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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.

wl85 Mon 29-Apr-13 13:57:02

An interesting read - both the article and all comment below.

Here's a London specific platform, Talk London (created by the Greater London Authority), where education discussions can be started and joined in with:

PrettyGoodLife Sat 13-Apr-13 10:49:05

Why do politicians assume that we a obsessed by them? Leftist agenda? I have ever heard talk of Trotsky at the school gate! In common with most teachers I know we just want the best for our children and that is based on experience of watching children learn not some over arching political agenda. It would be great to hear academic agenda not prefaced by partisan gumf.

jactherat Fri 12-Apr-13 13:28:33

Hi - my blog for today addresses many of the issues raised in this post and the comments - the Education Wars where division and name calling seems to be an every day event needs to stop. Education is a very complex issue, we must start treating it with some respect and dignity and stop the short sightedness evident in the current debate.
Have a read. Let me know what you think...


chicaguapa Tue 09-Apr-13 13:40:32

Good post. flowers

Solopower1 Mon 08-Apr-13 21:44:14

SchmaltzingMatildaFri 05-Apr-13 23:32:48: Yes, agree, and with MiniThe Minx!

It's not the teachers whose agenda is political - it's the politicians whose agenda is political. Obviously. That's why we get a whole swathe of changes each time a new govt comes to power.

So a left-wing govt wants to improve the life's chances of a whole generation of children, and sees that the best way to do that is to build in success, build up self esteem and reduce competition - where there is only one winner and lots of losers.

(But what about the high-flyers, the children who soar above all the others, who delight in academic challenges? A left-wing answer might be: 'Nothing's stopping them. They'll be OK whatever the teacher does - in spite of the teacher in many cases! They are not the ones who need our help.')

A right wing govt wants to perpetuate (conservative means to keep and protect, not change) social divisions, because that is how a society works best, in their opinion. You need rich and you need poor. The rich work hard (or not) to protect their privileges and the poor are driven to work ever harder, in order to get some of the wealth. The best way to do that is to build in unfairness into the system, as it is in society. No level playing fields here. Some schools sink, others swim, same with the kids.

So it's hardly surprising that each sort of government looks at education and wants to make it serve its own ends.

Meanwhile, ime teachers just get on with it, trying to protect the children from the excessive zeal of whoever happens to be in power, while always putting the children first and learning from their experiences.

MiniTheMinx Mon 08-Apr-13 17:18:30


MiniTheMinx Mon 08-Apr-13 17:17:59

Solopower1 brilliant point. Todays news will be tomorrows history and then you have to ask if these are "facts" who's facts are they. Just looking at one example in the news, America makes a public statement that they do not intent to run the planned missile tests because they want to assure North Korea that they are not making threats. This information is put out on every news channel and in every paper. Did you know they planned the missile tests? I didn't and I suspect most people didn't, so what is the purpose of making a public announcement. Propaganda and that will be reported as historical fact. Open a north Korean history book in ten years from now and the "facts" will tell us something different.

This is why I think inquiry based education is better. I want my children to question facts, to have a critical mind and be able to research and analyse. I don't want them to parrot "facts" When I studied history we were taught that the first and second world wars were cultural and national, about borders. The facts were specifically shaped to fit the agenda.

I wouldn't swap with a teacher, you are welcome to it smile just one hrs after school club was enough for me, I used to go home exhausted.The emotional, mental and physical stamina needed is often underestimated. The fact that anyone can do this job for many years, with shifting goal posts and increasing scrutiny and now stagnating wages and stroppy parents never ceases to amaze me.

StarlightMcKenzie Mon 08-Apr-13 10:28:35

Yes. IME many teachers deliver the curriculum in the way that they believe is best for the children (and for themselves) and then spend and inordinate amount of time after the event, making it fit to the evidence they are expected to provide, seeing the paperwork as a chore and addition. To some extent, the lessons might be planned in order to fulfil the paperwork requirement.

That is not evidence-based practice, nor is it the only model that Ofsted would approve.

moondog Mon 08-Apr-13 10:11:44

So true Bonsoir.
As one of my favourite quotes ever has it 'We are what we do and not what we believe' (Batman)

Bonsoir Mon 08-Apr-13 10:10:02

Teachers can be simultaneously doing what they believe to be best for the children, but getting it wrong! At my DD's school the whole of a teaching department has a theory about an aspect of teaching that is outdated and not upheld by any other similar school. But the teachers fervently believe that they are working in the best interests of the children and are hurt by any suggestion that they might be getting it wrong... Collective denial is a powerful thing.

Tanith Mon 08-Apr-13 07:58:58

Starlight: Unfortunately, it's not you who is requesting all this "evidence-based" learning - it's the Government, ofsted and the LAs.

They demand paper-based evidence, and realms of it. I've no doubt they are doing it wrong, as you say.

Do you honestly think we produce all this paperwork for any other reason?

exoticfruits Mon 08-Apr-13 07:14:38

Well said Rowlers! - (and I started teaching in 1970s and have never been left wing- teachers then were trying to do what was best for the children- the same as they are today.)

chicaguapa Mon 08-Apr-13 00:33:39

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

Interestingly our local comp is the type that parents feel they're getting a private education at for free and a lot of the parents would send their DC to private school if it wasn't for the fact that they can go to this school. And the school goes to great lengths to portray a façade that it is an exam factory, whilst behind the scenes using a more child-centred approach.

