Page last updated at 00:19 GMT, Saturday, 16 February 2008

Lesson one: no Orwellian language

By Mike Baker

Mike Baker

An insightful speaker raised a massive cheer from the audience at an education conference this week.

No, he had not called for a doubling of teachers' pay, the abolition of national tests, or even a ban on lumpy custard in school canteens.

No, his rallying cry was much simpler and involves no complex administrative changes or financial costs.

Yet it went to the heart of what education is about.

He urged everyone to stop talking about "delivery" in education and to return to talking about "teaching".

The speaker was Professor Richard Pring, of Oxford University, and he was not just being fussy about the use of language.

A quick look at any recent government documents quickly provides further examples

His point was that education has been taken over by an "Orwellian language" which has started to control the way we think and act.

Professor Pring is the lead author of a report, published this week by the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training, which looks at how the aims and values of education have come to be "dominated by the language of management".

So when judging schools and universities we now talk about "performance indicators" as a substitute for assessing the quality of their teaching.

Learning has to be measured by an "audit" of the qualifications achieved rather than a more qualitative judgement of what students have learned.

This approach has certainly driven policy in adult education, where courses that do not lead to an accredited qualification seem to be dismissed as mere hobbies by policy-makers.

A quick look at any recent government documents quickly provides further examples.

For example, they talk about "new providers" instead of schools.

'What is education for?'

Repeated phrases refer to "efficiency gains", "choice for customers", "the market", and "funding systems that respond to customer demand".

The phraseology of "inputs" and "outputs" is more like the language of industrial production than of education.

It implies there is an exact specification for the finished product.

The Nuffield paper wonders whether we have lost sight of earlier descriptions of education such as "the conversation between the generations of mankind" (Michael Oakeshott) or an introduction to "the best that has been thought and said" (Matthew Arnold)?

I suppose this could seem unfair. After all, the authors of government documents are not attempting to do the same thing as philosophers of education.

Yet this matters because the language we use shapes the answers to the question: "what is education for?"

And there is no doubt that it is the model of workforce preparation and employability that currently dominates the current education discourse.

Hence we now have "enterprise" as a compulsory part of the school curriculum, while history, geography and foreign languages are no longer required after the age of 14.

'Bigger picture'

Nor is this simply about a neglect of certain types of traditional academic learning.

Equally overlooked is the value of practical, hands-on learning or of creativity.

Yes, we are about to get new Diplomas in vocation subjects such as engineering, IT, Creative and Media and Health and Beauty.

But the government does not describe these as vocational qualifications but prefers to describe them as "academic" qualifications and to stress their A-level equivalence.

This may make practical sense in the face of British snobbery towards non-academic qualifications.

But it also suggests a lack of confidence in the value of practical education.

'Academic frippery'

The need to measure everything and to find equivalents for different types of education arises from a natural enough desire to achieve value-for-money, and to promote different routes for young people.

But it can also be a strait-jacket, implying that all types of learning can, and should, be forced into the same model.

As Professor Pring pointed out, one of the problems with the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) - and a future risk for Diplomas - is that in an attempt to achieve parity with GCSEs and A-levels, students were assessed not so much on what they could "do" but how well they could write about and analyse their "doing".

Students were forced into a model of academic learning, even when they had chosen something that had a hands-on and practical approach.

The same applies to creativity; the latest government initiative is an investigation into how to measure the levels of creativity amongst school pupils.

The Nuffield Review paper concludes that we should recognise, and value, many different aims for education.

These include: critical thinking and an introduction to knowledge in the physical and social sciences, the humanities and the arts; development of practical capabilities; preparation for citizenship; and development of the ideals and values needed to face the big issues affecting our communities.

Taking us back to consider the big question - "what is education for?" - may seem like an academic frippery compared to the day-to-day hard questions about the curriculum and testing.

But at a time when 14-19 education in England is going through its biggest upheaval for over 50 years, it is an essential reminder of the need to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

Pupils' creativity to be assessed
15 Feb 08 |  Education
Schools 'want to offer Diplomas'
04 Feb 08 |  Education
A-levels 'alongside new Diplomas'
31 Jan 07 |  Education

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