It’s the end of term and whilst caretakers across the land brush away the summer term cobwebs, the nation eases itself into a restful summer. But before we completely abandon our critical faculties, here is a quick quiz! Ask yourself the following simple questions and consider their equally simple answers:
If you need a new building designed, who would you ask?
Correct! An architect.
If your child has an earache and hasn’t slept for a week, who would you take them to?
You guessed it. A doctor.
If you need someone to make important decisions about education in the UK, who would you go to?
Of course! A privately-educated conservative MP with a background entirely in legal practice and not a whiff of educational experience.
The mind boggles at the recent decision of Prime Minister David Cameron to replace one inept and poorly suited Pob-lookalike with another ludicrously irrelevant member of the cabinet. But wait! She’s a woman! Isn’t that nice and progressive of him? As a former teacher myself, I am the last person to leap to the defense of the estimable Mr. Gove, but I cannot help but fear for the future of education as it barrels forward into another pair of inexperienced hands.
Of course, we should not judge Nicky Morgan MP before she has, really, had the opportunity to cock something up. Promoted to her new role less than a month ago, time will tell which way this woman will wrangle the policies that make the difference between educationalists and students enjoying their learning and resenting the class room air they breathe.
But what exactly needs to change? As a qualified secondary school English teacher, I have just left the coalface of the interactive whiteboard to step back and re-evaluate what we can do to save Britain’s schools. From the scrapping of national formal assessments in Year 9 during my first year on the job to the upheaval caused by abolishing traditional ‘levels’ as a measure of assessment, teachers and students are very much in the dark as to what should replace them. Teaching, in many senses, has become a bit like horse racing, with head teachers and governors constantly trying to second-guess the next initiative that will nudge the current vogue policy out of the race. Rather than entering an age of enlightenment in education, the Coalition government seems hell-bent on casting us back to the Dark Ages.
Whilst it would be satisfying to erect a dartboard starring Gove’s smug face leering back at us, we need to look at the broader problems that face modern educationalists. Firstly, how do we put students, rather than results, back at the heart of the sector? Ask any current teacher what their greatest anxiety is about teaching and one of the following is bound to crop up: Ofsted, league tables, parental pressure, and oppressive management teams. All have one thing in common: squeezing as many ill-gotten results out of the tired, demotivated and demoralized students as possible. Who says privatization hasn’t come into education yet? With sponsored ‘academies’ seemingly trending their way through many a local authority, schools might as well affix their names with the ‘inc’ logo and have it done with.
Coming back to Ofsted for a minute, it’s no myth that school policies, training sessions, administrative workloads and even class room displays are all Ofsted-proofed to within an inch of their beings in order to satisfy the ever-mercurial government body that lights the way. Make sure you pay full attention to their rigorous policies; blink and you’ll miss them! In the space of 12 months, my anxiety as a teacher mutated from the fear of a shady, clipboard-toting visitor to my class room, circling a ‘3’ to classify my teaching as ‘requiring improvement’ to a shift in focus which scrutinizes how ‘pretty’ and effective my book marking feedback is. You can picture it now: a memo from the Head announcing that all staff should dial back the multiplatform interactive class room learning activities and ramp up the goods in the stickers and stamps department.
It is without a moment’s regret that I look over my shoulder at the fledgling career I have left behind, yet my concerns are much broader than personal. We must, undoubtedly, think of the children. But we also need to nurture the tired, neglected, abused and heckled workforce that are the teachers of your children, siblings, neighbors and fellow human beings. Too often we hear of various teaching unions rallying their forces to take industrial strike action in the wake of a blind, deaf and dumb Education office. Too often we hear disgruntled members of the private sector workforce berating the ‘feckless teachers’ who walk out of the school doors alongside the children to enjoy a life of Riley in their three story pleasure villas paid for with their hard earned taxes. Give me a break.
Although industrial action has its benefits in terms of grabbing politicians by their gonads and highlighting the discontent within our UK schools, it only goes so far. How are the students benefiting if we bolt the doors against them? Rather, we need to continue to foster public awareness of the realities of school practices and routines with less flustering and flapping. Do the public realize that in March, when staff are helping students prepare coursework to submit to exam boards, they are relentlessly ploughing upwards of 70 hours of their week into their job? Do they realize that students are fed up of the pressure they feel from statistics-driven expectations, to extremes where self-esteem is severely affected and problems ranging from bullying to anorexia are rife as a result?
Although some individual voices of reaction against the educational machine have been heard (‘Dear Mr Gove’, a poem that channels a frustrated Jess Dean’s fears for education; a Barrowford Primary School’s results letter to students that encourages the ethos that there are ‘many ways to be smart’), it is vital that others take up the mantle of informing Morgan, Ofsted and the wider world that educational practice in the UK, as it stands, cannot continue.
So, Nicky Morgan. We pass the reins to you. Will you visit class rooms, speak to those forgotten children of the system and fight for their rights to a good education? We await the first bell of term in September with baited breath and a fragile optimism that consistency, challenge and care will become the sacred tenets of the class room, and those eager young faces retain more than a modicum of motivation for the term, and learning, to come. Let us not revert to a nation of Dickensian Gradgrinds, rendered apoplectic at the mere notion that facts aren’t at the core of learning, but step forward as a nation of Dahl’s Miss Honeys, human beings with the patience and good will to shape a bright-eyed and rounded young workforce for the future.
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