Education: Crap for Teachers and for Students Too. Part 2.
And so to part 2 – the crapiness of an education system that suits no-one at all, let alone the poor clients – the students. Think about that for a minute – if we were to adopt a business style of model and had to sell education to students how do you think that would work? Would the client – the student – buy what is on offer today? No, they would not. And perhaps that is a good place to start.
What student would choose to be tested from the moment they arrive at school? What child would choose to sit still all day long having a range of information shoved into them that they struggle to connect to? What child would choose to be measured against others and told repeatedly that they are failing in one way or another from the age of 5 to 18? What student would choose to have no choice about the way they learn or the subjects they want to take on their way to a meaningful career? What child would choose to sit in a room of 30+ other students experiencing a one size fits all education, that doesn’t cater to their needs or interests? What child wants to be invisible in that class of 30? What child wants to put up with the poor behaviour of others who don’t want to learn, who are never consequenced enough by the school system to make them behave? What child wants to spend a year with a teacher they don’t like or respect?
The answer is too obvious. No-one does. Yet this is what education is about for too many students. Too many of them are not getting a fair go in our schools. This is not a surprise to teachers, they, as mentioned last week, have their own suffering to endure, but that does not mean that they are ignorant or unsympathetic to the plights of many of their students – except the ones without pens!!
Most of us know what a good education looks like. Most of know that what is currently on offer is not even close. Students know this too. They know what a good teacher is, what they like about learning, what they don’t like and they are all too aware that what they get too much of the time is not what it could be. They also know, because they are not fools, that most teachers (yes, stress on the most) are doing their best and care about them.
And no, I am not going to talk about those teachers who don’t give a shit who should have been axed years ago, or never come into the profession in the first place. Shit teachers are not identified purely by age.
So, let’s to a few specifics of how the current government sector (especially but not exclusively) is failing young people:
1.Relevance of the curriculum – a good education should prepare a young person for the world – as a worker and a citizen. It should offer them opportunities to succeed, to take risks, to learn about things that are relevant to their world and then take them beyond that. The challenge is to mix the classics and basics of learning and the constancy of the new. It is difficult, especially in our changing world. Who’s to know what bit of learning occurring today will be relevant when they end up out the other end of compulsory education? So, relevance is tricky. But it is clear that some sectors of education, some subjects, are not being as relevant as they could. Take my subject – take English. We could be doing so much with how the media presents itself, how language is being mangled and manipulated, or reading some very fine modern relevant literature. But what are we doing aside from his royal dead-white-male-Godness Shakespeare, who will be done in perpetuity, even as the final flames of destruction engulf the earth? We are doing 19th century literature, specifically Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, mainly in truth because it is short and like its predecessor on the Literature curriculum, Of Mice and Men (that evil American text) can be read in class if need be, and with many students across this land, who won’t read on their own, it needs to be. J&H is a misogynistic tale of self important/self indulgent privileged white men who think they can play God, where women barely rate a mention. Where’s the relevance in that for your average English child? Oh, no, stupid me – totally relevant after all!!!
2.Relentless change – how many times can you change a curriculum? How many times must successive groups of students be the latest victims of the whims of a politician? This current debacle of 100% external exams is unfair and will achieve nothing – only hurt schools and students. Several years ago when shifting the goal posts of assessment became the main game, I had a group of bright and able GCSE students who completed the 20% Speaking and Listening assessment in year 10. But by the time they had got to year 11 the 20% had been abolished and added to the exams and now their assessment was 60% exam and 40% course-work. All their brilliant speeches no longer counted. How is that fair? Just as the year my daughter and her mates had the grade boundaries shifted from the January to June series and made harder for those not doing early entry. How is that fair? How can schools predict accurately and how can students have faith in their teachers or the system when the shifts occur arbitrarily and within an academic year? Certainly my current year 11s who are the latest victim of unjustified change (to 100% exam assessment) are bewildered by this and do see it as terribly unfair.
3.Excessive examinations – as they start school, throughout primary, as they end primary school; throughout secondary on their way to GCSE’s, where students can have up to 10 subjects many of which have multiple exams and then onto A levels. Every stage an exam. Every stage a life ending exam. How can students be assessed so often and not feel pressure and anxiety in the run up, and like failures afterwards? The pressure is intense. Students are told repeatedly how this particular set of exams will determine their future, that it is the most important thing in the world. Really, every exam they do is the end of the world? Of course it’s not but the system is designed to make them think so, to make everything a ridiculously big deal. No wonder many of them opt out, or find other dangerous ways to cope. Why would you want to be told repeatedly that you are a failure?
4.Teacher turn-over and inexperience – last week’s blog was about the recruitment crisis in education and no-one knows about it better than the students. In some subjects – usually Science and Maths from my 10 years here, but English too – have an extraordinary high turn over: just like a revolving door. The difficulty to attract and keep science graduates is also well known, what is lesser known is the impact that has on students. Consistency matters to them. They want quality and care in their teachers but a very close second to that pair is consistency. A teacher who is there for the year, or even the entire time they are at school. For many young people school is the only stable part of their life and knowing the same teachers will be there matters a great deal. Clearly teacher turn over affects their learning and equally teachers with limited experience also have detrimental effects on students, in terms of their confidence and progress. But when an experienced teacher leaves they are invariably replaced by inexperience. Some students have years of change and inconsistency and we wonder why they turn off….
