Education failing in the UK or the UK failing education?

Not a pupil project this week, a view of the granite sculpture at the heart of the Core at The Eden Project.

It seems to have been a rather strange week.  By chance or intent I have heard a number of public statements that have caused me to think about what schools are for.  There may seem to be an obvious answer but let me share a few of the things I have heard and see if I can show you why I have been asking the question.  According to some research within the Conservative party Michael Gove has convinced some 87% of party members that he is doing a good job.  Probably a good moment to pause and let that sink in.  There are a number of possibilities arising from this statistic;  first, perhaps he is?  Chances are that if you are reading this you are not likely to have been part of the sample and you may feel that the current administration has been playing with education as with other policies, rather like someone who fiddles with the pieces when assembling flat packed furniture; something will emerge at the end and it may or may not work.  A second possibility is that most people do not understand the education system having little or no experience of it since they passed through it themselves, giving rise to all sorts of ideas like, “Lets go back to O levels, they were alright for me.”  The third and more worrying possibility is that consensus politics has been hijacked by those who believe that the first job of politicians is to create the consensus.  In other words spin the story and then ride the wave of public opinion that you have created.  I leave you to form your own judgments.

Another opinion I heard stated as fact was that for years the education system has been failing our children.  What?  Do people really believe that?  The speaker defended her position by assuring the audience that we were sliding down the rankings in the PISA tables, I will let you do the search and analyse that for yourselves.  What worries me is the climate of opinion that surrounds education and how that will impact on the future of our children.  If you are a teacher then I am sure that like me you will have been accosted at all sorts of times by people who have opinions about what schools should be doing, you have only to listen to the daily news to find a group who are convinced that their particular subject should be part of the school curriculum; personal finance, alcohol awareness, (Though I suspect that most of my pupils are only too aware of alcohol), what it is to be British, consumer protection legislation, first aid, the list goes on and on.  Of course none of these things is  a bad idea but perhaps they are not all the responsibility of education.  My low spot came when I was assured by a disgusted adult that it was no wonder the country was in a state when schools were not even teaching children how to use a roofing square.

The current head of OFSTED, (that’s the education police if you live outside the UK), has made a number of pronouncements recently that have alienated teachers across the country.  Most recently that teachers who arrived at nine and went home at three did not deserve a pay rise and questions would be asked if they got one.  Most of the teachers I know have treated that remark with derision and answers like, “I wish!”  The same man also thinks that teachers should take the place of dysfunctional families.  I have a nasty feeling that he might mean working class.  All this combines to create an impression of teachers as poor at their job, lazy, working short hours, having long holidays, cashing in a “gold plated pension when they retire early.  Where in this public perception is the teacher who is always in school before 8 preparing for the children or the one who is kicked out by the caretaker when it is time to lock up?  Where is the teacher who is in tears because they have just discovered what one of their pupils has for a home life?  Where is the teacher who takes the place of an absent father or mother in the eyes of one of their pupils?  Where is the teacher who is bursting with pride for the achievement of the young carer who didn’t do too well at school but has come back to tell them that they  have got their degree and to thank them for the support?  That is just my list, all true by the way, of a very few of the examples I can give of genuinely caring professionals who knock themselves out to provide the very best they can for the children they teach.

While the current myth generation surrounding teachers and education may serve to prepare the ground for politicians who want to be credited with change it will in the long term damage the whole fabric of what it declares itself to be supporting.  The government says that it wants to encourage high quality trainee teachers and gives bursaries to those with very good degrees, are these young people going to want to join a profession whose daily diet is criticism?  I don’t think that the problem is that schools have been failing our young people, I think the problem is that they have been providing exactly what successive governments have asked for.  No government to date has worked out what exactly it does want from education and how it is going to tell when it gets it.  No government wants to tackle one of the really significant factors which is the value that our society places on education, the personal belief that education is  a treasure worth pursuing.  Rather like the sculpture at the heart of the Eden Project this is the issue at the heart of our debate.  By the way, I wonder if there is any correlation between our PISA rankings and the degree of government intervention in education?

3 Responses to “Education failing in the UK or the UK failing education?”
  1. Zia says:

    So true Geraint, very well said.

  2. Darren Coxon says:

    I think your last sentence is one of the most telling: we are, in many ways, victims of politicians looking for easy ways to make themselves seem like they are the reformers, the ones who are going to fix what the previous administration got so very wrong. I am not going to defend the labour government as in many ways their policies were as misguided as Gove’s. But a one size fits all Ebac? Does he really think that will make the difference? We need to be enabling our students to become creative, confident risk takers, networkers who can survive in a world which is changing almost daily. Just because they have a humanities subject along with their two sciences is not going to do this: we have to have the freedom to create learning environments which foster growth, independence and original thinking. Without it no amount of PISA-ing around will make a blind bit of difference.

    And what about the role of technology in the debate? Where is Gove on that? He wants everyone to be programmers, but what about the creatives, the ones who provide the ideas? Raspberry Pi is great, but we need kids to be attending art classes as well so that the divergent side of their brains is being activated. It’s the old Etonian paradigm, isn’t it. So misguided.

    • Thanks for your comment Darren, sorry to be so tardy with a reply. I am very much afraid that the government does think what you suggest in tones of disbelief. You might have some sympathy with our idea of a local baccalaureate, claiming back some credibility for the subjects that we believe matter to our students.

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