Not sure what argument this is supporting. confusedI think it maybe shows that the parents in our area do seem to want 'old-fashioned' standards and the school is happy to let them think they're getting that, but clearly feels this doesn't suit the DC and operates differently behind the scenes. The parents are happy with the results though.

Feenie Mon 08-Apr-13 00:12:59

<Stands up to applause Rowlers>

Rowlers Sun 07-Apr-13 23:15:54

Guest blogger - you claim that schools have made big strides over the last decade (thanks to the efforts of many great school leaders) - I think you'll find that the great strides have been made predominantly by the TEACHERS IN THE CLASSROOM, and not by the HTs who can spend most of their time swanning off to conferences / meetings.

You refer to certain leftist academics from the 1960s and 1970s - WHO? Explain who these people are because I have no idea who you are talking about. In the school I work in, and in almost all schools in our area (I have lots of friends and colleagues in a large number of schools, both private and state), many of us do a lot of educational research and staff training over the last 20 years has been led by research-based evidence. All teachers I know are more than familiar with e.g. Bloom's taxonomy and Alistair Smith's Accelerated Learning Cycle, just to give two obvious examples.

You seem to dislike child-centred approaches - why? Our students are actively encouraged to investigate thier individual learning styles and all staff are provided with information on the type of learners we have in our classroom. Being able to tailor our lessons to suit those children and provide opportunities for them to learn SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE in a huge variety of styles has to be a positive thing, surley? Maybe I'm wrong. After all, I'm a teacher in a classroom and have been for almost 20 years. I can't know much, now can I?

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 - show me your evidence for this, please.
How do you KNOW this stuff? Or is it really that you know a few people who have done this?

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.
OK, two points here. Firstly, why do you need to point out that these people are Oxbridge graduates? Does this make ANY difference? Secondly, This is the type of comment that really pissess me off - so you've spoken to TWO teachers and use that as part of your argument? FFS. Shame on you.

On the subject of the new NC, I personally am interested in any new approach to our job, as ALL of the teachers I know are. My colleagues are professional and dedicated. We work extremely hard to do the best for our students.

With regard to those posters who have been critical of teachers, you are absolutey entitled to your opinions; I'm all for free speech. However, I'd request thet occassionally you post your own job title so that we teachers can also make gross generalisations about a whole profession based on personal but very limited experience. That would be fair.

Solopower1 Sun 07-Apr-13 22:20:03

(Sorry to butt in - had to post quickly)

Solopower1 Sun 07-Apr-13 22:18:01

H'mm. So the people who have read most (ie more than the general population, I'm assuming, since it's what they do for a living) about history, politics, economics, sociology etc, and who teach these subjects have a leftist agenda?

I wonder why.

PollyEthelEileen Sun 07-Apr-13 20:47:52

I think it is more likely to be down to the expansion of higher education!

MiniTheMinx Sun 07-Apr-13 20:46:32

I don't have the facts at my finger tips, what I could do is google (I won't, I'm busy grin) but wouldn't it be fair to say that more children from ordinary homes got into Uni under labour. Of course Torries assert this is because the exams are too easy, the levels have been down graded blah, blah, blah......their rationale seems to be not that standards have improved but that state school pupils can't possibly be bright enough to attain As and Bs therefore the course and exams must be too easy. That is not only insulting to teachers but to every child in state education.

chibi Sun 07-Apr-13 19:07:24

mini your last post was spot on

chibi Sun 07-Apr-13 19:06:32

teachers not teaching facts, bonkers assertion

i teach chemistry- i expect people think we sit around talking about how atoms make us feel or sharing opinions on how to calculate acid concentrations. hmm wink

Arisbottle Sun 07-Apr-13 18:01:46

I don't think they have a lefty academic agenda , not sure what that even is.

Unions will have a left wing agenda , because they are standing up for the workers , that is naturally a left wing thing to do . If they were trying to maximise profits or solely reduce profits or be about survival of the fittest - that may be a right wing agenda .

From experience teachers do tend to be left of centre because they have chosen a career not about big business or profit. In my previous career I was surrounded by Tories, my husband who works in the private sector is surrounded by Tories . In particular he us in an industry in which the focus is on making money so it is a right of centre heartland .

I teach history and teach facts constantly and always have done , it is nonsense to say otherwise . I am not a low brow wishy washy type who endorses prizes for all and ignores spelling errors . I am an Oxbridge graduate with an excellent degree and post graduate qualifications.

pollypandemonium Sun 07-Apr-13 13:42:40

The reason they can't express themselves clearly is that there is not enough time. It would take at least an hour for 30 children to take turns to speak for just 2 minutes.

Fillyjonk75 Sun 07-Apr-13 13:06:57

Great post Mini, my thoughts exactly.

MiniTheMinx Sun 07-Apr-13 12:29:58

I have never met a UMC young person who lacks confidence and the social skills to cope but I have seen plenty of working class youngster struggle.

DS1 aged 12 has just gone back into school after two years of HEd and his first question to the headmaster was "is there a debating society?" The HT said no and looked at me and asked if I thought this was important.

I can't see how a move towards teacher authority over child centred practice is going to instill social confidence in young people. It isn't, which is why this government think it will be good to move away from inquiry based educating to rote learning facts, those facts will be carefully prescribed and unquestionable.......what need do they have of youngsters who have critical enquiring minds ? what is needed is a docile manageable workforce that problem solve only the problems carefully presented. What is not desirable to those on the right and the ruling elite is highly intelligent young people, empowered with confidence and the ability to cast a critical eye over the status quo.

The sole purpose of education from a right wing perspective is to provide "human capital" to be exploited much like any other input into a business.

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