5.Lack of responsibility – Students are not held as accountable as they should be. I realize this point seems to run counter to the last one but there is an issue here. Students fail, sometimes it isn’t their fault – and as said the system is too geared around progress and targets, not learning – but at the end of the day teachers carry the can. And some students in their naïve ignorance think that’s a good thing. If they don’t work then they will fail and the teacher will suffer. But of course in the long term the student does. They fail to reach their target and go onto the course of their choice, or a job, etc. In the end the student fails. They haven’t taken or been given the necessary responsibility along the way, they haven’t learnt through their failures in a safe environment and are in terrible danger of making terrible mistakes that will make a terrible difference to their lives. Responsibility is important, we want responsible citizens, we want resilient citizens and the current system where teachers are always expected to do more does not bode well for robust young people able to take appropriate responsibility for what they do and what they say. Does the world owe them a living? Will someone make excuses for them all their lives? The current school system is telling them it will. This is the origin of the snowflake generation and it does nobody any good.
6.Lack of awareness of your average teenage beast – this relentless pressure on exams, homework, targets and progress does a brilliant job of ignoring the life of your average teenager. They aren’t consumed by a passion for learning, they do not want to spend every waking hour thinking about their future, about how to make progress in each and every lesson. They care, to an extent, about education but it is not the centre of their lives and the educational powers that be are fools to think that it is – yet their policies and systems behave as if it is. Young people need a life – they need to play if they are young, be with their friends, be outside, play sport, relax, socialize, be with their families. They are entitled to their own lives, not one consumed by school. Really, why do we pretend that school is all there is to their lives?
6b.Lack of awareness of your average teenage beast and the dark side – yes life is radically different for young people these days. Bullying has not gone away but as well as stalking the school corridors it now hides in the dark of their rooms. No parent alive now can be under any illusions about how traumatic a place the on-line world can be. Bullies, sexting, harassment, gangs and Youtube videos: all sorts of nastiness is there preying on teenagers. And as they carry the world in their pocket so they can be monstered every hour of every day and you, as parent, as teacher, may never know – might not know until it is too late. Not to mention the lives of those for whom getting to school in itself is an achievement. Where does homework, or meeting a target or passing an exam rate alongside actually staying alive, of coping with the neglect or abuse that happens at home?
6c.Lack of awareness of your average teenage beast and the growth of mental health issues – self harming and depression are on the rise. As is teenage suicide. Students are under more pressure than ever to achieve, conform and belong. Social media has not helped young people, it has made their world more competitive and threatening. Schools are not equipped for the many students with mental health issues, counseling can be difficult to get and in the meantime many of them drift along in haze of hopelessness, believing there is nothing good or worthwhile about them or their lives. We make a mistake if we think their lives are like ours were – yes we had all sorts of problems but the dangers were easier to spot and the world was kinder and less mad. Today, in an uncertain world young people are angry, frightened and powerless. Not all of them see a bright future.
7.Not letting them think – this is the serious and present danger of our education system. Gove’s emphasis on facts and exams means things like thinking and exploring and taking risks are verboten. We don’t want creative subjects, Gove says, because they’re soft, they can’t be properly measured. But the creative arts and English as it used to be before the exam Nazis took over, are what create a thinking, moral, questioning society: subjects that foster curious minds and bright futures for all of us. But, hey we don’t want that in the government systems because we’re too busy teaching a load of nonsense in exams that advance not knowledge or the person or anything. (Note: all subjects allow for thinking and problem solving, I know…)
8.One size fits all – despite all the emphasis on differentiation, on planning for differences, in support staff to help a range of students, the reality is they all have to sit the same exams and they are all taught like cattle. Our system still looks to the days when teachers had class sizes of 40 and coped. Well the behaviour was under control and those who failed wore the consequences – namely they were held back, or dropped out because their learning needs were not diagnosed or considered. You sank or swam in the old days on your own. And sadly, to an extent you still do. We all sit in this room because we are the same age and supposedly at the same stage of learning. Even though we know we’re not. And so it goes that many children get lost. They have to be assessed in the same way, regardless of where they are developmentally, of their ability or needs. Never mind that so many children (grown adults actually) can’t cope in exams, that they cannot perform to their best – no they shall all be assessed in the same way. Our friend Mr Gove, and Nick Gibbs seems to be joining in now too, calling that rigor. Most of us call it idiotic. But what do we know, we’re only teachers, and they are only children who have no say at all.
So, the next time you feel contempt or disdain for a plugged in teen in a hoodie or wearing a skirt that’s too tight and too short beneath a face trowelled in make up, step back and feel some compassion. For a great deal of our young people school is anything but the best days of their lives. Essentially a succession of politicians and bureaucrats has made it that way and they need to hang their heads in shame. (Image from Private Collection)