Peter Mortimore’s thoroughgoing analysis of the absurdities of current educational practice and prescriptions for finding a far better alternative deserves a wide readership. It is not just an organisation which is under siege but as his personal anecdotes indicate, more vigorously than his rigorously argued statistics, people are suffering. Parents are anxious, teachers badly led and burdened with confused policies and worst of all pupils are pressurised from early infancy. Reading his book you might be forgiven for wondering a) why so many young students are being abused by such distress and b) as Cicero might have asked, Cui bono, to whose benefit? Professor Mortimore outlines the positive alternatives suggested by international comparisons especially with Scandinavian methods. He argues that their procedures are more effective, that support students and produce a fairer, harmonious society.
The strengths of our very varied system are examined in a fair minded, respectful and considerate manner. What we can hope to attain from our education system, theories of learning, what we can say about the many and varied aspects of intelligence and ability are all clearly outlined. As the references and citations are particularly clearly laid out, this section would be most useful to first year education students. The open-minded account will invite readers to critically examine his propositions. For instance, some readers might disagree with the emphasis on sport and consider if literature, imagination and the development of critical abilities might not deserve more emphasis. It is difficult though to argue against his case for good modern language teaching and sensible health education. Nor could anyone question the author’s proposition that schools must be enjoyable, encouraging and effective.
Whilst celebrating the rich variety of approaches and methods of schooling, it is not clear that this is best achieved by the plethora of schools in the current system. Studies show pupils unhappy and underperforming. In Mortimore’s very clear and useful chapter on this topic we discover the Grammar Schools, Middle schools, Faith Schools, Voluntary Schools etc. with which many will already be familiar. However, there are also Free Schools, University training schools, Studio schools and lots of even more baroque alternatives. If they are in your area! These naturally are not to be found evenly distributed around the country. There are easily ten different types of Secondary School and in some areas parents have to put down the names of their offspring for private tuition to access, if they can afford it, from the age of three or perhaps move house. How did this come about? Can it possibly help parents or their interaction with their offspring?
Education was once the shared responsibility of teachers, who had the freedom to design courses and exams to help the children in front of them to make progress. Head teachers, Governors, Inspectors and in particular a reasonably funded Local Authority were also included. Over time the Secretary of State for Education has assumed stronger central control. Inspectors were removed and education became subject to the whims and dictates of individual Ministers.
The regulator became Ofsted, whose officers have indeed been accused of bullying their own staff, operating a system which is supposed to be independent and regulate intense competition between schools. In something like 50 years there have been 25 Ministers of Education. The inverted commas apply here because the job description has sometimes included Science, Innovation etc. The ministers have included a number of controversial figures from Hailsham down to Gove but few have had any experience in teaching itself.
Peter Mortimore argues that in Scandinavian countries devolution works effectively. As an experienced statistician, he quotes from careful international research such as PISA that such a mind-set is actually very successful in raising standards as well as promoting a tolerant, socially coherent society. Clearly, this provides economic benefits to these countries. A reader is bound to wonder how in Britain where some 7 per cent of pupils are educated privately, with something like ten times the resources in, for instance, textbooks, is ultimately to prosper. Our system appears to throw up large numbers of pupils that are disaffected, illiterate and mathematically ignorant.
Professor Mortimore has written a propitious summary of educational policy in this country. He joins the line of radical educationalists from the Resistance fighter Harry Rée, to the late lamented Ted Wragg. Without doubt he is passionate about education and indeed, his writing impresses most when he freely airs his formidable reservations about current practice.
Who might benefit from all this mess? Doubtless corporate lobbyists, as before did PFI investors, will hope to prosper from further privatisation of schools? Have the Finns and the Danes really resisted such blandishments? This book provides us with pressing arguments for breaking the siege of greed and imagining and striving for a better future.
The author addresses a Case Conference on these matters is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lz0ymmANn4