Jane Miller writes about the axing of the Schools Council and the implications of this for educational research

Sir Keith Joseph has chosen a good moment to kill off the Schools Council. It seems that it is a good moment to kill off all sorts of things. While thousands of young men are exposed unnecessarily to violence, and to its infliction – supposedly on our behalf, more probably to satisfy the vanity of a few unjust men and women, who want to go on running this country for a bit – a whole generation of young people faces a future of unemployment. That other jingoism, which asserts that effort is rewarded and that you have only yourself to blame, will ring out as they slink off to collect their dole money. Lesser cynicisms will melt into larger ones. And besides, few people will be prepared unequivocally to defend the record of the Schools Council. It was set up in 1964, a gentler time, by Sir Edward Boyle, and its brief was then, and has, in a variety of manifestations, remained, the combining of examination reform with curriculum development. These were areas traditionally kept apart, for the soundest political reasons and with dire consequences for children and teachers and schools. That brief, it should be remembered, included neither the control and determination of curriculum content nor a consideration of what a common system of schooling might look like. The present dismantling of the Schools Council could be seen as the latest in a series of government moves since Callaghan’s ‘Great Debate’ of 1976, which have been intended to divert attention from the paring down of educational provision. Reductive talk about a ‘core’ curriculum, initiated by that debate, has served since then as a means of channelling limited expenditure away from the question of what curriculum into a particular set of pressing short-term concerns.

The Council has sometimes been unwieldy and has not always been good at applying pressure where and when it was needed, nor in working within and against the constraints of educational politics. There have been a few cumbersome research projects, and packs of classroom materials which have gathered dust because they did not speak to teachers of their own problems. Some would say that the principle of teacher representation within the committees and enterprises of the Council has been undermined by the domination of unions and professional organisations. Not a bad thing in principle, this may have worked, though, to narrow the teacher concerns the Council was prepared to address and to exclude those classroom teachers whose commitment to their work, or vulnerability to its pressures, make such public forums intimidating and unproductive. There are teachers, however, who have spent countless days in conclave under the Council’s auspices working to devise methods of assessment which might encourage rather than discourage good teaching and learning, and developing materials which supported teachers in such objectives. Several recent investigations of the Council’s activities have pointed to areas of waste, to failures to disseminate effectively, to follow through projected reforms. By killing off the Schools Council, the Government hopes to save itself a million pounds a year – enough, perhaps, to pay the carpenters who have been working round the clock recently to transform ballrooms on luxury liners into hospital wards for warships.

So what if another quango bites the dust? There are two main reasons why this particular killing cannot be viewed with that sort of equanimity. The first is that the Schools Council has stood for a recognition that unless teachers pose most of the questions to which researchers attend, the research will not affect their practice. Not only that. They need also to be involved in efforts to answer their own questions. The Schools Council has promoted ways in which teachers can work together with educationalists and policy-makers and professional researchers – in examination consortia or in the making and disseminating of material or in the collection and analysis of data – and which are independent of the career structure open to individual teachers. Teachers in Somerset will perceive their pupils’ problems and needs differently from teachers in Brixton. The Schools Council has provided a site within education where particular and local priorities can be considered in relation to their national implications. On another level, the Council has put teachers at the centre of any debate which has relied on traffic between the practical and the theoretical. The two hand-picked DES committees which have been proposed could not possibly allow for that scope.

Patterns of research and development have evolved since the early Sixties. The large-scale project, housed as a rule in a university department and premised on the swift foray for data into a handful of schools, where no more was heard about findings or proposals until those schools found themselves traduced between the covers of an expensive hardback – that is a dying model. There are examples now – and Becoming our own experts is an excellent one – where the research is initiated, carried out and written up entirely by classroom teachers. The Schools Council has given support to that sort of work and has more recently undertaken, for the price of perhaps one full-time person’s salary for three years, to co-ordinate networks of teachers already engaged in their own research, so that they can meet, exchange ideas and learn from each other. Some of the Council’s current programmes, whose future is under threat, have provided thousands of teachers with some of the best and cheapest in-service training ever devised, while books and papers and materials and ideas pour out of these networks and into the schools. The only thing wrong with all this is that thousands of teachers are giving their time and talents for nothing, even at their own personal expense. They do it because it helps them, and helps the children they teach, and because they know that what they say stands a better chance of being heard by those teachers who tend to stop their ears to the siren sound of more official research. The Government is always pleased to save a little money, and could be said to have done so by maintaining the Schools Council. The recent assault was not inspired by a spirit of husbandry and can only be understood as the latest blow at the frail principle of teacher autonomy.

