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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.

StarlightMcKenzie Sat 06-Apr-13 21:19:08

And teachers KNOW that children with SEN are failed. But what are they doing about it?

Are they striking about that or their working hours/pay?

Are they supporting parents to rally against LA's? Do they find ways of providing evidence to get more written into the child's statement when it will come out of the school's coffers? Do they even admit that many statements are 'loosly interpreted' and probably never even read by many of the staff working with the kids?

Nope. They gang up against the parents. Deny need. Refuse support. And only want a partnership arrangement with parents if it is more like an 'outreach' model where they can feel good, and go running if a parent comes to them.

ravenAK Sat 06-Apr-13 21:24:28

I'm spending quite a lot of my time compiling evidence about one of my tutees to get him support he badly needs, actually, starlight.

Couldn't give a stuff about the school's coffers - we have a bursar to worry about that.

Feenie Sat 06-Apr-13 21:26:14

That's not a situation I recognise, Starlight - in fact my primary school is sought after by parents with children with SEN, due to our reputation. I am sorry you've had such a bad experience.

Unfortunately, I can't see anything that Gove is proposing that will help any, I'm afraid.

pollypandemonium Sat 06-Apr-13 21:27:49

Ouch Starlight but I agree with some of what you say about SEN.

StarlightMcKenzie Sat 06-Apr-13 21:30:39

That's very good to hear Raven.

However my experience is that a teacher is rarely motivated to do this extra work unless it is of direct benefit to them i.e. the child is throwing chairs or disruptive the lesson and the teacher needs another adult in the room and/or feels the child should be placed at a different school or in the corridoor.

In addition, teachers are very poorly trained in SEN and as a group don't do anything about it (the odd individual excepted). They don't appear motivated to read-up or train further in the field. Worse, they can often see and treat teachers of SEN children as 'carers' rather than teachers and SEN Governors are often seen and treated as party-poopers.

My experience btw, extends beyond simply being a parent of a child with SEN.

StarlightMcKenzie Sat 06-Apr-13 21:34:32

'Unfortunately, I can't see anything that Gove is proposing that will help any, I'm afraid'

I'm not sure tbh. He may not, but on the other hand there is a lot more talk about evidence-based practice in public services and I would welcome that.

I do however share the concerns of many teachers about what it is that is important to measure and what evidence to collect/use and why.

ravenAK Sat 06-Apr-13 21:40:10

No, I completely agree with you Starlight that SEN isn't always well supported in mainstream schools. & I also agree that we aren't all well trained.

I'm not as well informed as I probably should be. I know a little bit about autism because dh works in the field, but SEN generally are massively neglected on INSET, & there is a general culture, certainly at secondary, of it being the SEN Dept's 'area', which can mostly be left to them - it's absolutely not good enough.

I just don't agree with you that we don't give a shit, iyswim. I think it's more about us having the words 'Ofsted! League table! C/D borderline!' shouted in our ears so loudly that it drowns other important issues out (until, as you say, a chair gets thrown).

Feenie's right that Gove isn't proposing anything that's going to make the situation better.

MiniTheMinx Sat 06-Apr-13 21:44:02

I worry when I hear that education will move towards a knowledge based curriculum. Not because I think knowledge is not a worthy goal but because I then want to know what ideology that knowledge serves. An example might be history, whilst some facts are irrefutable, causation, politics and a material conception of history could be over looked in favour of propagandising.

What I find fascinating is that almost everyone agrees that education is a preparation for the world of adult work. A child is expected to learn the skills and social attitudes that will ensure good prospects. Where many of us depart is the question of what skills and what attitudes and to whom those benefits are accrued.

"To put this more scientifically, I shall say that the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class" Louis Althusser 1970

We have a two tier education system, one system teaches the skills and attitudes that prepare children to rule, the other system teaches children to serve the interests of those who rule. Both system teach the child not to question this right wing ideology.

A further move towards a right wing agenda spells almost total disaster for future generations of ordinary children.

I do not trust Gove or anyone else in the conservative government to put the interests of my child's education above their own class interest, ie the perpetuation of inequalities.

chicaguapa Sat 06-Apr-13 21:44:25

It is hard when your DC isn't having a positive time at school and when you feel the teacher is to blame. But I don't think the solution is to attack the entire profession.

It is proof that they can't win whatever they do. Some of the things I've read in the last couple of days.

If you don't like it, get another job.
I don't care about the teachers' work and conditions.
Then: Teachers are crap and don't care about my DC's education. confused

Also If you don't like it, do something about it.
Then Teachers are wingers, why can't they just get on with it and stop moaning? hmm

ProphetOfDoom Sat 06-Apr-13 21:46:32

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

pollypandemonium Sat 06-Apr-13 21:48:45

My DD was educated for half of her school hours someone that earned £8 an hour. There's something not quite right about that.

Feenie Sat 06-Apr-13 21:56:24

Wingers grin

I agree, Polly.

pollypandemonium Sat 06-Apr-13 22:08:01

The disability equality movement and inclusion turned education upside down because schools had to think of the needs of children before the needs of the system. Teaching was always top-down and now it has to be a bit more bottom-up. However it has been an agonising process to get schools to accept that children shouldn't all have to fit into one formula.

Now Gove has stuck his tuppenceworth in it will all go back to the sausage factory ideal. The kids that aren't able to fit in the machine will be set aside to live an alternative existence.

pollypandemonium Sat 06-Apr-13 22:15:15

As Mirza says:

"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."

It's bloody laughable.

