I have found myself on the highest horse imaginable this morning. And it's all because of the so-called 'Gove Levels' that seem to be the latest Lib Dem line in the sand to have been obliterated by the incompetent and ideological populist right wing of the Tory party. And the problemq is that I'm getting vertigo, which is causing me to pick fights with people whose views I admire and is making me not enjoy a potentially lovely Sunday morning. So I'm going to adopt a two-step approach to getting down from my horse: to quickly lance the boil of my indignation and then to recover my optimism and propose some ways in which we as educators can become the effective opposition we are too reliant on a weak Labour Party to provide.
So here's the indignation bit. The current exam system is not as broken as many make it out to be. The only supposed evidence that it is are the PISA rankings and the methodology of these have been effectively critiqued elsewhere. Suffice it to say that we are not tumbling down any international comparisons as the ideological doom mongers would have us believe. But there are major issues and the system is sufficiently creaky (overlaid as it has been with so many 'improvements' as tweaks down the years) to merit an informed discussion about its future, with the key word here being 'informed'. And what our creaky examination system needs least of all is a return to the inherent unfairness of norm referencing or the inherent division of an O-Level/CSE system that had been so discredited 25 years ago that it was a right-wing Tory government and right-wing Tory education minister that finally delivered its coup de grace.
There is one significant, although now dust-covered, proposal already out there about how our exam system across the 14-19 years can be reformed. What is more, the Tomlinson report seemed to attract genuine enthusiasm, and even affection, from both the profession and policy-makers. It simultaneously addressed the issues of high stakes testing at 16 creating an unnatural schism in the most fundamentally important years of education (one that I suspect we will eventually look back on as a most foolish thing) and the ridiculously narrow range of subjects we ask our 18 year olds to master. Beyond that it even managed to address the academic/vocational divide that has plagued our system since the demise of the almost universally loved TVEI (I have no idea as it was before my time, but the hazy looks from more experienced colleagues tells me a lot). But it seems Tony Blair was more worried about middle England's supposed desire to retain the 'gold standard' of A-Levels than he was about the anti-war alliance's desire that he respect international law in his dealings with Iraq: perhaps we should have got Bush to support Tomlinson???
Since then governments of both stripes have seen fit to commission panels of education professionals into curriculum change and then ignore their findings (Rose Review, Expert Group). Tomlinson remains as a potential blueprint but our political masters seem to prefer selective policy tourism to actual internal interrogation based on what is happening in our schools. It's a debate I think most teachers and school leaders would welcome (despite being caricatured as enemies of promise), but it seems further away than ever as the minister seems closer to the likes of Murdoch, the Daily Mail, Pearson, Capita rather than education professionals.
All of which brings me to the hopeful bit, the optimistic vision of how things should go and how we can mobilise and assert our professionalism. But it starts with a negative. If Gove's proposals stack up the same way they appear to have been leaked in the Mail on Sunday today, then headteachers' and teachers' unions need to lay an ultimatum before the government. They should say that unless they are actively and intimately involved in an independent commission (with a binding commitment to its findings
on the part of the government) into an overhaul of our external examination system – including the performance tables that accompany them – then they will refuse to cooperate in their implementation.
This is what I mean about asserting our professional right and responsibility to place some lines in the sand on behalf of the children an parents we represent. We cannot look ourselves in the mirror if we fail to protect those we serve from dogmatic, ideological, backward-looking and simply wrong policymakers. But we need to be more professional still and not just mobilise in opposition to a set of proposals: a reactionary position without the hope and vision of something better. Instead we need to mobilise proactively to overcome the divisions between us and our over-reliance on opposition politicians who seem to be more concerned about where in the electoral cycle they are than in setting forward a credible and professionally supported vision of their own.
What we need is a General Teaching Council. Bear with me on this. I don't mean a government-sponsored version designed only for the purpose of regulating the behaviour of teachers, as it was previously composed. The GTC I refer to is a professional organisation for teachers and by teachers whose sole aim is to research properly, devise policy proposals, lobby government and opposition politicians hard and shape the agenda through the media. It should function as an umbrella organisation for the main teaching and school leadership unions and a broad church of other interested parties and think tanks, and be funded by them. Almost all of the unions came together during the New Labour years with ministers so the will to power is there somewhere. It should be directly elected from the profession and be representative of the full range of professionals within our workforce. Fundamentally though it should be dedicated to ensuring that there is always a professionally-informed alternative to government policy to ensure that we have something to fight for, so that we can be energised rather than dispirited by constantly finding ourselves fighting against (twitter was such a gloomy place this morning).
There is time to set something like this up before the proposals outlined by the Mail become worked up into policy and imposed upon us in 2015, but not that much time. We need to become more agile and mobile to avoid being wrong footed by politicians who are increasingly savvy at using the back channels of the media, corporate clients and illegal FOI free email accounts. Twitter offers us a great model, but it can at times be merely the echo-chamber for anger, cynicism and helplessness. If we had a GTC of the kind I suggest, it might instead become a tool for winning over an otherwise uninformed public to a shadow policy programme. Now wouldn't that be fabulous?