C6 A Response to the Autumn briefing – Cliff Jones

C6 Response to the Autumn SOSS Briefing

First let me say how impressed I am by the briefing document. I shall merely try to outline some of what it has prompted me to think, though I freely admit to a lack of coherence and focus in what I have written.

Democratic disconnection

When I was an LEA advisor we might have moaned about councillors but the decisions that they took could be witnessed by the public and it was possible to look at the minutes of meetings. It was also possible to bring together educators of every level of provision, including HE in the form of polytechnics, to discuss matters of joint interest and concern. That combination of representative democracy and systemic coherence was, in my view, very important. Today we are not able to attend or scrutinise the decision-making processes of private companies controlling schools; further education is not only separated out but losing resources; and higher education institutions are behaving like members of the FTSIE 100. We have lost community based coherence and purpose.

When Tristram Hunt represented the Labour Party on education the signs were that none of this mattered to him. We need education at all levels to be reconnected to democracy, local and national.

Social fracking

I have used this term in a variety of essays on my website ever since 2010. For me the social fracking began in 1979 and although I could from time to time convince myself that New Labour still had some residual Old Labour values I believe that Cameron and Osborne are the consequence of Blair and his courtiers whose discourse of aspiration and choice and deployment of spin further cheapened politics. Our society really is being fracked in my view. Educational policy could help restore things but at present, in England especially, it is part of an intentionally socially destructive process.

Schooling is what you do to horses

My old boss David Hamilton used this phrase. When we look at the PISA scores of Finland our response is to have more and more ‘schooling’. Finland does the opposite.

The legislative urges of ministers

In his latest book Who Governs Britain (Pelican, 2015) Anthony King writes about the keenness of ministers to legislate too much, too fast and to, very often, exceed the capacity of Parliament to scrutinise. And now that we have a diminished and reactive civil service the spring from which all this law emanates is almost entirely the imaginations and prejudices of politicians plus their chosen advisors.

I am also rather concerned about the use by these politicians and by the media of the word ‘reform’. I acknowledge my nostalgic tendencies but at school I learned to associate that word with the abolition of slavery, the extension of the franchise, the Factory Acts, the NHS and more that I believe might come under that, perhaps rather simplistic and optimistic, label of ‘civilisation’: I grew up believing that ‘reform’ meant something to do with social fairness. For me politicians who are deforming society ought not to be allowed to claim that they are reforming it. We have lost ownership of the concept of reform.

Assessment and evaluation

For me ‘assessment’ is a process of making critical sense of learning and ‘evaluation’ is the construction of a judgment of its value. I know there are other ways of defining these two concepts but I like it like that. I once taught teachers in a country in which little thought was given to assessment, certainly not in the formative sense. The dominant concept was evaluation, carried out by means of end of course tests. If your salary or your success as a business depends upon scores then it is natural to place the emphasis on teaching to the test.

In the following link I refer to three people that I wish politicians with responsibility for education would read. The list of such people could have been very much longer. One of them is Stephen Kemmis who, with many others, in 1983 published a small book that is generally referred to as Towards the Socially Critical School (not its full title). I have used it a lot and now a number of UK universities specialising in education have introduced it to their masters degree students. I explain how to get a copy in the short piece on the link.


And now let me tell you the story of The Sheep and the Pig.

Some years ago, in a Liverpool Nursery School where the headteacher was very keen on Records of Achievement, a four-year-old child asked the headteacher if she could put one of the two pictures she had done that day into her portfolio. The answer was “Yes, which one?”. Now the child had done one picture of a sheep and one picture of a pig. The picture of the pig was really very good: clearly a well-delineated and recognisable pig. The picture of the sheep, on the other hand, was not very good at all.

When she asked the child which picture she wanted to choose the head was surprised to be told “The sheep, of course”. Being an experienced teacher, and remembering that a purpose of Records of Achievement was that the child should own the decision about what went into the portfolio, the head refrained from intervening at this point. She did, however, ask the parent who came to collect the child why she thought her child had chosen the poor sheep rather than the much better pig. The mother replied, “Well you see, she has been doing pigs for months. Our house is full of her pictures of pigs. That’s her first sheep.”

In other words, the achievement identified by the child as worthy of celebration was the taking of a first step towards new learning.

Having heard the head teacher telling this story it has stuck with me for a long time and I often wonder what happened to that four year old girl when she ‘progressed’ through a school system that required her to submit the equivalent of better and better pictures of pigs and hide her pictures of sheep.

When talking about learning I often use this story and in the last paragraph I say that I often wondered what happened to that child. So, there I was at the checkout the other day in the Co-op in Waterloo where Cherie Blair was brought up and next to me was the head teacher’s deputy from then, back in the 80s. The head and her deputy are sisters. I mentioned how often I used the story and said I often wondered what happened to that little girl. Apparently she is now confidently publishing.

Unfortunately, you cannot tell an Ofsted inspector looking for impact to come back in thirty years to see it. Neither can you persuade a government minister that badly drawn pictures of sheep might signify more than well drawn pictures of pigs.

Cliff Jones November 2015