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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 March 2008, 11:28 GMT
Who rules in the classroom?
By Mike Baker

Mike Baker
It is commonplace for teachers and parents to complain that politicians interfere too much in education, constantly making announcements and launching initiatives but often having no real effect.

It is rare, though, for a politician to admit the same. Yet this is the position that one very experienced former MP and government minister has reached.

Estelle Morris, who was Schools Minister and then Education Secretary from 1997 to 2002, is an unusually candid politician who has thought hard about the relationship between politicians and education reform.

She has just delivered those thoughts in a lecture to the National Education Trust, an independent education foundation. It could be the start of a more mature debate on education reform.

Although some headlines highlighted her criticism of the government for 'thrashing around' on school reform, the underlying theme was more fundamental than these mildly critical comments of current policy by a former minister.

Her argument is that the real change comes from what happens in the classroom

Estelle Morris was not arguing, as some do, that politicians should keep their noses out of education reform altogether.

But she was admitting something that current ministers cannot: namely, that many of the pronouncements of government have as much impact as reorganising the deckchairs on The Titanic.

Like other ministers, she felt "under pressure to make announcements all the time".

So she frequently signed news releases announcing, for example, 5m for an anti-bullying initiative without really having the "slightest idea what happened to it".

She also hinted that Tony Blair's Downing Street felt she should have been somewhat keener on announcing reforms. She described this as her "political weakness".

Yet others will see it as a strength - the strength to realise the limitations of political action.

As Estelle Morris put it: "The danger of politicians is that, because they have to respond all the time, they think they have solved problems."

The current "national anxiety" over schools and children has, she said, increased that pressure on politicians to attempt to wave their magic wands.

Yet most of the changes announced by politicians are about the funding, organisation or structures of education. Her argument is that the real change comes from what happens in the classroom.

Success story

Looking back over her time in government, Ms Morris highlighted one set of reforms she thinks made a real difference: the numeracy and literacy strategies.

As she put it, this was the "first time a political policy had been about pedagogy". In other words, it was about how teachers should teach in the classroom.

Even the creation of the national curriculum and national testing by the previous Conservative government had not ventured so far into the practicalities of classroom practice. So, if the only change that really matters is reform of pedagogy, does that mean politicians should be interfering in what is traditionally the preserve of the professionals?

The curriculum used to be education's 'secret garden'. Since 1988, though, politicians have stolen the key, determining which subjects, knowledge and skills should be taught

This is the point where the discussion about when and how politicians should get involved in education reform becomes rather complex and certainly very sensitive.

Teachers might agree with Estelle Morris that there should be fewer initiatives but will they feel happy about politicians entering their professional sphere.

The curriculum used to be education's "secret garden". Since 1988, though, politicians have stolen the key, determining which subjects, knowledge and skills should be taught.

But the way teachers teach - how they organise their classroom, their pupils, and their pedagogic methods - has until now largely remained as the last secret enclave.

Yet, as Estelle Morris noted, politicians are now trying to tell teachers how to set or stream their pupils and urging them to use a particular type of phonics to teach reading.

So - if the real reforms take place in the classroom - the big question is: who should decide?

Morris's answer is that reform must be based on research evidence. Yet, as she pointed out, there is no national body responsible for developing pedagogy.

Challenges ahead

In Morris's ideal world, politicians would influence decisions about classroom practice but only on the basis of clear research evidence about what works.

There are problems with this. For a start, governments work on four or five-year cycles. They need results quickly. Research studies on education usually take longer than this to establish the long-term effects of change on children's learning.

The next problem is that academic researchers do not always agree with one another. So which research should politicians listen to? Do they have the expertise to decide between conflicting evidence?

The third problem is that even if there is a consensus amongst academics, how do you ensure that 450,000 individual classroom teachers actually go ahead and adapt their practices?

These are interesting challenges. Ms Morris proposes there should be greater incentives for researchers to focus on applied, "nitty-gritty" research and for teachers to constantly improve their classroom practice.

Providing these incentives could be one role for government. Another might be to appoint the panel of experts who would hold the ring between conflicting research evidence, although they would have to be careful not to pick only those of like mind.

In the end, though, it is hard to see how decisions on teaching methods can avoid being influenced by political values about the role of education.

And, since politicians are elected and teachers are not, they are entitled to a point of view on the purpose of education.

There are no easy answers here. Deciding where to draw the dividing line between politicians and teachers is going to be a tough call.

But, with her candid politician's perspective, Estelle Morris has clearly suggested that the dividing line should shift rather more towards the professionals' side.

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