Battle in Print: For subject-centred education: 6. bonfire of the quangos

Toby Marshall, 22 October 2010

These six essays are written by members of the Institute of Ideas’ Education Forum. They make the case for subject-centred education. Whilst the Lib-Con coalition nominally supports a return to subject-centred teaching, there’s in fact little coherence or sense of direction to their educational strategy. More specifically, we believe subject-centred education should be defended as a method of transmitting knowledge and understanding to new generations. It should be driven by an aspiration to create a society of truly educated citizens, and foster greater intellectual autonomy and freedom for everybody.

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6. Bonfire of the quangos

For many years, politicians have called for a ‘bonfire of the quangos’. Education has more than its fair share of such bodies. Indeed, recent studies show that eleven organisations have until recently been meddling in the affairs of schools, eating up more than £1 billion in funding. So, should educationalists celebrate the recent closure of three major educational quangos?

For the most part, the Lib-Con coalition’s recent closures should be supported. Education, in my opinion, is at root inescapably political. To define the aims of education is to set out what it means to be a civilised and enlightened human being. It’s proper, therefore, that debates about education, its aims and to some extent means, should be conducted squarely within the public sphere. Politicians, rather than appointed officials, should hold the ring. 

However, it would be naïve to think closing down educational quangos will address the deeper crisis in education. In fact, there’s a danger the Coalition’s plans for ‘structural reform’ could undermine the very leadership schools desperately need. The Coalition’s attack on quangos tells us about their views on educational expertise and theory, as well their own sense of ideological confidence.

This is true primarily of the closure of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), rather than the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) and General Teaching Council for England (GTC). The basic point is that closing the QCDA indicates the Coalition would prefer to close down, rather than stimulate, discussions with those who have educational authority, expertise and experience. This is a deeply defensive approach. It may stem from the fact the Tory component of the Coalition realises it lacks a theory of education powerful enough to dislodge established educational orthodoxies. Seen in this light, the Coalition’s bonfire of education quangos expresses political weakness, not strength. 

It would be better if the Coalition adopted a more open and optimistic approach, and attempted to build a broad base of support. This means taking more seriously the theoretical work required to make a convincing case for a forward looking knowledge-centric education. It would involve a dialogue with experts in the field. The Coalition should attempt to engage the educational elite. This means not dismissing the contribution of institutions such as university departments and key figures from the educational quangocracy. Hopefully, this would establish conditions more favourable to the renewal of England’s now culturally destitute schools. 

A bonfire begins

With the appetite of a Jacobin, the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has in recent months set about dismembering key parts of the educational quangocracy. Much of this is good news for teachers. Whilst the budgetary significance of quangos has perhaps been overstated – in reality they until recently accounted for roughly 2% of the education budget – it’s true they have needlessly interfered with the business of schools. In doing so, they’ve undermined their decision making powers. 

The grossly oversized BECTA was the first to be closed, on 24th May 2010. In case you’ve never heard of it, BECTA’s remit was to ensure ‘effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning’. Its existence, however, was based on the fallacy teachers somehow need educational technology sold to them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Teachers and the public have lost little by ending this quango. In fact, taxpayers have gained £38 million, BECTA’s budget, which ought to be used to refurbish a few more of England’s rather shabby looking schools.

Soon after, on the 2 June 2010, it was announced the generally despised and derided General Teaching Council for England (GTC) would also be cut, saving the taxpayer another £16 million. This body had been established by New Labour to play a dual role: being an independent professional body, whilst maintaining standards of conduct. In practice it did neither. Instead, it generally articulated the voice of New Labour, and failed to play its disciplinary role. Indeed, the BBC’s Panorama recently showed only 13 teachers have been struck off in England in the last 40 years, and many of those were before the GTC started work in 2000.

However, teachers should also be clear that the GTC hasn’t been axed because a new era of trust is about to emerge. Rather, as the Schools Minister Lord Hill of Oareford has clarified, government is simply looking for a more ‘effective way of dealing with incompetence and misconduct’. Nobody has suggested the government’s main instrument of control, and the most significant and destructive educational quango of them all – Ofsted - will go. We can only assume the Coalition believes the GTC’s other function – representing the ‘voice’ of the teaching profession – is unnecessary. On balance, however, I am quite happy to see the GTC go. Teachers have their unions to represent their interests, and there are more than enough public forums in which teachers and their unions are free to articulate their views on professional matters. 

