Who makes our nation’s education policy, do you know? Who decides how schools are to be structured and run? If you think you know, how do you know? Is it because you have seen a face on the television with a name and a title below it?
The architects of many policies in many government portfolios are unelected, you won’t see their names on your television screen and you won’t hear them give interviews. They advise the elected from desks paid for by party donors and direct them to distribute departmental funds to their allies.
Their allies use these funds to lay astroturf over patches of public and professional opinion in their efforts to prepare both public and professions for their pet policies yet to pass into law, along the way recruiting useful idiots.
These useful idiots, grateful for the imagined recognition and eager to seem important in the eyes of their peers, promote the aims and ideas of their recruiters across social media and via ticketed salons at which point you, finally, have the choice of calling them, their bosses & their bosses’ bosses out on their shit. You are the guardian of your pupils and your profession from shit ideas.
It should be said that the authors and administrators of these ideas are not, to counter one critic of this post, ‘malign’ but a mix of the self-interested and the ideological who have access to networks and resources which allow them to disrupt established systems in readiness for their restructuring along their preferred lines. That they can take profit in both is not necessarily incidental.
The Lawn from beyond the Stars!
If you read the official researchED origin story you will be told that:
researchED is a grass-roots, teacher led organisation started in 2013 by Tom Bennett
This is the Ladybird version. In fact, researchED as a project was publicly proposed by Sam Freedman, former think-tank commander at the Tory Policy Exchange:
About six months ago Ben Goldacre and I were having a twitter conversation about how one might mobilise the burgeoning collective interest in research amongst teachers. We’d agreed that a grassroots conference would be a great thing…but that sounded like a lot of work.
It is true that Freedman, a former adviser to Michael Gove, made a markedly casual suggestion that Bennett should be in charge of taking this ‘grassroots’ project forward:
We know that Bennett was subsequently employed by the Department for Education as its ‘behaviour tsar’. What is also true but absent from the researchED legend is that at the DfE wheels were already in motion ostensibly to make teaching an evidence-based profession.
Four days prior to Freedman’s tweet Bad Science author Ben Goldacre had produced a report for Gove’s DfE into the possibility of this very thing, making clear his position on the professional agency of individual teachers as practitioner-researchers in opposition to a model of the profession as the passive recipients of sanctioned research & practice:
Firstly, evidence based practice isn’t about telling teachers what to do: in fact, quite the opposite. This is about empowering teachers, and setting a profession free from governments, ministers and civil servants who are often overly keen on sending out edicts, insisting that their new idea is the best in town. Nobody in government would tell a doctor what to prescribe, but we all expect doctors to be able to make informed decisions about which treatment is best, using the best currently available evidence. I think teachers could one day be in the same position.
Following education minister Nick Gibb’s gushing endorsement of researchED’s preferred researchers, schools and regular speakers to its 2016 national conference I can only guess what Goldacre makes of the recent commercial incorporation of his notional grassroots movement at Companies House, nor its positioning of itself and de facto government appointment as research gatekeeper to the teaching profession. On the evidence of his quote above I suspect he might disapprove and be more enthusiastic about the individual research access afforded to teachers by the Chartered College of Teaching. I am open to correction on that, of course, but a cynical observer might conclude that the commissioning of Goldacre’s report by Gove’s team was motivated less by a desire to instantiate his advice than to borrow his authority in the run-up to researchED’s launch via Bennett who, while affable with experience of event management, lacks research credentials.
Given that Goldacre’s recruitment was initially suggested to Gove’s DfE by then special adviser Dominic Cummings, lately Director of Vote Leave and former Strategy Director for Iain Duncan Smith during his stint as Conservative Party leader, cynicism may be legitimate. Certainly ResearchED’s disruptive influence upon professional opinion and practice has been significant. This is to be expected as its origins and players intersect with those of the New Schools Network, a successful astroturfer of parent and governor opinion and practice.
The New Schools Network was set up in 2009 by former Gove special adviser Rachel Wolf, daughter of the baronial author of the Wolf Report, to advise and support groups who wished to set up free schools. Having originated in Conservative think-tanks, free schools did not enter official government policy until after the May 2010 general election. Dominic Cummings worked for the NSN until December 2010 during which time, it is reported, he addressed an email to Gove, Freedman & Wolf calling for civil servants to ‘find a way to give NSN cash without delay’. What happened next? Following the establishment of a Conservative-LibDem coalition government, the DfE awarded the NSN £500,000.
