teachers' Easter conference last week some delegates attacked what they described as a 'pub-quiz style curriculum', claiming that children didn't need to be taught facts anymore as they could simply Google them. Additionally, a hundred left-leaning education academics wrote a letter criticising what they claim is an "endless lists of spelling, facts and rules" that demands "too much too young".

Reports in the media can give the impression that teachers are unanimously hostile to the new curriculum. Perhaps that's because some journalists conflate the highly politicised and often unrepresentative teaching unions with ordinary teachers.

In fact, I believe many teachers on the ground have a more positive attitude.

They know that state schools in Britain need to improve. Even in London, where schools have made big strides over the last decade (thanks to the efforts of many great school leaders), one in five children still leaves primary school unable to read and write properly and four in ten students leave secondary school without five good GCSEs. Many more could be stretched further, getting As and A*s rather than Cs and Bs.

The problem is not the quality of our teachers but the way they have been instructed to teach. Britain's schools remain very much under the influence of ideas of certain leftist academics from the 1960s and 1970s (though certainly not ideas shared by all left-wing people). These so-called experts had a view of education which emphasises vaguely-defined 'skills' over concrete knowledge, play over rigour, and child-centred approaches instead of teacher authority. They claimed that the emphasis on subject knowledge throttles young people's creativity and disadvantages poorer children. This thinking has spread through state schools since and unintentionally damaged the life chances of generations of children. Not, of course, the offspring of the wealthy whose private schools give their pupils a huge advantage by teaching hard facts and avoiding the dumbing down of the all-must-have-prizes approach.

The education establishment today can't bring itself to acknowledge these problems. Instead of engaging in a constructive debate about the right balance between knowledge and skills, rigour and creativity, it has a knee jerk reaction to anything that sounds vaguely traditional. It peddles assorted myths about the new curriculum: it's too "prescriptive" (it's actually slimmer than before); it promotes only facts and "rote learning" (no, it lays out broad areas of core knowledge that all children are expected to know, but doesn't prescribe teaching methods); it ignores the views of "teaching experts" (it was, in fact, drawn up in consultation with an expert advisory panel chaired by Professor Tim Oates, plus wide consultation with subject specialists), and that there is no evidence that an emphasis on "core knowledge" works (there is plenty of international evidence, from the US, Singapore, Finland and Sweden among other places).

Very few people want a full-blooded return to the 1950s classroom, but some aspects of it - a grasp of core subject knowledge, a commitment to rigour and discipline, and yes, even some memorisation - do have their place in the twenty-first classroom. Tellingly, many people in the elite of society - politicians and lawyers, artists and journalists, businesspeople and academics - who choose not to educate their children privately nevertheless go to great lengths to get their kids into the kinds of state schools which insist on 'old-fashioned' standards.

Many state school teachers also disagree with the educational establishment. The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who ran one of the best comprehensive schools in Britain - Mossbourne Academy - has praised the new curriculum for bringing much needed rigour back. Many of the new generation of free schools are now demonstrating how a knowledge-based curriculum is perfectly suitable for poorer children. In one I visited recently, two experienced teachers - both Oxbridge graduates - told me of their determination to teach a more rigorous curriculum and challenge the low expectations they'd seen whilst working in other state schools.

Rather than reacting defensively, shouldn't teaching unions and academics welcome a proper debate about the value of knowledge and how schools can impart it? There are plenty of teachers and parents who have looked at the evidence and come to a more favourable conclusion about the new curriculum; they deserve to be heard too."

Munira Mirza is London's Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture - more info here.

moondog Fri 05-Apr-13 16:35:43

Hear hear. Absolute music to my ears.
Oh and good to see that MN isn't giving a platform to another left winger peddling guff.

racheyp Fri 05-Apr-13 18:54:34

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

MrsWembley Fri 05-Apr-13 19:31:56

<crying with relief that someone has said this and that, shock, it's been repeated here on MN>

stargirl1701 Fri 05-Apr-13 19:44:19


You should read Scotland's 'Curriculum for Excellence'!

Flisspaps Fri 05-Apr-13 19:44:41

None of the teachers I know are remotely positive about any the changes.

The one I'm married to is appalled by the proposed changes to his subject.

CrikeeThree Fri 05-Apr-13 20:03:13

Same as Flisspaps .
I don't know any teachers who are positive about the changes. And I know many teachers.
I am a teacher, my dad was a teacher, my sister is a teacher.
It might be that, by some weird coincidence, every teacher I've ever met (a large number, from a wide range of backgrounds) is also "in thrall to a 'leftist' academic agenda".

