The government has given unprecedented freedom to schools as the academy programme has continued its rapid expansion. But most schools are not using this freedom to make radical changes to the curriculum. Headteachers are more likely to be interested in the financial aspects of the the new governance arrangements. Robert Peal points towards a 2012 survey which indicated that only 5% of headteachers saw curriculum reform as the most important reason for converting to academy status (Changing Schools p19).
There are academy chains that are making a marked difference, particularly Ark and Harris, and it is because of the vision which they vigorously promote, which Peal describes as a ‘no-excuses culture, and a total focus on high academic standards’ (p22).
Why is it that the majority of schools are so cautious to embrace thoroughgoing change, which could see marked improvements, such as those already being demonstrated by no-excuses schools?
Firstly, there is the general human tendency to act out of habit. Most of what we do, we do because we have done it before and it has worked, or at least we think it has, or at least nothing shocking has happened to alert us that it hasn’t. Schools that have been chugging along getting reasonable results understandably see little reason to embrace radical change.
This is why serious reforms are more likely to happen in urban schools with a relatively high proportion of disadvantaged pupils. The inadequacies of progressive pedagogy and permissive discipline have been shockingly apparent here, whereas state schools in more affluent areas have managed to bumble along without too many nasty shocks.
Thorough testing reform so that pupils actually needed broad knowledge might apply the necessary level of shock even to these complacent schools, but while we still have exams that are narrow and box-ticking, and very infrequent, there is little likelihood of change. Which is tough on those who happen to live in rural areas and would like their children to receive a proper academic education.
Then there is the culture of conformity which naturally follows from large scale, bureaucratically controlled, state funded activities. Even if the government repeatedly tells schools that they are free to use any method which gets good results, do teachers believe that? After a lifetime of being under surveillance, the victims of snooping bureaucrats have internalised the principles of conformity to such a degree that it will be very difficult for them to believe in their own freedom. They want to be told the right answer by the person in charge. The idea that they will have to take real decisions themselves and accept responsibility for them is terrifying. Conformity dies hard, and frankly that’s because it’s rather safe and comforting.
But the most important of all the obstacles to reform is the genuine attachment to bad ideas which still prevails. Until schools have better ideas about what constitutes education, the sort of academic curriculum offered by schools such as West London Free School will remain the exception, not the norm. The battle of ideas must be won, so that knowledge is prized, and the virtues of hard work and self-discipline are promoted.