When nudge comes to shove

Today the schools minister announces a £41m programme to support mathematics teaching. That’s good news, right?

Maybe not so good.

When I say “support” I’m abbreviating. Actually what is happening is that there will be a programme to support schools that want to teach maths in the way that the minister prefers it to be taught. If they want they can opt into the programme.

Here is the problem that the DfE have. They may well have found the nirvana of maths teaching (more about that and other problems with this approach another time) but they can’t just come out and say “teach it this way” for two reasons.

The first reason is that all their public policy positions are based around autonomy, on the basis that teachers should be free to teach how they want. If they came out and said point blank “teach it this way” they might just be accused of hypocrisy.

The second reason is that as soon as ministers start to say “teach this way” they break the accountability system. “Why didn’t your children progress as far as they should” Ofsted will ask. “Because we had to teach the curriculum the minister imposed using the pedagogies the minister imposed using the resources the minister supplied.” any sensible school will reply. “Not our fault guv, blame the minister who told us to do it this way.” This is why ministers don’t impose ways of teaching. In our system it doesn’t work.

So the method adopted is to make an offer the schools can’t refuse and make it look like choice. Make it sellable as choice. Spin it.

I’ve heard it argued that the approach taken – “We will pay for your textbooks and your CPD if you do things the way we say” does not break the idea of autonomy. In a time of plenty I might be persuaded that it doesn’t matter if it does or not. At a time when schools are struggling to pay their teachers that argument doesn’t wash. If they want to have textbooks and to train their teachers this is the only show in town.

This isn’t ‘nudge’, it’s ‘shove’.