Friday, 11 September 2009

Talks with central government

I met recently with Lynda Lawrence, who leads on PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) for the DCSF (the UK government 'Department for Children, Schools and Families'). We discussed the prospects for PSHE post 2011. She agreed completely with my assessment of the opportunities at hand (broadly outlined in the first posting on this blog). She was good humoured, intelligent, and clearly well intentioned. But I got the impression that there is a bit of a strategy vacuum among more senior civil servants and politicians.

It was agreed that a clear vision of the challenges and opportunities of PSHE needs to be communicated to all schools, but the current approach is to take small ‘safe’ steps rather than to inspire schools with a big new vision. The current step now underway is to frame a response to a report on the consultation process recommended by the MacDonald Report - this response to a report in response to a report may result in another report. Report and response tennis is no substitute for inspiring schools with a big new vision for 21st Century education.

Lynda seems like a good duck, as they say in Canada, (the opposite of a ‘bad egg’), but she is constrained by the rules of the game, in which a looming general election figures prominently at the moment, with the possibility of a sea change in emphasis and approach. It must be frustrating for her, but all she can do for now is take the small safe steps of report and response tennis.

And meanwhile the world keeps turning and the window of opportunity to inspire a new learning culture in our schools through statutory PSHE is slowly shrinking. You only get one chance to make a first impression and engender a fresh dynamic with a new initiative. And Lynda is certainly smart enough to see that. Actually I have faith that she will do her best to make the most of the opportunity, but she could do so much more if she had a free hand.

At present her brief is to look and act no further than in response to the MacDonald Report which offers 30 recommendations for the operation of PSHE, but which offers no analysis of, or comment on, the scope and need to develop and communicate a clear vision of the broader social, historical and cultural context of PSHE. With no remit to engage with the big picture or communicate it there is no remit for exploiting the current opportunity to implement the kind of inspiring innovation required to address the knot of 'wicked' problems currently enmeshing our schools and young people. (For more detail on 'wicked' problems see previous blog entries.)

If government systems and structures constrain its own agents from doing all they could it will fall to others to take on the role of innovating for 21st Century education. With 3G internet looming this might well lead to the deschooling of society as envisaged by Ivan Illich. Interesting times.

Whoever is in the mix of people that will make the inevitable changes in the history of our education system, and I say the more the merrier, I hope that it includes her. For few have her breadth and depth of experience and knowledge. And few are likely to have her first hand understanding of what could be done if government constraints held less sway and if politicians and the most senior civil servants quit their rackets, left the tennis court, and let less defensive players with new balls serve. Good luck Lynda. And good luck to us all.


  1. What do you think would need to happen for the 'Lynda's' of the world to see that their defensive strategy is exhausting and that taking on opponent after opponent with the sole intention of staying in the top ten is not as good a strategy as seeing yourself as world no.1 and working out how to get there?

  2. Necessity is the mother of invention - when the 'Lyndas' of this world recognise the need they will respond accordingly. This recognition is most likely to come about only when ordered from above. Perhaps when visionary and inspiring leadership replaces the tyrrany of mediocrity? Or when the current position becomes untennable due to extreme pressure?