MiniTheMinx Sat 06-Apr-13 22:25:11

Why shouldn't education be "child centred" ? it shouldn't be centred on anything other than what children need.

joanofarchitrave Sat 06-Apr-13 22:25:13

What is hard about facts, exactly? Why is it 'hard' that Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1936, and 'soft' to be able to carry out a project in a group of 6 without falling out with your groupmates and including each one of them in the project? I know which I think is harder to learn.

I have never, never seen a public school website that says 'we teach hard facts only here and that's why we are worth £12000 per year per child'. It's SMALL CLASSES, lots of outdoor space, more sport, drama and music, a motivated and able peer group, and fewer tests. That's what people pay for, as a rule - and like most MNers I have read a LOT of threads about why people send their children to private school.

British schools have a larger differential between private school class size and state school class size than in any other country. I would vote for pretty much any party that said they would cut state class sizes to 25 maximum and had a credible plan to fund it.

Funny, I have been quite vocally disapproving in my time of the lack of grammatical education I received in the 80s. I suddenly have affection for my English teachers, who leftishly taught a rigorous appreciation of poetry and a deep familiarity with a range of classic and modern texts (and who, not coincidentally, were the only teachers who ever told me off; I could fool any teacher who was trying to teach me 'hard facts', but not the ones who could see that I wasn't prepared to put in the effort to read Wuthering Heights with my whole mind). I note that every single person here who didn't learn any grammar can nonetheless post perfectly understandable sentences, so chalk one up for Noam.

joanofarchitrave Sat 06-Apr-13 22:25:40

Oh Jesu! 1536! blush

JessicaLong Sat 06-Apr-13 22:40:11

'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.'

This is factually incorrect, I have worked in both the state sector and the independent sector and the curriculum taught is the same in both - the only difference is the extra curricular opportunities and the smaller class sizes available in the private sector. The teaching is no different and not better, this is a common misconception.

pollypandemonium Sat 06-Apr-13 22:49:00

Just to be clear I agree with you Minnie and Jessica.

Mirza's blog is horrific. It is also unfounded, containing no hard facts, no quotes, no references to names of these lefty pedagogues, just soft touch PR blurb.

And surprise surprise, one in five children leave primary school in London without being able to read or write 'Properly'. Perhaps that's because most of them have only been in the country a year or two and don't speak English at home.

Wishiwasanheiress Sun 07-Apr-13 08:15:20

Having worked in the city in various training/hr areas one thing our firms have no requirement for is young adults with 'working skills' such as project management. We can teach those quite adequately once they begin. What most certainly was required was the ability to speak and write appropriately to an individual or group outlining an argument or set of facts. (Basically, a letter/email)

We needed smart young adults with confidence in writing, speaking and basic maths. Knowledge of wider subjects like history, geography and art for personality and interest/opinion broadening and languages to communicate to multiple areas. (English included)

It would be nice, whichever government or political ideology is in power and whichever group is running/checking schools could keep ensuring that young adults leave being able to be confident in reading writing and maths and conversational interest (or deeper of their own volition) / knowledge in a few other areas.

I say this having worked with essentially elite kids, those of the labour conservative governments and further afield. Some were startlingly thick tbh on basics. Some were startlingly unconfident in areas which should have been a breeze, like conversing /debating with adults.

Work of any type can teach work skills for its own requirements. What it cannot do is make up for a lack of basic skills. If they get to work and can't do basic stuff it's too late. I've seen very privileged young adults and 'normal' adults struggle painfully with very sad and unnecessary outcomes because of this simple thing. It's heartbreaking.

Wishiwasanheiress Sun 07-Apr-13 08:16:43

FYI not all were British by a long shot, this isn't a uk only issue tbh.... sad

Bonsoir Sun 07-Apr-13 09:32:10

WishIwasanheiress - I agree that those basic skills are the ones that schools should be ensuring our children acquire. I tear my hair out in despair at the emails, letters and presentations that many teachers produce because their own skill levels in basic communication techniques are so abysmal that they cannot ever impart reasonable skills to the DC they teach.

mercibucket Sun 07-Apr-13 10:23:19

Lol joanofarchitrave, like the noam reference.

Yes, hard facts or skills - which is more useful in the working world? Hard facts - pretty easy to google, skills, not so much. Hard facts - easy to memorise with no real depth of understanding. Hard facts - easy to write on your shirt sleeve and copy out in the exams. Hard facts - easy for those of average intelligence to learn and think it makes them somehow superior to someone who happens not to know, say, the date of the coronation of king whoever. Grammar rules involving, say, the positioning of an apostrophe, make you feel smug and clever without involving any real intelligence. Hence, imo, the obsession by many of dubious intelligence with hard facts and punctuation.

My children's primary school (ooh how clever of me to use a punctuation mark, gold star to me) teaches times tables off by heart and punctuation and grammar, using rather formal language as well. There seem to be enough hard facts already. I don't have any problem with what they currently teach and would rather the curriculum was not more and more politicised by each successive government.

Fillyjonk75 Sun 07-Apr-13 11:03:05

Of course unions are left wing! Good thing too as there are no left wing major political parties, we have a nasty right wing government with an education secretary bent on destroying education, the majority of national newspapers are right wing and there is a dearth of satire in the media. Good job there is some opposition!

Fillyjonk75 Sun 07-Apr-13 11:11:13

i Some were startlingly unconfident in areas which should have been a breeze, like conversing /debating with adults.

I found the exact reverse working in London, recent graduates absolutely startlingly confident.

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