Cheeky colonial tells Britain what to do

The Observer is the Sunday edition of the Guardian, so I wrote this letter a week ago, and never expected it to see the light of day. Indeed, I had forgotten all about it, so when I opened the newspaper yesterday morning, I was gobsmacked to see it printed as the lead letter!

I expect there will be a lot of people reading this who will dismiss me outright as  naive and presumptuous – who is this person from Canada telling us what to do? What does she know about us?  I’m hoping it’ll get some reaction, but  I’ll have to wait till next Sunday’s Observer to see.


I was inspired to write it after reading a tweet from the Department for Education wishing high school students “luck” on the GCSE exams that were starting last week. There has been a whole series of articles recently about how stressful these exams are for the 16 year old children who are presently sitting up to 25 1 1/2 hour exams each over a period of a month and a half – how teachers have to manage kids’ anxiety, kids throwing up, threatening suicide (and some succeeding). It’s all made more stressful recently because coursework has been eliminated, and students’ entire grade, and therefore their future prospects, depends on these exams – and they are told that repeatedly. So it seemed rather disingenuous for the people who manufactured this stress to wish the students “luck”.

Here’s the first paragraph that was chopped (rightly so, the letter was way too long):

“What is going on with your education system? Today the DfE is tweeting “good luck” to students writing their GCSEs. Really? What kind of luck is going to help them at this point? Luck that the questions will somehow match what they have revised? Luck that they don’t fall ill in the middle of an exam? If it is that kind of luck that is needed to do well on these exams that determine the course of their lives, then your system has failed them. But I suspect the kind of luck they need has already been doled out at birth – class, socio-economic level, and parents’ education.”

The rest of the letter just seemed to follow.

May 28 2018

And I did get some reaction!  in yesterday’s Observer, this letter: Happy kids, whatever next? from John Filby of Derbyshire.


Can’t have too much happiness! But don’t worry, 30 years of exams, targets, stress, stress, stress – that’s cured it. Thanks John.

Who’s going to fight for arts education?

Last Sunday afternoon, we walked around our neighbourhood in East Oxford, visiting artists in their studios and homes. What a fantastic way to get to know this community, and what a wonderful look into the art world! It is Art Week here, and just like during the studio tours in Nova Scotia, it is a chance to explore the vibrant artistic community we live in. The arts are hugely important to people and to communities.


Arts education is the latest aspect of education threatened in NS since the Glaze report.  McNeil certainly isn’t letting the grass grow under his feet in implementing his neo-liberal agenda for education. Getting rid of elected school boards, traditionally the go-to place for parents with issues, was the first step in a long future of standardization, centralization and cutbacks.  We have already seen the looking glass reality that is the government’s response to the inclusion report – “190 new hires” – which ends up being closer to zero when you count the resource teachers and guidance counsellors being cut at the same time. “The number of learning centre FTEs will go to 221.5 from 197 this year, including 20 that were added in November 2017” – to follow what is going on we’ll need to pay close attention to words like those in italics – note that the 24.5 new FTE’s this year include 20 that were already added last year.

Much has been written about the importance of arts education – there is overwhelming evidence that it improves academic outcomes, encourages creativity and, like sports, is a way for many children to feel engaged in school. Appreciation of and the ability to create art or music is fundamental to well-being for adults – I know I owe my love of classical music to a Gr. 7 music teacher who had us following along annotated scores of symphonies as we listened (if she had introduced us to opera, it might not have taken me 40 years to appreciate it!).

If you have any doubts about the value of arts education, take a look at the websites of the private schools and see what they offer. By reducing arts education, we are once again widening the gap between those who already have and those who have not. Rich parents will always be able to provide private lessons and classes for their children. Schools in wealthy neighbourhoods will always be able to fundraise for extra artistic opportunities.  Public education, to be truly equitable, needs to provide good arts education for all.

In arts education, as in many other ways, Britain shows us what not to do.  A few years ago, Britain introduced a new qualification, the EBacc, for children finishing the first round of secondary exams, the GCSEs. In order to qualify, students would have to get a passing grade in 5 “core” subjects – English, math, history or geography, a foreign language and science. An arts subject was not a requirement – this narrowing of the curriculum meant that students were less likely to choose an arts course, arts programmes were more likely to be cut when money is tight (as it always is here) and eventually it could disappear altogether from secondary schools. Recently, over 100 artists and another group of musicians wrote an open letter to the government condemning the policy.

Arts education in primary schools in Britain has also been a casualty of the ever-increasing worry about  standardized test results, which only measure the basic subjects. Interestingly, I read this week that the number of primary-aged children in Britain seeking mental health help had risen by a third in the past year alone to almost 10% of the population. Is this a coincidence, or is this related to the lack of a time within the day when children can focus on self-expression and be creative? There is a link between mental health and arts education, and we may find that expanding the arts in school will do more to improve our children’s mental health than all the psychiatrists in China.  As the scientist Charles Darwin said, “the loss of these tastes (appreciation of the arts) is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” 

I expect that what is happening in Halifax schools is the beginning of the standardization of arts education across the province – because Halifax voters chose to pay for  supplementary funding for the arts, Halifax has traditionally had good art and music programs. Unfortunately, instead of bringing the province up to the level of metro schools, Doug Hadley “CEO” of HRCE says, “the provincial curriculum calls for visual arts to be integrated into classroom instruction, so starting in September, it will be delivered by the classroom teacher in those schools ‘as it is in all other elementary schools in the HRCE and the province.’“

I’m afraid, indeed I’m sure, that by “integration into classroom instruction” he means overworked classroom teachers, already burdened by the 101 things they need to be teaching, will struggle to fit in a colouring or pasting activity each week. I’m a huge fan of integration of the arts – indeed I have written extensively about it in “Best School”.  However, it needs to be done with the collaboration of a specialist teacher who can pass on ways of seeing, techniques of expression and skill development methodologies that the regular non-artist classroom teacher just does not know. Children need direct contact with these specialists. The new reality in Halifax schools is that the specialists will be assigned to a family of schools, which could include thousands of children. There will be 9 specialists supporting 40 schools – it’s hard to believe that they will be able to provide meaningful arts education.