Or maybe it's just that they've been in a classroom more than once or twice.
And know something about teaching.
And therefore know that what the government is proposing will damage teaching, teachers and pupils.

(But, of course, it might be that people in Whitehall know more than all of us. Yes. I suppose so....)

ouryve Fri 05-Apr-13 20:05:22

I'm sure the education system was wonderful back in the 50s and 60s before the left wingers got hold of it in the 70s. My dad leaving school at 15, barely literate, is testament to thathmm

Is there really any evidence that children were leaving school, back then, so much better than they are now, because I'm not seeing it in my parents generation, that's for sure?

It's all very well harking back to the good old days with rose tinted glasses on (and whatever other cliches you care to pull from your own personal armoury) but what teachers really need to be teaching is a curriculum designed in the light of real evidence from real experts. Something that Mr Gove fantasised about in the shower is not going to cut it and is going to do nothing to improve the chances of children from poor backgrounds or anyone else.

SuffolkNWhat Fri 05-Apr-13 20:15:20

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

PollyEthelEileen Fri 05-Apr-13 20:21:48

I agree that we need to value a knowledge-based curriculum.

The hierarchy of learning has knowledge as its base. With adequate knowledge, the learner can progress to higher level skills.

You have to start with knowledge before moving onto understanding, application, analysis, evaluation and synthesis/creativity.

A lot of what has disturbed me about parts of the curriculum in recent years is that it demanded students to exhibit higher learning skills before acquiring basic recall of knowledge.

Our challenge is to ensure students recall the appropriate amount of knowledge in this Information Age and equip them to Google effectively for the types of facts their grandparents could recite in their sleep, and then progress to higher skills.

exoticfruits Fri 05-Apr-13 20:26:54

I agree with Flisspaps and CrickeeThree and I am not remotely left wing.
I think that teachers get to the point where they really don't care- they just want a period without change. Nothing is ever given long enough. After a few years 'the powers that be' decide it isn't working and it is 'in with the new'. We need stability- and just time -before the next change comes along.

HumphreyCobbler Fri 05-Apr-13 21:25:27

yy Moondog.

I welcome these changes.

MGMidget Fri 05-Apr-13 22:08:52

Yes, I agree with PollyEthelEileen. Children need a base of factual knowledge in order to do further research. It is also an important skill to learn how to commit some information to memory. Many jobs require this skill. You would look like an idiot in many 'professional' jobs if you couldn't answer basic questions requiring a bit of expertise without having to research the answers first! I think 'poor' students are disadvantaged more by not having a requirement to commit some factual knowledge to memory in the curriculum because they aren't being prepared for an important skill they are going to need for some of the better paid jobs.

mercibucket Fri 05-Apr-13 22:22:09

i'm intrigued to know why one of the very people advising on the new curriculum is not going to be teaching it in her school.

also, when and why did education in england become so politicised? and can it stop now please

mercibucket Fri 05-Apr-13 22:26:13

and finally, are you seriously suggesting that the fact that the children of the very very rich manage to get top jobs in the economic, political, media etc circles, is due to them learning some facts off by heart?!?

joannita Fri 05-Apr-13 22:38:40

I wonder what would happen if successive goverments would just stop using education as a political football and allow teachers to teach and students to learn.

Every few years teachers are expected to change the way they teach their subject which leads to confusion and is counter-productive. In a couple of years this government will be voted out and Labour will come along and shake things up all over again. And so it will continue.

How are teachers supposed to inspire if they are constantly having the rug pulled from under them so that they have to struggle just to keep up with the pace of change? Teaching is so bureaucratic now and making teachers jump through more hoops is just going to add to their workload, causing stress and making them less effective in the classroom.

Education secretaries seem to have this bloody-minded urge to destroy in the same way that Prime Ministers feel like the history books will ignore them if they don't lead us into a war during their period of office. Just back off, cool down and focus on something more helpful is what I say.

Gove is in danger of sounding like Mr Gradgrind. Learning facts has its place, but learning how to acquire knowledge, evaluate, transfer knowledge from one sphere to another, and understand how facts fit into a system or continuum is more important.

Creativity is also crucial in education. Creative industries such as music, graphic design and fashion bring an enormous amount of wealth to our economy and yet such pursuits are often dismissed as mickey-mouse by conservatives with a small C. We should help children to fulfil their potential and if they are strongly creative but no so hot on facts, please let's not create an education system that tells them they are no good.

There are many different forms of intelligence. I for one was a strongly academic straight A student and teachers in my state comprehensive were pretty sure I'd be successful in life. But guess what? Others who were less academic at school have been much more financially successful than me. Academic success is not the be-all and end-all. People with excellent people skills, those who are technical but not exam clever, people who are natually business-savvy and good at negotiating; there are so many types who are made to feel average or below average at school, but who go on to be highly successful.

