The political interference in education in the UK plumbed new depths this week. In an interview with the BBC, the head of our schools inspections agency, Sir Michael Willshaw, showed signs that the constant briefing against OFSTED is starting to get to him. Two months ago, he responded to a critical report by Policy Exchange (a right-wing think tank set up by the Education Secretary, and therefore totally free of political interference) with: “I was never intimidated as a head teacher and I do not intend to be intimidated as a chief inspector”. He also lashed back at right-wing critics of the education system who, he said, wanted “children to be lectured for six hours a day in serried ranks”. The BBC reported him as saying that rote learning was not enough to produce successful learners in the 21st Century.
Now, however, it appears as though cracks are appearing. After further criticism from Policy Exchange on the evils of ‘child-centred’ teaching, he told the BBC that he would root out any inspectors that favoured such approaches. He described himself as “enraged by the suggestion that Ofsted was full of lefty, hippy-type inspectors, mired in 60s, child-centred ideology…..I am part of a generation of people who experienced – I started teaching in the 60s – that sort of ideology which ruined the lives of generations of children at that time,”
Really? Ruined? Forgive me, Sir Michael, but I’m part of that generation – we’re usually described as baby boomers, who have never had it so good. What is this ruination you speak of? Come to think of it, what is this unstructured hippy-dippy teaching that has apparently blighted so many lives? I left school in 1969, so I’m smack in the middle of the lefty devastation. It’s more precise to say that I ran out of school, because I couldn’t wait to escape the constant rote learning, copying from the board, and the incessant droning on of teachers that characterised pedagogy at that time. And my Latin teacher kept – and frequently deployed – a thick leather strap that was punishment for talking in class. An infestation of hippies? Not in my school.
But even if my experience was the exception, rather than the rule, where’s the evidence that so-called ‘child-centred’ learning fails students (and ruins lives)? Let’s take the poster-girl of laissez-faire learning: A.S. Neill’s Summerhill school, in Suffolk. Event though Neiill’s personal vision was famously summarised as, “I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic Prime Minister”, it has gone on to produce scientists, authors, even captains of industry. OFSTED’s own most recent report on Summerhill describes teaching as “never less than good with some outstanding features…Planning for lessons in all subjects is set out clearly with units of work that have clearly identified objectives and resources. An outstanding feature is the way in which learning is closely tailored to match individual pupil’s needs, including those with special educational needs and/or disabilities….Teachers use their good subject knowledge to tap into pupils’ interests subtly and skilfully. Consequently, pupils become absorbed in what they are doing and make good progress.”
Where else can we look for examples of child-centredness? Oh yes, that Maria Montessori – she was a right wooly liberal dream-killer. Just ask Sergey Brin and Larry Page (founders of Google) and Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon) – what might they have achieved if their education hadn’t been ruined? And those kids who get homeschooled…what a travesty! Those 40% better-than-average SAT scores must be scant consolation when what they really craved was ‘parent-led’ education….
The coupling of ‘child-centred’ with ‘unstructured’ is both intentional and insidious, and it needs to be faced down, because that’s how ideology works. If it’s not challenged it becomes accepted as ‘common sense’, and before you know it, parents start to believe this rubbish.
With all due respect, Sir Michael, it’s time to represent the profession you serve, and not buckle under the weight of ideologically-driven cant. You know – because you’ve visited them, as I have – that some of the most successful schools in the world are unashamedly ‘child-centred’. That’s not to say that they’re unstructured, or unprofessional – far from it. They’re meticulous in personalising the curriculum to maximise each student’s potential, rather than seeing them as job-lots who have education ‘done to’ them, and leave hopelessly ill-equipped to think for themselves.
No, they’re proud to be called child-centred, because the whole point of schooling is to serve the needs – not of the government, or the rabid media, or even the teachers – but of the students. In the increasingly tetchy, macho, tug-of-war around standards and accountability, we seem to forget that all too easily.