Nova Scotia has a detailed curriculum full of outcomes and goals. It should be intended as a baseline of what schools can do, a kind of bare minimum. Schools, left to their own initiative, will always aim higher than the minimum that the curriculum dictates – after all children do not stop learning after the outcomes are met. This government seems intent on making sure that all provincial schools will stick to the bare minimum when it comes to arts education. This will be a boon to private schools and after-school arts education providers and a slap in the face to equity for everyone else.  


Ford Nation again? Never!

Even though Nova Scotia has been home for over 40 years, and I’m presently living in the UK, hearing the news that Doug Ford has become the leading contender to be the next premier of Ontario has shaken me to the core. You see, I grew up in Ottawa, and received most of my formal education there. And my children, although mostly born and brought up in NS, have all left for greener pastures, and I now have 3 daughters and 4 grandchildren living in Ontario. One daughter lived through the nightmare of Rob Ford’s tenure as mayor of Toronto, (and I vicariously through her). I shudder with horror at the idea that his brother/sidekick can do to our largest province what the duo did to Toronto. In particular, having Doug oversee the education system that my 4 young grandchildren will be participating in fills me with fear for the future.

I have written elsewhere about the damage that Mike Harris, the last conservative premier of Ontario, did to education His neoliberal agenda trampled on the collective bargaining rights of teachers, upset the collegial, collaborative way educators interacted, and radically changed the way children are taught.

One of the most harmful things Harris did was bring in universal, high stakes standardized testing throughout the school years. I have written extensively about how high stakes testing creates a “teaching to the test” system where true learning becomes secondary to test scores. But Doug Ford makes Mike Harris look good – at least Harris had a very short stint as a teacher. Doug Ford’s biggest achievement in education was finishing high school, where he seems to have spent most of his time gaining practical business experience running a profitable hash dealing operation.  His main education platform consists of ditching the progressive and respectful sex education curriculum introduced by the Wynne government.

I have to admit I was in despair, feeling like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion from afar, as the conservatives capitalized on the public’s desire for change. That changed when I read the latest polls and found that the NDP has moved into second place ahead of the Liberals and only 10 points behind the Conservatives. Suddenly there is hope, and when I read the NDP platform on education, I was immensely cheered. One of Andrea Horwath’s promises is to end standardized testing. “Working collaboratively with educators, we’ll determine how random sampling could support spotting early trends and deciding where we should focus on improvement, without driving teachers to “teach to the test.” That way we can leave individual assessment to the teachers’ professional judgement — they know their students best. We estimate this will save $40 million, which we will reinvest in the classroom.” Other items in the education section are “continuing the curriculum review currently underway”, capping kindergarten classes at 26, a “moratorium on school closures until the provincial funding formula is fixed”, and increasing affordable childcare spaces.

Tuesday’s Globe and Mail reports that Ford has fleshed out his platform a little, adding proposals to scrap “discovery” math and to regulate free speech on campuses – both guaranteed dog-whistle  appeals to his base. “Free speech on campus” is code for the idea that groups looking for platforms to perpetuate misogyny, racism, and other dark elements in society should be able to find them on campus.  The discovery math debate dates from recent controversies about math scores in grade 6. The Wynne government has injected money, training and experts to help teachers improve their math teaching; Ford’s solution would be to drop all the gains in math pedagogy of the last few decades designed to improve children’s understanding and problem-solving abilities, and send math teaching back to the “good old days” – i.e. rote learning. (See Chapter 3, Best School in the World)

He has also promised to “improve” standardized testing – how? By making it more like South Korea’s, where kids have to study all hours of the day, and where the youth suicide rate is the highest in the world? Or perhaps he wants to emulate the dismal results of the USA where the “opt-out of tests” movement is gaining steam, and where teachers are so frustrated that they are staging illegal strikes and walkouts over their poor pay and working conditions (including testing)?

I have a lot of respect for Kathleen Wynne. She inherited a huge mess from the previous Liberal government, and she has spearheaded some excellent educational initiatives, including restoring teachers’ bargaining rights and implementing the aforementioned sex ed curriculum. However, the writing is on the wall: life has become much less affordable under the Liberals’ tenure and Ontarians are ready for a change. Andrea Horwath’s detailed, costed platform includes making childcare and hydro more affordable and converting student loans into grants, as well as addressing the poverty issues that affect children’s ability to do well in school. I see the NDP as the only way to prevent  Doug Ford’s victory and a descent backwards into the kind of nastiness we see emanating from south of the border.

Doug Ford, like Donald Trump, claims while he is campaigning that he will “stand up for the little guy” – and we already know how little that matters for Trump now he is in office. For sure, Doug Ford is not “standing up “ for kids – and the damage he can do to their education will last a lifetime.  Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP have a positive message that everyone should listen to.