Issues of competence

This is something you’ll hear a lot in the coming days. The incoming Secretary of State for Education is not a teacher, nor has she (to my knowledge) worked in a school in any meaningful educational capacity. I’m not saying this to suggest it’s unusual or even a problem (though it may have been better had she that experience). I mention it just as a precursor to the point I want to make.

Thing is, there are a few problems for the DfE to sort out. I don’t mean “where are we going to put all these new university and college bods” type problems, I’m talking about problems in schools. Let’s list a few of the irons currently in the fire:

  • An additional 750,000 school places required by 2025.
  • Schools facing financial meltdown (not an exaggeration).
  • A recruitment and retention crisis.
  • An ITT system in a bit of a mess.
  • An incoherent assessment and accountability system which lacks comparability with the past – in plain English, for a number of years to come you literally won’t know if the system is improving.
  • An incoherent system of school governance – the transition from an LA-based system to a school-led system has stalled.
  • An organisation charged with the financial management of the system which is not equipped to cope with the challenges it faces.
  • A core confusion over the implications for the system of autonomy.

Now, the more observant among you will notice something. None of these are education issues. Of course, the input of education professionals will help to solve them. And it is true that left to themselves it is likely that education professionals could solve many of these problems on their own without external input.

But the point I’m making is this. None of these issues I’ve highlighted above relies on educational capability to solve them. They are issues of competence. The barrier to solving many of these problems thus far has, in my view been threefold:

  • Firstly the issue of ideology has caused difficulties. Too often the approach taken hasn’t been “How can we solve this problem?” but “How can we solve this problem within the free market paradigm we have set ourselves?”
  • Secondly, and this is connected to the first issue, there has been an unwillingness to listen to experts in the sector. Critical to the success of any project is the acceptance of challenge and the recognition that integrating it into the solution strengthens and not weakens the outcome.
  • Finally there is the most difficult issue, for everyone, that of honesty. There has been a distinct lack of it. Now I’m not completely stupid so I understand the need for politicians to make their case for change in a positive way. But, simply put, too many lies have been told over the past few years. About money, about academies, about progress.

So how do we move forward? I have three pieces of advice for the new Secretary of State.:

Firstly, just tell the truth. For example, in an ideal world schools would like more money. But if there isn’t going to be any then say so. But don’t tell everyone else there is more money (or the same). Explain the consequences – that there will be fewer adults in the school as a result or children will be in larger groups, or they will have less resources. Accept that less resource leads to different outcomes and work with schools to mitigate this.

Secondly, don’t be ideological. We don’t need you to be announcing anything new right now. Look, all that stuff’s been done. There are irreversible changes in the system. Lots of people don’t like them, but even more don’t like the chaos of living in a half-finished house. You don’t need to be ideological. You just need to fix the roof because everyone is getting wet.

Which nicely leads on to the final and the most important advice. Be competent. Take advice, develop a plan. Implement it. Finish a few things. It’s project management 101. You have a department with some highly competent people in it.

Let them be competent.


6 thoughts on “Issues of competence

  1. Except that the educational experts you are referring to are partly the cause of the problems trying to be fixed. So while you may say that the governments line is “How can we solve this problem within the free market paradigm we have set ourselves?”, within education the line is “How can we solve this problem within the progressive ideological framework we have set ourselves?”. Those who caused the problems that led to government intervention in the 1980s are still unwilling to accept any responsibility for their actions. While this continues (NUT being a prime example of that), you will get government interference because quite rightly, we can’t end up back there.

    1. I’m not sure, but I think you might be replying to the wrong blog, but I’ll have a go at answering you anyway.

      It’s difficult to see how any of the issues I raise are the fault of what any individual may or may not have done in the eighties as they are all a direct result of change implemented in the past six years. Even if they were the cause I’m certain that apologising for it would not move us any further forward than we are at the moment on any of the issues.

      It’s also difficult to see how you solve any problem in any field without listening to experts in that field. Now, I understand that experts may have differing views on what approach to take to a particular problem and that some people don’t agree with the views of some experts. However, no-one ever got cleverer by not listening to people who know stuff. And problems tend to get solved quicker by cleverer people.

      1. I’m not convinced by what I see in general in education there are experts who do know what they are talking about. There are exceptions to the rule – such as Professor Robert Coe, who undertake quality research, but many “experts” are simply people who have taught for a long time and are convinced their approach is right even when independent research proves it otherwise – e.g. reading recovery. The idea that we have experts in education, the same way we have experts in science is quite simply wrong. The last six years have been haphazard in terms of moving forward but they have been necessary to wake the education system to its own failures.

      2. It’s a fairly common phenomena that people tend to view those they agree with as more expert than those they don’t. The very complexity of education makes unlikely that there is “one true way” that answers all questions. For example, I know of no research into any teaching method that shows it is better for all children than any given other. This is as you would expect when dealing with the diversity of attributes of humans. Where ever you get complexity you get differing opinion, even among experts.

      3. I actually have more of an issue with the quality of research (and lack of it) that informs many educational experts rather than the fact that I don’t agree with them. I think that one has to revise ones ideas and am happy to do so. I’m not unaccustomed to coming across opposing arguments and ensuring that I evaluate them rationally (I have a background in history and politics – it’s typical). Agree that no method is 100% but that does not mean some are not better supported by evidence from well-designed research studies and independently evaluated. The idea that all teaching methods, theories and ideas are somehow equal because of “complexity” and “diversity” is a strawman. Either these “experts” can be held to the same standard as those who claim to be in other fields of academia or they can’t. From what I have seen and read the latter is more common than the former. In which case, either they can buck their ideas up and do their jobs properly without the protection of an echo chamber or they should be ignored by those drawing up education policies or enacting methods/interventions in schools. I also think a an ethics code needs to be observed by academics in this field.

      4. The point about complexity isn’t a strawman, its much simpler than that.
        Research results are more complex than they are often presented. The presentation is usually in the form “Research shows that if you do X you will get Y as a result” or “Doing X is better than doing Y.” The reality is much more complex than this. The reality is that the research shows that if you do X you will get a range of results from U to Z and the most likely out come is Y, but U and V might actually be a worse outcome for some subjects of the research than not doing X in the first place. Now, it may well be that overall doing X is better than not doing it, for the population, but it is not a strawman to suggest that it’s complex. You can have two pieces of research that at the headline level say the opposite but which for some subjects actually generate the same outcome and for some the reverse of what the research suggests.
        And this is real point. Research should only ever be used as evidence. And it is the “expert” that attempts to use single points of evidence that we should be wary of. Rarely should we rely upon a single piece of research to inform practice. And never, in my opinion, because human complexity is involved, can we state with certainly that even a body of evidence provides us with the basis to state that one approach is the best for all students in all situations. Sometimes, because it is convenient (and not harmful to the child) we may do that, but we should only do so on the strict acceptance that we may be wrong to do so and expert enough to recognise the error and to change tack.
        At this point it is the expert in the classroom that has to take responsibility. I’ve written more about this some time ago –

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