Teachers and schools in this country are thought to have some freedom of manoeuvre in matters of curriculum and pedagogy. The examination system makes that a spurious freedom. Control through examinations does ensure one kind of public accountability: an odd kind, perhaps, when government reports as well as teachers have been pointing out since the last century how examinations notoriously reduce the possibilities of learning for millions of children, for the minority who take them and for the majority who do not. Examinations tell teachers what to teach and, by implication, how to teach it. They do not help teachers to develop insight, and a sensitive reponse to their pupils, and to what and how their pupils learn best, nor do they encourage teachers to become skilled assessors themselves. Kinds of learning which resist the blunt instruments of measurement used by testers and examiners become expendable. It is harder than ever these days for teachers to persuade their pupils that it is worth working hard for a CSE Grade 1, or a Grade D at A level, when their pupils know that even a degree and a professional qualification as well are no guarantee of employment. Indeed, this year, with the largest ever cohort of university aspirants, many young people with better A-level grades than their teachers will find that there are no places for them in universities or polytechnics.

The second reason for dismay at the Government’s plans follows from this. There can be no valuable curriculum reform, based on the realities of the modern world and on an understanding of how children learn best, which separates the assessment of achievement from the processes of learning and the nature of what is to be learned. Despite the invoking of ‘standards’ and ‘benchmarks’ by those who wish to hold on to university control of GCE examinations, many boards admit that they are still a long way from forms of assessment which ensure either reliability or comparability. This might be shrugged off as inevitable were such boards not responsible for directing the flow of humanity towards employment, higher education or the dole queue, and for determining the curriculum on offer in schools. Brutally put, that means that a 16-year-old may leave school with no qualifications, no choices and no education. Anyone who has tried to help youngsters answer multiple-choice questions on The Rainbow will recall how different the mastering of that technique was from learning to read a novel intelligently. Most English teachers would go further and say that examinations in their subject have worked to reduce both the extent and the quality of the reading their pupils could undertake. One of the few examinations welcomed by English teachers because it promotes serious reading and mature and varied kinds of writing is the Certificate of Extended Education (CEE), which has been shown to encourage work of a much higher standard than more conventional examinations for that age group (17+). This has lived under the shadow of disapproval for its entire existence and has now been sentenced to death because so much of the assessment is of course work and so much of its success dependent on teacher involvement. Teachers have found it hard to work well under constraints imposed specifically to curb their supposed incompetence and irresponsibility.

It is hard to understand successive governments’ emphatic wish to keep teachers under control when you read a book like Becoming our own experts. This is a collection of studies undertaken by a group of teachers in one London school between 1974 and 1979. Vauxhall Manor is a girls’ comprehensive school with a characteristically mixed population and a diverse language repertoire. Teachers from different subject areas collaborated to examine critically the language of their pupils and the language of the school and of its teaching. Inevitably this led to a reconsideration of their practice as teachers. The book’s editors, Stephen Eyers and John Richmond, suggest what this work meant for them as teachers: ‘The study of language in schools is not essentially to do with the reading of reports or the shaping of policy documents (though the presence of reports and the need for statements of policy may trigger valuable trends of thought in our minds); a report is too final and a policy statement too pragmatic to do real justice to the subtle and constantly changing interaction within learning which language mediates. Similarly it is true that because looking at language in schools is a critical study of our and the children’s contemporary practice, we, the teachers, must become our own theoreticians, our own experts. Our theory, our “expertise” is in making sensitive inferences about an actual classroom experience, in noticing what is really going on.’

The major problems of education are the problems of an unjust society, and schools cannot compensate for those on their own. They cannot reverse unemployment trends, enlarge institutions of higher education, eradicate racism or sexism or inequality generally. Nor can they remove violence. They can, though – despite doom-laden voices from both Right and Left adjuring them to leave well alone – do something about young people’s pessimism, inertia, truancy, which are reflections of a broader social disease. When teachers locate the source of such problems for their own pupils and develop ways of working which are successful for those pupils, they are often pounced upon for being too particular, having no figures, being wetly progressive, or making allowances for some groups of children at the expense of others, and thereby undermining the central purposes and structures of education. As if those central purposes and structures were agreed and successful. Some examples. There are teachers who have encouraged their pupils to use their own dialects in speech and in writing in order to develop an understanding of the relation of spoken to written language and of dialect to standard. They are often characterised as irresponsibly denying the importance for everybody of being able to write formal English. David Sutcliffe’s British Black English, which was written for teachers who want to know more about those dialects, was criticised recently on those grounds in the Times Educational Supplement. As if it were a waste of time to understand the language which children habitually and effectively use if we are to introduce them to other forms of that language, or indeed to other languages.

Literacy is a similar area. Margaret Meek, in her Learning to read, draws on a lifetime’s work with teachers and students who have taught somebody to read. By and large, her message and theirs is that you learn to read by reading real books, not by drills and phonics and an occasional go at ‘Ladybird’ pidgin readers, which concentrate prematurely on what, in good readers, are secondary skills. Another group of teachers working within a Schools Council programme, which may now be stifled, are documenting the progress of those of their pupils who are still learning English when they are in mainstream classes as well as or instead of special language ones. Their findings, which are impressive and hopeful, may never see the light of day. Their pupils will have benefited. Other teachers in other schools with other pupils will have to wait. They will have to wait even longer for a government prepared to assert its commitment to the creation of a genuinely common system of schooling based on principles which amount to more than a determination to reduce the scope of schools to its barest minimum.