It was good to hear some pithy and active voices at the NUT conference in Liverpool this weekend, with calls for the head of Ofstead, Sir Michael Wilshaw, to resign because Ofsted is a “not an inspectorate but a politically motivated surveillance operation”. Hearing about how teachers are increasingly frustrated at the bellicose Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, and his insistence of a narrow curriculum and a focus on so-called ‘standards’, is merely the start of what will prove to be a long and drawn-out war of attrition between the teaching profession and the government.
Underpinning much of this anxiety is the unspoken desire on the part of the neo-liberal Tories, like Michael Gove, to privatise the schools system in England. By forcing schools to become academies, regardless of the case for alternatives, Gove is pushing through a market system in education. A market that will see schools pitted against each other, operating in an increasingly commercial manner and treating children as customers.
The experience of this push to the market has been felt in Higher Education for the last two years, with the tripling of fees to £9,000 per-year. My experience tells me that when you introduce market mechanisms to education in this way, the bond of trust between the learner and the teacher is broken. Instead, what emerges is a transactional relationship in which the learner expects to be given certain functional skills that will qualify them and automatically allow them to move into their chosen profession.
I have a growing feeling that students that I interact with want me to provide them with a check-list of activities that they can work through as they move step-by-step into their chosen profession. It has become harder to foster and encourage individual thinking. Challenging ideas are subsumed by the ‘skills factory’ mentality that puts in place an escalator that merely has to be ridden before the learner is able to take-up their rightful place in the jobs market – with their dutifully acquired 2:1.
It becomes much harder, then, under these circumstances, to offer a more liberal and open-minded view of education. One that sees education as a holistic experience in which the skills that the individual develops are supplemented with a critical approach that checks the sustainable status of the industry or activity that is being studied. Rather than preparing learners for the world as it is today, Higher Education has, more importantly, to be able to prepare learners for the world of the future. A future that has not yet been invented.
If Higher Education merely works exclusively to the immediate horizon and fails to engage in creating an open and divergent intellectual landscape, then we will lose the benefit of innovation and creative thinking. Sticking within the narrow remit of the skills and employability agenda, the so-called student experience, and the things that we already know, will ensure only that our thoughts are allowed to converge and retrench around approaches that have been long-established. This consolidation will not allow us to promote and develop new forms of thinking, new techniques and technologies, or make new advances in practice and process.
I wonder how long it will be before Higher Education is swamped by an external inspectorate, like Ofstead, who checks a national curriculum that is designed to meet the supposed economic needs of the customer? The commercialised mindset is already in place, with the drive to the ‘student experience’ as the model for assessing and valuing the role of Higher Education. But what happens when individuals want to challenge the status quo or want to develop new ways of thinking and acting? Will the market provide the freedoms that are required by dissident and enquiring minds, who want to test the ethical and sustainable basis of the marketplace, or will academics and teachers be reduced to playing and gaming the system for commercial advantage alone?
The NUT seems to finally be waking-up to this challenge, and providing a platform for dissent and debate, I wonder how long it will take the unions in Higher Education to start voicing these concerns?