We need to find a balance in our education system. We need to learn to value different forms of intelligence, because even just from an economic viewpoint, allowing potential to go unnoticed means wasting a vital resource. By all means ask children to learn some facts, but let's not swing too far in that direction and make knowledge for its own sake our guiding educational philosophy.

And lastly. If we have to have change, let it be organic and et it be guided by those at the chalk-face who will have to implement it.

StarlightMcKenzie Fri 05-Apr-13 23:14:13

I had an 80s education. Primary was okayish, but didn't learn a bloody thing at secondary.

My grammar is appalling, as is my spelling. I don't know my timestables. The one thing I do have is excellent readable handwritting and fantastic exam technique, the two things that my DF taught me. With those I managed to wing myself a few GCSEs with pretty much no engagement with the subjects. Then A-levels happened and I didn't have a clue about anything sad

I was bright. I was not taught.

ProphetOfDoom Fri 05-Apr-13 23:32:48

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

HandbagCrab Sat 06-Apr-13 00:10:10

Education goes in circles, over and over again. In twenty years time this politician's replacement will be bemoaning a factual curriculum and insisting we move to a more creative and flexible one.

I'm a bit disappointed mumsnet that you're giving this room at the top of talk as it really doesn't deserve it.

Cassidee Sat 06-Apr-13 04:50:29

SchmaltzingMatilda, I'm just having a lightbulb moment - feel like I've been on a dimmer switch - so you're saying that the exam boards have reacted to Gove's pronouncements by making it very difficult indeed for current cohorts to get an A/A*?

Those poor dc! And unis haven't lowered their offers.

exoticfruits Sat 06-Apr-13 06:35:04

I agree 100% joannita.

QueenoftheHolly Sat 06-Apr-13 06:48:25

My parents moved me from a 'good' state school (ex grammar) to a private school after my father had a row with the history teacher at a parents evening.
He asked why she never corrected my spelling mistakes etc & she said that it was her job to teach history not English. He also asked why we never did any tests & she said that teaching history wasn't about remembering facts.

That was the final straw for him. I had previously been at a tiny rural primary school which, despite being small had been very competitive. Moving to a vast (in comparison) secondary had been a horrible eye opener. I hadn't been used to all the gender stereotyping for example (girls aren't good at science or maths), the lack of ambition and the general idea that difficult knowledge & skills weren't that important. In 'textiles' for eg, we were never taught how to use a sewing machine or to sew confused.

I was so much happier in my new all girls school. The expectations were high & the classes demanding. My new history teacher was an inspiration - an Oxford 'blue stocking' with no time for grammatical errors! I read history at university but most of my ingrained knowledge is what she taught me.

This was during the 1990's & seems to be a good example of what Michael Gove is talking about.

exoticfruits Sat 06-Apr-13 07:13:58

It would seem to me that you were not at a 'good' state school. hmm

SmileAndPeopleSmileWithYou Sat 06-Apr-13 08:41:22

I am a primary school teacher and to suggest that teachers are not teaching facts for children to build on is an insult. It is being suggested that children need to rote learn times tables, spellings etc as though it was only done in the 50's!
What do you think I have been doing???

I put enormous emphasis on the importance of learning number skills and spelling rules. But these can then be applied to a creative and imaginative curriculum.

I am not against change generally, however these changes are rediculous. I can't see how it is "slimmed down" as the writer suggests. For example; year 4 science objectives have doubled (including some that are currently y3 and y5). Year 4 maths objectives include Roman numerals??! Why? And an understanding of where Arabic numbers came from and the introduction of the concept of 0... I'm sure that's going to be very worthwhile instead of spending the time teaching them practical skills like money or time!!!

It seems like going back in time is the only thing Gove can think of at the minute. I wonder if he will suggest bringing back the cane too?

CrikeeThree Sat 06-Apr-13 09:08:55

Some really good points being made here.
But is anyone going to take note of them?
Simply dismissing everyone that disagrees with the government as "leftist" is so insulting and patronising. People disagree with Gove from across the political spectrum.
We don't care about politics here. Politics gets in the way of teaching. We just care about our pupils.

I think the main gripe of teachers right now is that we feel that whatever we say, no one will listen.

A colleague of mine said that, whatever you think of Gove, you have to at least admire the fact that he really believes in what he is doing. He's not doing this job as a way of getting into another more prized role.

But surely, when so many people disagree with him, people that work day to day in Education (and have done for years), he has to start listeing at one point? Having so much zeal and enthusiasm is an asset. But not at the expense of listening to others.

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