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Peter Mortimore’s Education Under Siege attacks Gove’s neoliberal assault on education and seeks to rescue another way of valuing education, finds Sean Ledwith

Education under siege

Peter Mortimore, Education Under Siege: Why There is a Better Alternative (Policy Press 2013), xiii, 313pp.

Peter Mortimore’s new study of the English school system Education Under Siege is aptly titled. Thanks to the human wrecking ball known as Michael Gove, educators in this country have grown wearily accustomed, since 2010, to a relentless tirade of regressive initiatives and negative publicity emanating from the ironically named Department for Education.

Gove and his acolytes in the Tory Party and the right-wing media routinely excoriate teachers for allegedly presiding over a decline in standards, letting classroom behaviour spiral out of control, and plotting strike action with the conscious intention of damaging children’s education. Mortimore cites a former government advisor, Julian Le Grand, who claims ‘teachers will generally act in their own interest rather than through any commitment to their pupils or to public service’ (p.155).

Gove matched this calumny for insulting cynicism when he was discussing teachers taking striking action last summer: ‘They are the people who are the enemies of promise … I have a simple message for the leaders of militant teaching unions: please, please, please don’t put your ideology before our children’s interests’.

This blatant cynicism derives from the hard reality that unfortunately the only ideology currently being forced on the English education system is the unvarnished neoliberalism championed by Gove himself. Peter Mortimore’s insightful analysis of that system does not draw back from pointing the finger at this corrosive ideology and its iniquitous effects. He notes: ‘Whether or not the government gives the go-ahead for private companies to make a profit, I fear that the marketisation of schooling will turn out to be a grievous mistake’ (p.159).

Mortimore is well placed to make such an observation. He is a former HMI Inspector, Director of London’s respected Institute of Education, and also has extensive experience of the Scandinavian education systems in an advisory capacity.

His starting point is a useful overview of the philosophy of education; an aspect of the field that has become increasingly marginalised thanks to the philistinism that permeates policy debates under Gove. The latter considers education in a purely instrumental manner, as a mechanism for individual career advancement or, on a macro scale, for national economic competitiveness.

In contrast, Mortimore explains the dominant approach in other European states is based on the German concept of ‘bildung’, which has been translated by one of its proponents as: ‘something to do with the spiritual and /or aesthetic side of our lives … a value in itself’ (p.5).

The word may be unfamiliar to many English teachers but the thinking behind it is probably one to which most aspire in practice. Any educator who has groaned inwardly at the mechanistic prioritising of grades, targets and levels at the expense of the unique personalities that actually occupy classrooms will instinctively understand the meaning of ‘bildung’. Mortimore explicates how most progressive philosophers of education have devised variations on this notion of learning as above all a process that‘lifts our gaze from the mundane to the profound’ as he puts it (p.5).

He approvingly refers to socialist theoreticians of education such as Lev Vygotsky who emphasised the ‘social context of learning’ and ‘how children working alongside their teacher or more advanced pupils can learn and achieve at a level way beyond their current level’ (p.48). Likewise, he refers to the Brazilian thinker, Paolo Freire, who stressed the importance of ‘learning through experience and the limitations of school learning removed from the daily life of the child’ (p.46).

Going back further in time, Mortimore discusses Aristotle’s focus on the essentially ‘contestable’ nature of the educational process and the importance of inculcating scepticism in the mind of the learner (p.1).

Gove’s curricular Gradgrindery is the polar opposite of this enlightened approach. As one hundred respected educationalists noted in an open letter of protest from 2013: ‘The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity’.

Mortimore shares the concern of the authors of this letter. The Gove-led framework is predicated on a narrow and impoverished conception of education. Teachers and children become locked into a cramped programme of study in which any non-measurable gain is discarded as irrelevant: ‘it produces lots of young people good at passing tests and examinations. But I am less convinced that the system generates the intellectually curious. I fear that our system may depress rather than stimulate such a characteristic’ (p.199).

Mortimore is also refreshingly critical not just of the content of the Gove agenda but also of its context in a national system that protects and promotes educational elitism. He calls for a rationalisation of English schooling that would involve the phased compression of academies, free schools and even private schools into a fully national and state regulated framework that would allow all children to start their learning journey on the basis of genuine equality. Mortimore accepts that such a plan appears utopian for the foreseeablefuture but insists ‘the benefit of removing such a fault-line from our society would be priceless’ (p.221).

This is just one of numerous practical recommendations made by Mortimore that would meet with approval by many educators on the left. He suggests the abolition of parental choice in choosing secondary schools and its replacement by a system of random allocation (p.216); the ending of league tables that encourage destructive competition (p.232); the abolition of homework for primary school children (p.229), and the introduction of sabbaticals every seven years so teachers can upgrade their subject knowledge (p.205). Another innovative proposal is the idea of elected headteachers, as practised in Holland (p.93). It is interesting to speculate how many senior managers would survive such an outbreak of democracy.

Comparative analysis of other European school systems is one of the most valuable aspects of the book. The Finnish school system, in particular, is one that is often alluded to as powerful evidence that the social-democratic ideal of comprehensive education can survive and even flourish within the constraints of the global economy.

