None of Your Business: The role of government in an autonomous school system

After a Twitter debate yesterday on whether removing National Curriculum levels was a good thing (hint: it was), I realised that the  main point of contention lay in what we actually thought the role of government in education is. Rather than continue skirting around the issue, I’m going to lay out what I think.

The education system is going through a period of flux. Where the empire of government once ruled, now increasingly autonomous schools pick up the power to rule themselves. To adjust to a new system we need to understand the roles of all the players. Our new system might be school-led, but what does that actually tell us about the rightful role of government and teachers?

The role of government: to decide on the ends of education
What is education for? You can’t run an education system without an answer to this question, and yet it’s probably the most contentious question out there. The problem is that there isn’t a demonstrably correct answer. This question cannot be delegated to a double-blind randomised controlled trial or conclusively resolved by a panel of experts. It is far too fundamental for that.

Given we need an answer, but cannot seek one from science or consensus, the best place to turn is to democracy. A democratically-elected government should decide whether and what to examine, what schools should be aiming to achieve through education, and how to hold them to account for achieving it. Practically this means that they should set terminal exams, accountability frameworks, and little else.

The role of schools: to decide how best to achieve these ends
Once a government has set the ends of education, it is up to schools to decide how best to achieve them. This must be left to schools, and any mission creep by government or its agencies into this area should be hastily challenged. This role is for schools (rather than for government or teachers) because:

  • Schools see the whole education of each student, and have to balance the competing demands of different subjects.
  • Schools know the specific circumstances of their students and their intake, and are best-placed to respond to these.

Once the end goals are set, schools should determine the curriculum needed to achieve these, and the assessment system needed to keep on track. Where schools have their own set of values they are free to go beyond the expectations set by government, but may not drop below.

The role of teachers: to continually improve the quality of teaching
Schools will set curricula and assessment, but it is teachers who translate these into lessons. To quote the now old adage, the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. But improving the quality of teaching is not a job for schools or for government, it is a job for teachers. Only we teach our lessons. Only we are in the classrooms with ourselves all day. Only we know our greatest strengths and our greatest challenges. Only we can actually make our teaching great. But this is not the current culture.

The current culture, developed through decades of National Strategies, government guidance, and school policies, sees the quality of teaching as the preserve of schools and governments. Teachers are not fit to make decisions about teaching, but are mere enactors of policy and followers of instructions.

We must break the culture of professional development being done to us by schools, of research being given to us by government, and of good ideas being handed down in quango-branded folders. Good teaching is our responsibility, and we should reclaim it.

2 thoughts on “None of Your Business: The role of government in an autonomous school system

  1. Pingback: None of Your Business: The role of government in an autonomous school system | The Echo Chamber

  2. ijstock

    >>Good teaching is our responsibility, and we should reclaim it.

    I agree – but who is going to define good? It comes right back to your earlier point about defining what education is for. While democratically elected governments may have the right to define this, it does not necessarily make them right. For example, defining education as being ‘preparation for the workplace’ might well appeal to government – but it would ignore huge and inalienable parts of the process.

    Is it reasonable for me to be held to account to someone else’s definition of ‘good’ even if I can see they know less about the matter than I do in either a practical or ethical sense?

    So yes, I agree with you entirely – but I am not about to consider myself responsible against errors in other people’s briefs when it comes to defining it.

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