Given their common players & paths the only apparent difference between the trajectories of researchED and the New Schools Network is that the latter’s is punctuated by whopping amounts of government cash while the former has claimed poverty since its inception. We have to hand it to Tom Bennett for his truly amazing accomplishment of keeping his international ‘grassroots’ enterprise going for four years without producing any apparent profits.
The Just-Us League
In 2017 we find free schools everywhere even though by any objective observation, costly of itself and damaging in its needless diversion of much needed resources, that programme has failed. For the same reasons it has exceeded expectations as a disruptor of the established school system, a point of ingress for commercial interests, such that this April the DfE approved a further 131 free schools.
Sam Freedman is now Executive Director of Participant Impact & Delivery at Teach First, the UK’s largest graduate recruiter whose teacher training model has significantly disrupted both ITE and thereby teaching in the UK. It produces dissatisfied NQTs and works to a 10% dropout rate implying, at least, inappropriate recruitment but government backing papers over many cracks and so the enterprise endures. In fact, it thrives. Think-tank and lobby group the Fair Education Alliance, you may be interested to know, is Teach First lawn furniture. FEA’s Vice Chair Dame Julia Cleverdon is TF’s Vice Patron and former Chair. The groups’ shared address means that she can work for each from the same desk so if you want evidence of unelected influence upon our education policy & practice then you need look no further than 6 Mitre Passage, SE10.
Each new cohort of Teach First’s ‘ambassadors’ falls in line behind social media’s presumptive pedagogical gurus, tsars, prize-winners & wannabe super-heroes. Their ambition outstripping their experience these NQTs, practically trained to different standards to the rest of us, push forward with what they have been persuaded is their ‘revolution’ and proceed preaching to teachers who’ve been in successful practice longer than these evangelists have been tying their own shoe laces. Any risk that these still impressionable young people might learn from experienced in-service teachers is mitigated by regular ‘research conferences’ where they may meet their heroes and receive their marching orders.
Which brings us back to researchED. It has at last become a company in its own name, its 2017 programme featuring numerous presentations by its Directors as well as its customary chummy troupe of PowerPoint wranglers. Despite appearances by several people I respect as important voices I have sworn off researchED following a vile tweet by one of its regular turns, the last straw following the insulting & vacuous brand marketing delivered by Michaela Community School at May’s #rEDlang. The signs are that researchED will go on to give greater platform to individuals & groups who seek to disrupt our education system and the teaching profession. Its national conference in September will feature a talk by Louis Coiffait, think-tank Reform’s Head of Education, whom you may remember for his dream of introducing into schools the Uber model of employment.
Crisis in #bizarroED
There is no shortage of bad ideas for education swilling down the social media pipeline from these networked astroturfers so if we’re using Twitter, WordPress, Facebook & the like to inform & enrich our own practice then we’ve a duty to be sceptical of everything preached by the Just-Us League. Call them out on their shit as soon as you smell it. Seeing their doom in the first sign of your dissent they’ll pull on their capes & sock puppets, they’ll accuse you of denying debates which don’t exist and they will call you a hater for pointing out errors & anticipating problems with everything from basic subject knowledge to safeguarding. Stand firm. What’s right is right, and what works works. It does not matter how many people follow your social media accounts or whether people pay to watch your PowerPoints, If you have a good idea then get it out there and let people try it. If it turns out it’s a bad idea then let people help you fix it and don’t let others drag you into futile flame wars or label you according to their prejudices. Don’t let get bogged down disputing their ideology. Don’t get stuck in interminable arguments with self-appointed authorities. Teach what you can teach, teach it better each time and your pupils will always remember you as someone from whom they learnt not only skills and knowledge but also how to be an independent, freethinking person.
Thanks for reading. Peace.
All information given in this post is in the public domain. Should any reader notice any factual errors then they are invited to provide me with appropriate links to their public domain sources that I might review and, if necessary, correct this post.