Mortimore outlines the many positive attributes of this alternative model, which almost reads like a wish-list for downtrodden teachers in England. There are no private schools, no setting or streaming, and no public exams. Instead, there is free day care, pre-school provision for infants, and free school lunches for all school-age children. The pupil-teacher ratio at secondary level is 9.8:1, as opposed to the English 17.3:1 (p.61).Prospective educators have to spend a minimum of fiveyears in training, in stark contrast to Gove’s insidious plan to staff free schools in England with untrained teachers.

Finland’s consistent position at or near the top of most international measurements of educational achievement is one of the awkward truths that should derail Gove’s ideological offensive (p.195). Mortimore underlines that this alternative model demonstrates ‘that excellence and equity canwork together’ (p.198). He defines the philosophical underpinning of the Finnish and other Scandinavian models as an attempt to: ‘develop social justice, equity, equal opportunities, participative democracy and inclusion as those were pivotal values in Nordic welfare state thinking’ (p.81).

Articulate aspirations such as this - reminiscent of the German ‘bildung’- could not be further from the crass philistinism that is frequently blurted out by Gove’s underlings at the DfE, one of who recently stated  for example: ‘We can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we’ll all soon be working for the Chinese.’

Mortimore is right to flag up the Scandinavian model as a more enlightened paradigm than the car-crash schools policy being implemented by the coalition, but he also has a tendency to be slightly starry-eyed about these countries. They remain capitalist states locked into the demands of the global economy and as such are still subject to the inequalities and tensions that austerity has brought to all parts of the EU; as witnessed by the outbreak of riots that hit Sweden in May 2013. They are useful reference points for how a socialist education system would be radically different, but they remain compromised by the necessity to exist within societies orientated around capital accumulation.

Despite this lack of political perspective, Mortimore is right to argue there is much we can learn from these countries, including the complete absence of a punitive school-inspection system. He is scathing about the modern practices of Ofsted in England, currently led by Gove’s attack-dog in chief, Michael Wilshaw. Mortimore quotes the latter’sinfamous comment about teachers’ psychology: ‘if anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all-time low you know you are doing something right’ (p.148).

Nothing could be more indicative of the crude mind-set and mechanisms deployed by this organisation, allegedly meant to measure educational performance, but in reality to break the spirit of teachers in the public sector. Mortimore cites independent evidence that Ofsted inspection grades lack reliability, including one study that suggested that if two separate Ofsted teams visited the same school a week apart they would probably arrive at different conclusions (p.147). He also condemns the current ‘sneak-attack’ model in which Ofsted can descend on an institution at three days notice, driving many teachers into a blind panic about paperwork and their managers into bizarre efforts to impress the inspectors.

Mortimore observes wryly: ‘I know of a school where flowers were planted and potted plants installed to coincide with the impending inspection’ (p.147). Pre-Ofsted monitoring regimes in previous eras were about building up a long-term relationship of advice and support between inspectors and teachers, in which mutual trust was integral. As he puts it: ‘I recall a time when inspectors relied completely on their judgements and ignored the data; now I fear they may be doing the opposite’ (p.148).

An even better approach to classroom quality is again provided by the Nordic states, where teachers (not full-time inspectors) observe colleagues in other schools on a regular basis in a genuinely supportive system. This approach ensures consistent levels of provision but also the opportunity to share good practice (p.225).

Mortimore also critiques Gove’s decision to move the observation goalposts so the previous category of ‘satisfactory’ was re-designated as ‘requires improvement’. The cumulative effect of this arbitrary manipulation was that ‘26% of schools formerly deemed satisfactory face three years of further inspections’ (p.148). The hidden agenda here is nothing to do with a specious pursuit of higher standards; it is Gove’s fanatical desire to entrench the Trojan-Horse academies and free schools programme. Schools deemed to be unfit by Ofsted are put on warning to improve or they will be handed over to the private sector vampires that lie in wait to take them over.

However, the issue of academies highlights another weakness of the book, as of course it was Blair that initiated this programme, not Gove and the Tories. Mortimore does not spare the Labour Party from responsibility for the crisis in the system. He points out how Blairite ministers were culpable of failing to back the comprehensive ideal and smoothing the way for the private sector to start eating away at state-funded provision: ‘New Labour politicians used the same methods as their Conservative predecessors to fund schools differentially, maintain the high-stakes testing programme, promote faith schools, privatise management and further weaken local authorities’ (p.159).

Mortimore is unable to understand, however, why (‘inexplicably’) Labour would have adopted such a revision of its traditional approach to education (p.159). The answer, of course, is that all three major parties in British politics have swallowed the neoliberal agenda, not just the Tories. Recent confirmation of this conversion is also provided by Labour’s current Education spokesperson, Tristram Hunt (a privately educated Oxbridge graduate), getting into a mess over free schools.

Mortimore incisively analyses the ‘siege’ underway in the English education system but he fails to identify who precisely is carrying out this attack and with what motivation. What is missing from his study is a political perspective informed by an understanding that the ‘siege’ is not just the work of right-wing blowhards like Gove.

The neoliberal agenda in schools is the project of a capitalist class that is determined to roll back one of the great achievements of the British working class; comprehensive education based on the principle of equality. Mortimore is right, however, about the best way to fight off this attack. He was probably writing before the existence of the People’s Assembly but his conclusion could easily act as a rallying call for its approach:

‘Well-organised opposition can be overcome only by a mass desire for a fair education system, serving the interests of all society, led by determined campaigners. Readers, create the opportunity for an education spring and do your part in building an education system -and a society - worth leaving to your children and your grandchildren’ (p.241).

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters


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