Sunday, 11 August 2013

Thinking Allowed on Schooling by Mick Waters - Book Review

In Thinking Allowed, Mick Waters, former Headteacher, Government advisor and Director of Curriculum at the QCA, offers a biting critique of the present state of schooling in the Maintained Sector. Indeed there is more than a little "Emperor's new clothes" about the way in which Waters "tells it as it is" exposing the way in which school leaders have been forced to pander to the whim of Secretaries of State during the past twenty years. Waters does not pull punches in criticising successive Governments for meddling with the English school system - and is damning in his indictment of the present Secretary of State, Michael Gove:
"He has messed up school sport, and physical education, the arts, culture, design and technology, indeed most things he touches" (p.278).
But this is not ill-informed mud-slinging by a disaffected member of the profession. Waters is a deep thinker who has a considered vision for education, which extends beyond the experiences that children and young people have in schools. Waters has numerous positive suggestions as how to improve what goes on in our schools, but his solutions do not suit the short-term agenda of politicians in a hurry to impress and win another term. One of Waters' central proposals is the creation of a National Council for Schooling that is independent of party political influence and which can be at the centre of a much needed National debate.
Waters is hugely critical the present system where inspection and departmental dictat has forced headteachers into play games to meet targets rather than doing what is in the best interest of pupils. The chapter 'on professional integrity and game theory' (p.101ff) no doubt will strike a chord with many Headteachers in the maintained sector who feel that they have been forced to abandon many of the principles which brought them into the profession in order to secure sufficient funding to enable to do the best for the pupils in their care.
The chapter 'On the search for Equality' (p.21ff) gets to the heart of the issue, which is that children have significantly different starting points in the educational race of life. Waters uses the powerful analogy of running a 400m race with the wealthy in the inside lane and the poorest in the outside - but in this race there is no staggered start. In this race, it is possible to win from the outside lanes, but chances are stacked against you.
The stongest parts of the book is found in the chapters 'on Teachers, Learning and Classrooms' (p.139ff) and 'on Curriculum' (p.267ff).  In the former Waters draws on his extensive experience to share some outstanding strategies that are truly effective in improving learning outcomes, whereas in the latter he outlines a vision for education that extends beyond schooling to the home and community, and beyond the narrow confines of the measurable defined by Ofsted and the Department.
"Good Schools get on and do things: dance, drama, music, art, using the outdoors, speaking in other languages, finding out about the past and other places, growing things, cooking, going places, using ICT and paint brushes, making things, experimenting, learning about their own bodies, working out how to get on with others in the real world. Above all, they use all these experiences as vehicles to do amazing English and Mathematics to support the structured literacy and numeracy programmes at the same time bring purpose to learning for pupils." (p.288)
As I read this book, I could not help thinking how different our lot is in the independent sector. We truly do have the freedom and autonomy to determine what goes on in our school. Government influence is minimal. Heads and Governing Bodies can make a genuine choice as to the importance that is placed on ISI Inspection judgements and League Table positions. Ultimately independent schools are accountable via Governing Bodies to the community who chooses to send their children to be educated in our schools The independent sector has operated in a market place for decades and has gone through the inevitable processes of developing a hierarchy, specialisation and, sadly in some cases, school failure. There are many lessons from these chapters of history for the Academy sector of secondary education and for Universities.
I would encourage anyone who is interested in education to read Thinking Allowed - and to do so soon. It is a book about the present state of English education - and, although there are many longstanding truths here, Waters' political comments and analysis have a shelf-life.

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