‘And we are here as on a darkling plain’. By Mike Grenier.

‘And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night’

I have just about finished reading Sir Ken Robinson’s latest book on creativity in schools, partly because he mentions Slow Education and Joe Harrison’s experiences within the movement and also because I wanted to see how it dovetails with ‘Educating Ruby’, the latest work by Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas. There are many similarities- both books comment on the dangers of modern schooling systems and the desperate but misplaced zealotry of those who seek high ranking in PISA for its own sake. They both explore and reveal interesting practice from around the world that seeks to liberate minds from the drudgery of poor lessons and feeble curricula.

It seems that it is now or never for the public education systems in the UK and the USA to advertise the great successes of alternative and innovative schools before they are swept away by the powerful forces of the testers, measurers and accountability gurus. The fight, though, as in Arnold’s poem is hampered by ignorance from both sides about the benefits of blending each other’s approaches. The tedious and flimsy review of Sir Ken Robinson’s book in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday was proof of how intellectually limited the clashes have become. If submitted by an A-level student I would return it with much red ink down the margins- where is your proof, have you read the book, argue with logic not prejudice. It is this superficial treatment of what is, to be honest, a fairly lightweight book that is so saddening. It is all so low-brow.

In a live webchat from Eton’s Research Centre last week I was struck by the fact that Martin Robinson quoted Michael Oakeshott- a deep thinker and someone who thought subtly about the liberal tradition, often from a relatively conservative position. Where are these voices now? Do we hear much of intellectual depth from the philosophers of education in our universities? And where is the deep thinking from the Secretary of State or her shadow opponent, who lurks yet further in the dark since the General Election? This is a very unhealthy state of affairs. What has happened in the past five years is an opening up of debate about education on Twitter, on blogs and in conferences. This is a good thing- grass roots discussion and debate has allowed more sharing of ideas and the evolution of interesting curricular debate such as that proposed by the Heads’ Roundtable. It has also seen the beginnings of a more open discussion about Research with the emergence of ResearchEd. However, I sense that many practitioners seek a philosopher-king or queen to give their labours purpose.

Sadly, there are no leaders and few visionaries. Instead we end up with ignorant armies clashing as they always have done- roundheads versus cavaliers, Sir Toby Belches versus Malvolios, Prufrocks vs Hamlets. The next five years are likely to see the Progressives and Trads continue to knock each other senseless with ad hominem attacks while the system is sold off to the highest bidder and in the meantime, like Fortinbras, big business waits on the side slowly preparing to make its move and gain control over the system while nobody raises much of a cry of alarm.

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