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Why the Past Could Inform the Future of Education

Teaching Alec Clegg research

Hand back power to teachers to let them shape their own schools - and watch well-rounded students thrive.

That’s the view of the authors of a new study of the famous educationalist Sir Alec Clegg, who say the crisis that’s engulfed A Level and GCSE students means now’s the time to urgently reassess the nation’s educational strategy.

And we need to look back five decades to find the inspiration for an alternative approach.

Dr Feng Su is a Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope University and is co-author of the study with Margaret Wood and Andrew Pennington from York St. John University.

Clegg was the long-serving Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire County Council, holding the post between 1945 and 1974, and whose influential ideas spread widely in the 1960s and 70s .

Clegg made it his mission to nurture and value underprivileged children, had deep concerns about testing, measurability and exams, and recognised that schools play a huge role in the physical and mental wellbeing of children.

The authors are  urging policymakers to look back to Clegg’s time - and vision - to inform the future, beginning with local authorities wrestling back power from the central Government.

Speaking about the study, published in the British Journal of Educational Studies this month, Dr Su argues: “The ultimate breakup of the West Riding in 1974  could be seen as  the beginning  of a wider erosion of local community influence on education and schools.

“It marks the end point of  when the Government placed huge trust in the local areas and schools  to manage their own educational affairs - in terms of results, leadership, and practice.

“It’s also the starting point for the alternative model - the centralised model we currently have.

“In our opinion, this centralisation is harmful to local democracy and hasn’t improved our educational outcome and experience.

“And now is the time to rethink this educational model, in terms of organisation, management and policy.

“Our research into Clegg potentially illustrates why we need to  look again at certain practices from the past and, fundamentally, to trust more in teachers, schools and local government."

The new study into Clegg’s legacy saw the authors interviewing former pupils, teachers, and education officers who worked for the now-defunct West Riding region, as well as its successor authorities and beyond.

One of its chief concerns is the ‘destruction of local democratic accountability and greater centralisation of power and control of education’.

Clegg was credited with creating a rounded educational experience, and valued the ‘growth of a child as a person’, not just a grade marked on a form.

These are values which, Dr Su suggests, policymakers have forgotten.

Dr Su says: “Like many people, we have been horrified at the things students have experienced in the last few weeks. The Government has made a real mess of things.

“And so we ask what might Clegg have done differently? First and foremost, we think he would trust the teachers in the classroom rather than an algorithm.”

Again, according to Dr Su and his colleagues, decentralisation of Government policy could have averted this summer’s controversy.

They state: “We have to ask, ‘What is the purpose of education, particularly school education?’

“For Clegg it wasn’t only about numeracy and literacy, it was also about wider wellbeing. We’ve narrowed our vision on education to the point where it’s all about competition with other schools, with other regions, with other countries.

“Former Education Secretary Michael Gove abolished coursework assessment for A Level and GCSE students, with exams as the only means to determine grades.

“That caused huge stress on the school and parents and, for us , contributed to the mess we found ourselves in this summer.

“And Gove was allowed to do that because of the centralisation of education policies.

“By contrast, Clegg believed that a child’s potential cannot be determined by one assessment, one exam..

“Clegg’s time wasn’t that long ago - but there has been a huge, radical shift in stance since that point.

“And many will argue that our children today are receiving a bad deal in terms of the educational experience because of it.”

The authors argue that in the West Riding under Clegg schools were seen as community hubs - providing everything from youth clubs to sports facilities.

Dr Su reveals: “Schools were the centre of the community. There was a strong partnership between the school, the children, the families, the parents.

“Crucially, there were resources available to the schools to meet the needs of the community.

“In today’s landscape it’s much more difficult to see that happening.

“Schools are underfunded. And a school’s resources are directed to what they’re being inspected and measured on - the grades.”

From caretakers enjoying specialised training in order to ensure schools' buildings were well kept, to teachers being made to feel special, the study shows how Clegg paid attention to the entire learning environment.

Dr Su adds: "In West Riding schools, visual and expressive arts were a key part of education, and contributed to the general educational good.

“Today, our educational vision has narrowed. There’s an idea that the arts might not be worthwhile because it’s not directly linked to future employment.

“But we need to look to Government policymakers to try and change this narrative.

“For your long term life quality, an appreciation of the arts is really important. It’s not just about STEM subjects (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

“Is our educational system producing employees and workers based on a narrow view of the economy, or is it producing well-developed, well-educated citizens with the skills to deal with a complex and uncertain future?

“We have a duty to expose pupils to lots of different areas of educational study.

“Right now, we restrict that possibility and actually stifle their futures as well.”

To read the full research paper, head here

Published on 24/08/2020