The Parental Alliance for Choice in Education make the case for parental suspicion and scepticism of proposals from educationalists, including the Sinn Fein Minister.
It seems that these days no public official can discuss education reform in Northern Ireland without referring to “educationlists.” The four Churches issued their recent statement after consulting extensively with “educationalists,” and Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd rarely completes a sentence without the word “educationist” cropping up. Who are these “educationalists” who seems to play such a fundamental role in determining the direction of policy in education reform?
The most likely candidates are the various professors of education at Queen’s University’s School of Education. The vast majority of these professors have never taught in a school but are social scientists, anthropologists or products of the University of Ulster’s UNESCO Centre. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) might, for example, insist that children have rights in respect of how they’re taught and assessed, but only those with direct experience of the classroom know the problems associated with implementing such progressive ideas. David Ackerman notes that although “progressivism is dominant in most schools of education, it is rejected in most high schools.”
UNESCO emphasises children’s rights and campaigns for “inclusive” child-centred education. UNESCO’s Salamanca Statement of 1994 uses the absolutist language of rights to require that the curriculum be designed around the child’s interests: “those with special educational needs must have access to regular schools, which should accommodate them within a child-centred pedagogy capable of meeting these needs.” Parents who feel left out of the debate on the future of academic selection, for instance, are probably unaware that Northern Ireland’s schools’ current focus on children’s rights and child-centred education effectively excludes them from the consultation process. (Why consult the parent when the curriculum already takes account of the interests of the child?) An examination of the early documentation which gave form to the Revised Curriculum reveals extensive consultation with “educationalists,” teachers and pupils, but almost no parental involvement.
Critics have also highlighted that UNESCO’s insistence on child-centred approaches owes more to evangelism than the outcomes of carefully designed large-scale studies. For example, no high quality study has established that inclusive education is best delivered though child-centred pedagogy. More worrying, carefully designed studies have demonstrated that such curricula are particularly damaging to the poor. In Left Back, published in 2000, Diane Ravitch quotes Donald Myers who was charged with evaluating the impact of child-centred curricula in the USA. Myers shares Ravitch’s concerns about “educationalists”:
“The time has come in American education,” he declared, “when teachers should stage a walkout when education evangelists” propose innovations that have not been validated by careful research over a long period of time. Instead of being paid and applauded, these hucksters should be sent packing and “should be thankful they are not jailed as would representatives of a pharmaceutical house for dispensing a drug before it has been tested.”
What if the Catholic Church and Sinn Fein were to take Myers’ advice and ignore our local “educationalists”? What do high quality studies that have been “validated by careful research over a long period of time” have to say? The reforms proposed for Northern Ireland schools are addressed in two highly regarded studies – one centred on assessment, the other on curriculum – and both draw the same unequivocal conclusion which should interest the Catholic Church and Sinn Fein: the poor will lose out dramatically if Sinn Fein have their way! This has already been hinted at in research on the early years “Enriched Curriculum” in Northern Ireland, where a “Matthew Effect” was identified; in progressive curricula – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
“Project Follow Through” is arguably the largest and most sophisticated educational project ever undertaken to discover, once and for all, the type of curriculum that maximizes the academic achievement of the poor. To give a sense of the scale of this study, it lasted 20 years, cost a billion dollars to fund, and involved 79,000 children from 180 low-income communities living in poverty. The conclusion was that the curriculum which helps children out of poverty is a traditional curriculum in which the teacher determines what is to be taught and children work in learning environments which are orderly and highly structured. (The reader can find details of this study by googling the words Project Follow Through.) The Revised Curriculum currently being implemented in Northern Ireland (the one the Minister is demanding that all primary school children must follow) was shown to be damaging to the development of the numeracy and literacy skills of disadvantaged children.
Richard Nadler noted that poor children taught by traditional methods, when compared to those following more progressive curricula, were “first in reading, first in math, first in spelling, and first in language. No other model came close.” No Northern Ireland “educationalist” seems to have directed the Catholic Church or Sinn Fein to this project, despite its strong association with the American Civil Rights movement. Siegfried Engelmann is not surprised: “Decision-makers don’t choose a plan because they know it works … They choose a plan because it’s consistent with their vision of what they think kids should do. Most educators, he says, seem to have a greater investment in romantic notions about children than they do in the gritty detail of actual practice or the fact that some things work well.”
Finally, turning to the Minister’s preference for election via Pupil Profile over selection via objective test score, once again this aspect of reform damages rather than enhances the life chances of the poor. Again, a large scale, meticulously designed study (see “Inequality in the transition from primary to secondary school: school choices and educational disparities in Germany” by Marcus Pietsch and Tobias Stubbe, published in 2007 in the European Educational Research Journal) is at odds with the counsel offered by our local “educationalists.” Consider two children, one rich, one poor, both with a score of 542. Pietch and Stubbe (p. 437) show that these children will be treated as equals in a selective system but when a discussion between parent and teacher determines school choice the poor child loses out:
For a student with an average German reading achievement (542), the probability of attending a Gymnasium [German grammar school] is more than twice as high if his or her family are higher grade professionals (55.57%) than if they are semi-skilled manual workers (21.36%).
The lessons of the study for the Catholic Church and Sinn Fein are clear: a move from selection via test to election via Pupil Profile will result in a decline in the number of disadvantaged children attending grammar schools. Where a child from a poor background may have a test history greatly superior to that of a middle class child, the confusing, vague and ambiguous language of the Pupil Profile will allow the articulate middle class parent to “talk away” the difference in test scores. The Catholic Church and Sinn Fein should listen to that great communist champion of the poor, Antonio Gramsci, who argued, in his Prison Notebooks, that “the less objective the testing, the more the working-class child or peasant child would be at a disadvantage.”