I am more ambivalent, however, regarding the largest and most significant head that has been put on Gove’s block. On the 27th May 2010 the Secretary of State for Education wrote to the Chair of the QCDA, which amongst other activities sets the National Curriculum. Gove began by thanking its employees for their long-standing public service. Then, he promptly declared that despite this, their organisation ‘does not have a place in the education system of the future’. To be fair, it’s unlikely this came as much of a shock, as Gove had in opposition made clear on a number of occasions he planned to change who would take responsibility for writing the school curriculum. Reports in a number of publications indicated he planned to establish a committee of the ‘greatest minds’, who would draw up a ‘traditionalist’ curriculum. There is much to recommend this approach, if by ‘traditionalist’ he means a curriculum that gives primacy to knowledge and seeks to provide students with an introduction to the fundamental ideas around which civilisation has developed.

An education system needs educationalists

Yet early reports on the composition of Gove’s proposed committee are worrying. It appears to be staffed by individuals with little demonstrated expertise or serious interest in education. They seem to have instead highly demanding publishing, academic, or broadcasting careers. They don’t lack academic credentials – some are stars within their respective disciplines – but few seem to have made significant, sustained and serious contributions to debates about the future of education. In short, many are not educationalists. Indeed, few have even taught in schools.

Two members of Gove’s committee illustrate this point. The first is historian Simon Schama. Regardless of his specific historical opinions, Schama has a well-established track record of engaging both the scholarly world and public more broadly. He has plenty to offer. But what Schama lacks, as far as I can see, is any demonstrable record of thinking in a sustained theoretical fashion about the curriculum, or education. He may be a scholar of history, but he’s no theorist of education.

Another celebrity associated with Gove’s committee of the great is broadcaster Carol Vorderman. Many have sneered that her ‘gentleman’s’ 3rd class degree in engineering from Cambridge means she wouldn’t even be eligible for a teacher training grant under the Coalition’s new system. Others suggest the author of the Massive Guide to Sudoku and presenter of Countdown (1982 - 2008) is hardly the right sort of individual to write the new Maths curriculum. But unlike Schama, she does at least appear to have written books for the school market. and her Maths Made Easy is well regarded in some quarters.     

If the final composition of the Coalition’s curriculum panel follows this pattern of elevating non-educationalists to positions of authority, this would indicate that educational matters are not being taken seriously by Mr Gove and his team. Whilst we await the final line up, many of those candidates noted so far don’t appear to evidence much educational expertise. This suggests the Coalition believes the serious and complex questions posed by education and curriculum can be easily resolved by well-meaning amateurs. They are wrong. In fact, writing a curriculum is a highly skilled exercise that requires significant prior experience.  It also means having the ability to conceive of the curriculum in its totality, as the curriculum is more than a sum of its individual subjects.

Educationalists Need Theory

The promotion of amateurism is a longstanding theme within modern Conservatism. It has consistently expressed hostility towards those who’ve attempted to theorise education. In the Conservative imagination, any attempt to go beyond superficial thinking about education has been considered at best a pointless distraction and at worse ideologically subversive of the ‘common sense’ assumptions on which traditional forms of education have rested. This is why Michael Gove has been keen to describe teaching as no more than a ‘craft’. It also explains Schools Minister Nick Gibb’s recent and rather unguarded statements to his departmental officials. He said: ‘I would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE.’ Surely the point that a Minister of State for Schools should be articulating is that he wants high-calibre teachers educated in both their subjects and in education, unless he believes that approaching education in theoretical terms is a pointless exercise.

The Coalition’s philistinism about education is misguided and ultimately self-defeating. All teachers require theory to operate effectively. Two simple examples illustrate this point. Before and since the election Micheal Gove has pushed for a return to subject-based education. He should be supported. But how can educators be expected to uphold subject-based teaching if the Coalition lacks the intellectual apparatus needed to define what a subject is, and isn’t? Similarly, Gove has recently called for the abolition of ‘pseudo-subjects’ in schools. There may be something to be supported here. But how might we distinguish between a ‘real’ and a ‘pseudo’ subject? To engage in these questions requires a theory of knowledge. It also requires more than a passing exposure to the great debates held in educational philosophy in the 1960s and 1970s, when serious thinkers attempted to make clear the nature and boundaries of subjects. In other words, theory is required.

Looking to the future

The Coalition should be clear what it stands for, and use this to start a public debate. To shape this debate, key figures from the Coalition’s education team, most of which are Conservatives, should raise the standard of discourse by engaging the educational elite. Closing down the debate by closing down quangos is defensive. It will win over no hearts and no minds.

Ironically, Gove may soon find he needs to set up a new curriculum quango. Once his committee of the great and good has decided what students need to know at the level of subjects, somebody will then be confronted with the practical task of translating these ideas into a workable document for schools. At which point, Gove may rue that day he dismissed those who worked for the QCDA.


lecturer and researcher in media, film and communication studies; member, IoI Education Forum

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