Education in the UK is a mess. It’s clear that the divisions within the educational community are deep and wide and tremendously destructive. How can we have a world class tertiary sector alongside dismal secondary (and primary) education? How can Gove be so wrong/right and teachers and their unions so right/wrong? How can so many students from public schools get into Russell Group Universities compared to other sectors? Why does opposition to Gove or Wilshaw bring out vilification? Why are teachers led by the nose by their lefty unions, as if they are unthinking drones? Indeed, why are teachers all lefty Marxists who are lazy beasts who have too many holidays and are paid far too much?
In fact the question to ask is why doesn’t the media ask incisive questions about Education and do some considered investigative journalism about the state of education in the UK. There was a report in a broadsheet recently about the advantages of young teachers and fast tracking promotion in schools. But it was a superficial piece that did very little to look at how schools were deploying staff, only a one sided presentation about the merits of fast tracking, with comments from young teachers. Surely the story about Annaliese Briggs, recently appointed to Pimlico Primary, at 27 years old, without teaching qualifications is worthy of a serious investigative piece? What does this development tell us about the current state of education, not to mention the future of the profession?
Education touches many lives, whether it’s getting into the school of choice, support for students with special needs, league tables, academy take-overs, free schools, curriculum changes, standards, access to universities of choice. For parents it is central to their family’s well being for many years. The stories about couples moving to get into the right catchment areas are legion in the papers, as are the stories of heartache when children cannot get into a school at all, let alone one of their choice! It is no wonder that Education is a topic that causes great division in society.
But, it does not need to be so. I am very far from being pro-Gove or pro-Wilshaw. I consider both men driven by their egos and a belief in their own rightness at the exclusion of all else. All that I read about Gove supports this, from the amount of dissenters to his policies, to the bullying of his staff. I have worked with Wilshaw, so I know thereof what I speak. Both men have an abiding belief in the avenging, correcting all conquering hero, not a view I subscribe to, but observing the parlous state of state education here I can understand their positions.
Dear reader, the Education world does not have to be viewed as black or white, which is what our educational political masters, in league with the media, would have us believe. Teachers are not lead by their unions, nor are they in charge of what happens in their curriculum and not everything Gove says is, or should be automatically rejected by teachers as, rubbish.
The truth is that the politics of division is useful, it manufactures fractures and breaks where there are none, it makes wars where there is no need and it keeps the politicians in the news.
Shockingly, not everything Gove says is automatically rejected by ordinary class-room teachers. I come from a system where there is no such thing as a two tiered exam system, or the chance for endless re-takes – I find this to be the cause of much unnecessary angst and confusion in my school. It’s not actually that difficult to design an exam that caters for the range of students. And there seems to be an awful lot of money being made by the various exam boards peddling their wares to support their curriculum. Is Gove wrong to try and shut them down?
Is Gove wrong to change the way Education is delivered in the UK? Perhaps some of his methodology needs revision, some of his priorities need challenging, as do some of the current educational practises… But to pretend everything is hunky dory is to live as a frightened ostrich does.
A curriculum based on facts and skills is the most sensible way to go. A less emotive word for facts might be content. Skills need to be hooked into content. Many commentators are now ranging the Education wars into those who support the American E.D Hirsch and those who reject him and his list of facts for American students so they can close the poverty and achievement gap – The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Interestingly he comes from a literature background (not education) and discovered the lack of broader knowledge through reading tests. Most experienced English teachers know that the further students go with studying English – A levels and beyond (but GCSE’s too) – the more advantaged they are by reading widely from an early age and knowing about the world.
This was brought home to me twenty years ago, incidentally not that long after Hirsch came to his conclusions, when I had several students from Papua New Guinea in my A level equivalent English class. They were hard working, keen and responsive students. But one of the areas of deficiency I could not over-come for them was their lack of knowledge about the Bible, myths and legends and other English literature texts referenced in the literature we were studying. It reinforced what I knew instinctively, that the more widely read you were, the better your ability to understand texts and then write about them and achieve the grades you needed to go onto university.
Thus, dear reader, the importance of reading to your child all those wonderful fairy stories and legends from long ago, and then keeping them reading widely and independently cannot be overstated, despite the electronic temptations of our age.
I was also privileged to work with some clever people in curriculum design who understood very clearly that you learned ABOUT English THROUGH English. To wit, that skills and knowledge were not separate entities, that they worked together, that certain ‘facts’ of English had to be learnt, such as grammar, spelling rules, structures of texts; that certain texts had to be read. Thus students had to have a diet of Shakespeare, novels, poetry, short stories, modern drama and non-fiction texts, as well as an expectation of independent reading, that would go onto inform their writing and success in exams. Creativity did not suffer and students were excellent at discussion, group work, using evidence to support opinions, and the use of their imagination.
A misconception that needs to be smashed apart: Teachers are not in charge of what goes into the curriculums they teach. They are rarely consulted about what they think about teaching and learning – I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and I’ve been consulted only once about changes. Most ordinary classroom teachers are told what is going to happen next and then go on to do their best to implement the changes in the best way they can for their students’ needs. Teachers are not resistant to change if they see the need for it. But too many changes over the years seem to be about anything other than what is in the students’ best interests. Teachers are not naturally left wing or Marxist and they invariably do what is expected of them within their school structures, following the various curriculum specs their school has opted to work with. Nobody I know who teaches English has been happy with the change from Course-Work to Controlled Assessments and would cheerfully tell anyone who cares to listen what should be happening in the fraught and political world of (subject) English assessment. But, as we were told recently by a senior man from AQA (our exam board) changes would be coming thick and fast for some time and we were all in for a turbulent ride. Where are the changes coming from? The top: not teachers. Our opinions on exam content, weightings, grade boundaries are not sought, believe me.
Labelling is a damaging thing. Left wing, Marxist, reactionary, conservative, liberal, progressive – all labels that are imbued with meaning intended to damage and discredit. Labelling is about marginalising and therefore discrediting comments from the people or sectors given such labels. Therefore quelling opposition and discussion. Surely Education is too important for this on-going mudslinging? We need to stop the commentary of division – just because the NUT says something doesn’t mean it should be dismissed out of hand by Gove and his acolytes. Just because Gove says something doesn’t automatically mean it isn’t worth consideration.
It’s time for all sides to bury their egos and look to the future of the children of the UK, together, in a measured considered way. We need to stop indulging in false dichotomies – rote learning v discovery learning; facts v imagination; exams v course work; academic subjects v arts subjects: Gove v teachers.
Education should not be about which politician or public figure/organisation wins but what is done for the children of this country. We must stop the Us and Them approach to Education, whichever side of the Educational fence we sit upon. (Images courtesy Google Images)