Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Rethinking Education

[Professor Diane Reay, a leading scholar and critic of educational policies, shares with us her views on contemporary educational thinking. She is Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge]

What would you say are the main problems in education today?

In the state system we have an overly controlled, highly prescriptive and excessively regulated education system with a low trust, low respect ethos that does not enable teachers to teach in the ways they consider best for students, or allow children and young people to exercise their curiosity or develop their creativity. But I would argue that the educational system has never worked for most children and young people, particularly those from working class backgrounds, because it was never set up to educate them, but rather to control and discipline.

Why are you particularly worried about the impact on children?

When I was a teacher in the 70s and 80s a main objective was to enable children to think for themselves, to be creative and innovative in their learning, to question and reflect on the world around them. Now the curriculum has been closed down, children and their learning are no longer the main ends in education but rather means to the ends of audit and testing, and beyond that, labour market productivity. This move from centring the needs of the child to centring the needs of the economy is linked to a distrust of the cultivation of independent minds, and a preference for compliant workers – ironically when we need innovative individuals.

Why do you think the education system is moving in this direction?

I think there has been an ideological reaction on the Right to child centred, progressive education which New Labour has colluded in. This has been exacerbated by the dominance of neo-liberal discourses of competitive individualism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There is a focus on working in and on the self, which marginalises collectivity and cooperation, and results in target-driven cultures preoccupied with outputs rather than processes and people.

How do you see this animosity towards child centred education manifesting itself?

I think because social distances between different social groups have grown in tandem with the increasing gap between the rich and poor, there are mistrust, contempt and fear among our political and policy elites towards class and cultural ‘others’. This manifests itself in a preoccupation with control and discipline within the education of, in particular, the working classes. It is unsurprising that increasing numbers of state schools are run like military academies, preoccupied with rules, appearance and building the ‘right’ sort of character. There is a similar impulse to control teachers.

What is the key measure for reversing these educational trends?

Above all, we must start to treat education as a means of social solidarity rather than social mobility. Current interpretations of educational diversity, which have primarily been preoccupied with the creation of a strongly hierarchised diversity of school provision, need to be replaced with a concern with intra-school and classroom diversity so that possibilities for social mixing are enhanced. At the same time the current highly competitive, hierarchical and fragmented educational system should be replaced with a collegial system founded on collaboration and mutual support between schools. There also needs to be curricular changes. First, a revalorizing of vocational knowledge and a broadening out of what constitutes educational success beyond the narrowly academic. Secondly, teaching children to be caring, respectful, cooperative, knowledgeable about their own and others’ histories, and well informed about contemporary global issues are equally, if not more, important than the current relentless focus on the 3Rs. Further measures would include greater respect and autonomy for teachers; and a much fairer redistribution of resources. According to OECD figures (2009), 23% of British school educational spending goes on the 7% of pupils who are privately educated.


Harry Wallington said...

Can you point us toward any more detail from Diane Reay has to how the school system functions to control rather than to educate?

This film on YouTube remains the most inspiring example I have ever come across of the values Diane outlines above.


Any other helpful video content available?

Henry Benedict Tam said...

Harry, thanks for sharing that link. The following link lists some of the key writings of Professor Reay: http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/people/staff/reay/. Teachers need trust and support, so that in turn they can lift their students with trust and support.