Despite a huge investment in tests, initiatives, and political aspirations, the English education system fails to inspire confidence. Those of us who advocate slow education believe it is the actual process of schooling that matters – not the invention of more ways of inspecting and assessing, or more types of schools. These are all blunt instruments. Slow education is smart education.

The government is forever telling us that the task for schools is Driving Up Standards. This mantra emerged under New Labour and continues under the Coalition. What does it mean? How are the standards defined, and how are they driven up? The idea of “driving up” evokes the image of force and power, of pushing and shoving until students deliver the goods. The government tests often use multiple-choice formats, which are cheap and easy to mark – but they are unreliable, and diminish teaching. Yet those test scores have to be “driven up” – so the result is grade inflation, and an emphasis on right answers rather than reasoned argument. First-year undergraduates now need special courses to teach them material that was once part of A-level, but is now too difficult.

The picture that emerges – the view the government takes of school – is of an assembly line rather than a place of learning. No wonder teacher morale is low. No wonder teachers are reluctant to become heads: get the paperwork wrong, misread the health and safety requirements, and a single inspection can blight your career. It’s a climate of fear: those Ofsted inspectors are always waiting to pounce.

The idea that education is all about delivering right answers is clearly misconceived. Yet it’s the inevitable consequence of this mistaken approach. Students learn, but they do not understand. And working backwards from outcomes – to deliver the required answers – is a recipe for dumbing down. Standards-driven education isn’t very different from a fast-food outlet, where packages of test-shaped knowledge are swallowed, but never properly digested. Slow food, on the other hand, starts with sound ingredients and creates a satisfying experience. So does the slow school.

Instead of breaking the curriculum down into measurable, bite-sized chunks, we should encourage students to consider a situation or a problem, look at it from various angles, and ask questions that need answering. Students might work in groups, and teachers might work in teams: instead of classroom boxes, we need flexible spaces, and ways of linking subjects that enrich learning. These are not new concepts. In primary education they go back to Friedrich Froebel, who recognised in the 19th century that activity and play can enhance learning. Later, Maria Montessori advanced similar ideas. A senior executive at Google – a remarkably innovative facility – said recently, of its founders: “You can’t understand Google unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids…They’re always asking, ‘Why should it be like that?’ ” In England, the Plowden report of 1969 celebrated the remarkable success of applying these methods to primary education, which attracted worldwide attention. Good primary teaching still survives, but the government-imposed tests are an obstruction, because they assume all children will advance at the same pace. There is no scope for flow, where enjoyment replaces boredom, giving a feeling of control.

In an English primary school now, if a smart six-year old is lazy about her reading, she becomes a problem – if she doesn’t pass the test, it’s bad for her and for her teacher. In Finland, serious schooling doesn’t even start until age seven, and dispenses with all external tests and assessments. Yet Finland consistently comes out top in international comparisons. When, in the 1970s, the Finns decided to reconstruct their education system, they searched the world to see what was worth adopting. They discovered that in the late 1930s, ten American high schools signed up to a university-led project. The aim was to try out new approaches like team teaching, mixed-ability groupings, and teacher-based assessment – all of them ways of enhancing process. The results showed that these methods brought real advances – from which Finland has benefited.

The American high school has been a powerful device for universal education, but attracted ill-informed criticism in the 1960s after the launch of the Russian Sputnik. As usual, schools were blamed for political failure, and attacking public education became a national sport. President Reagan sponsored a misleading report, “A Nation at Risk,” and invented a crisis. He had fallen for the Chicago economists, who continue to advocate outsourcing and free markets in everything, including education. The contagion finally spread to England when the Thatcher government came up with the 1988 Education Act. Though challenged by Labour, it finally gained all-party support. The Act devalued education to what could be cheaply tested, and opened the pathway to diminished local control and aggressive inspection while diminishing the role of the teacher. And so the profession is currently threatened with “performance-related pay”, which would mean paying more money to teachers whose classes have the best test scores. All the evidence from industry and business shows that payment by results brings no benefits – only a climate of envy and distrust which undermines goodwill. (It’s one of those ideas that sound plausible, until you think about the assumptions and implications: for centuries, common sense told us the earth was flat.) This, and other managerial misconceptions, were disposed of by the American business consultant, Dr Edwards Deming, in his 1993 book “The New Economics”. Yet the current government’s approach repeats all the old errors of supply-side economics.

It is relevant to recall that back in 1862, when the British government decided that some form of ultra- basic schooling was needed, the method chosen by Robert Lowe depended on payment by results. The 1870 Education Act suffered the same fate, with inspectors instilling terror into schools for over 20 years. Once again, the English put the cart before the horse. Matthew Arnold, in his day job as an inspector, protested about its ill effects on teachers and pupils alike. Later, when the 1904 Secondary Regulations established secondary schools for abler students, a rigid diet of Victorian subjects was imposed, which in due course defined the grammar-school curriculum. A small proportion of able boys survived the treatment, but it was, and is, a narrow conception of secondary education. Grammar schools are now promoted as a superior form of education, yet their historical record is poor, given their intake of the ablest students: at least half left at age 16. If England is to prosper, the notion of the common school should be embraced before more damage is done.

In the 1970s many new comprehensive schools were launched, and American high schools were a useful source of ideas. A few schools adopted – as the Finns did later – ingenious strategies for improving learning derived from American experience, so as to devise an 11-16 programme for all students, leading to school-based O-levels and CSEs. But the 1988 Act put paid to innovation. and instead subjected all schools to a prescriptive national curriculum, standardised tests, and “league tables” for arranging schools in rank order. Instead of a locally-based system that guarantees a good school in every community, we are now confronted with an assortment of schools, largely (June disconnected from local authorities, and in many cities a grave shortage of primary-school places.

The movement for slow schools and slow education has faith in the capacities of teachers and heads, and seeks to promote learning in depth, rather than a debased curriculum based on goals, inspections and unreliable standards. We deplore the excessive use of crude tests, currently undermining English and American education: we take comfort from the remarkable success of Finland. And we recognise, above all, the vital importance of the interaction between teacher and student. We affirm, with Michael Oakeshott, that teaching must be seen “not as passing on something to be received … but as setting on foot the cultivation of a mind.” The quality of the engagement between teacher and learner is supreme, and it lies at the heart of the slow school.

© June 2012 Maurice Holt

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