Thursday, 31 January 2008

Mark Taylor thinks that the Children’s Plan is a contemporary 'Minor Carta'

Few people appear to have realised the real significance of the name change that occurred when Ed Balls became Secretary of State on 28 June 2007, and promptly created the Department for Children, Schools and the Family to replace the Department for Education and Skills. However, the truth really is in the title: there is no desire to educate the people anymore. Instead, after 10 years in power, the Children’s Plan exposes the intellectual wasteland at the heart of Labour’s education policies.

Balls claims that the plan responds to the desire for more support, and observes that children’s needs must come before traditional institutional structures (although he wants schools at the centre of the newly unstructured structure). The plan wants Britain to be the best place in the world to grow up by 2020, but does not explain how the necessary comparison will be developed with other countries to work out whether this has been achieved.

The plan’s chapters attempt to rationalise – but not really order – the multifarious existing policies which already affect children, from registered childcare to 20 mph traffic zones, to obesity checks, parenting advisers, softer skills, Surestart, testing and zero carbon schools. A unifying theme of the plan is ‘partnership with parents’ and a ‘new relationship’ between schools and parents based on a personal tutor for every child. One conceptual innovation serves to cohere this rationalisation: ‘social pedagogy’, a term I expect we will be hearing more of in the next few years. Unfortunately, it appears, like personalisation, to express the collapse of the intellectual relationship between government and people and its replacement with a behavioural one.

Perhaps this is too harsh a judgement on the government? Surely, there is still education in the plan? Certainly, the case is made for a Master’s qualification for all teachers. But will it make them masters of teaching subjects or masters of diagnosing stages of intervention? And what will they teach if, as the plan states, the curriculum is being built around ‘assessment to identify support and intervention’? Similarly, a system based on ‘stage not age’ testing (another idea in the plan) will ultimately lead to more testing, not less, and people may eventually forget what they are supposed to be testing for (also see my BOI 2007 essay on exams on the website). And will it really be possible for children to think for themselves when involved in so many needs assessments to gauge the required support? And won’t the multiplication of adults in supporting roles simply confuse everyone about the source of intellectual authority in the classroom? In any case, social pedagogy suggests a shift in teacher training away from the theory of knowledge about the world and towards a knowledge of theories about the child. The curriculum, negatively in my view, will therefore tend to focus more on internally referenced psychological limits than externally referenced epistemology. The result may be to further isolate teachers who really want to teach their subjects, and possibly to indoctrinate others in lowering their intellectual expectations. If the plan succeeds, teachers may eventually be seen as just another of the ‘key workers’ who support children. And the voluntary parent-teacher association may become the compulsory parent-state association.

The plan was created from a ‘consultancy’ with adults and children, as well as the convening of three ‘expert’ groups for age groups 0-7, 8-13 and 14-19. With such coverage, the impression can be given that the plan is coherent, and that the public have spontaneously ‘demanded’ support. However, this is far from the case, and the question really has to be asked about whether this is a plan at all, as opposed to an attempt by Ed Balls to understand his remit. The expert groups based their findings around a superficially enlightened desire to offer ‘opportunity’ rather than ‘deficit’ models of childhood. This adds up to less than the sum of its parts, however, because the groups all replace the intellectual liberation potentially offered by academic subjects by stages of childhood. Thus, they are experts on everything but education, and the only debate within their findings is intra-psychological (about when to intervene), rather than educational (about what to teach and when to let go). These reports therefore legitimise the shift expressed in the main plan from the idea of education in academic subjects to intervention in the lives of diminished subjects. References in the main plan to how it conforms to UN articles on the ‘right to an education’ cannot hide the fact that this only means - a more evasive idea - personal development.

In short, a new ‘care elite’ is institutionalising itself in government, more through imaginative default elsewhere than the power of their own ideas. Their increasingly confident educational and political use of the language of support and parenting obscures the truth that people who have become successful principally for social reasons are trying to convince others that success is only rooted in the personal sphere – as long as the latter are supported by the former. This represents a morally dubious conflation of care and authority over both children and adults. Seen this way, the Children’s Plan, in a Runnymede moment, is a contemporary 'Minor Carta'. The question remains whether any children, and that appears to be all of us these days, will really want to be partners in such a diminished view of education, government – and ourselves.

The full text and the Executive Summary can be found at the DfES website (pdf).

Mark Taylor’s 'Battle in Print' essay, 'The debate over examinations is little more than a War of the Poses', can be found at the Battle of Ideas.