Posts Tagged ‘education’

On the crisis in English schools

May 4, 2019

Every Easter, England’s teaching unions hold their conferences, and alarming stories and statistics emerge. This year once again, it was the numbers of teachers being bullied by management, suffering stress, enduring long working hours, planning to leave the profession quite soon, and large numbers of pupils ‘off-rolled’ by secondary schools. What has gone wrong? Here are some thoughts, not in any particular order…

Increasingly, schools are run by managers, often with little or no experience of the classroom. Having zero experience of your particular field may be an advantage in other areas of the economy, but it’s bad in terms of running schools. Furthermore, identikit ‘training’ of would-be headteachers standardises both bad and good practice and undervalues particular individual strengths, I think.

In a sense, the teaching profession has been de-skilled; it’s certainly not as well-trained as it used to be. When I trained, all teachers were trained in university-level institutions, receiving a serious grounding in child development and child psychology as well as specific training in how to teach their particular subject. Now, unless you were particularly interested, that study of development and psychology was often dry as dust and dull as ditch-water, but I believe it was also vitally necessary and vitally important to being a successful teacher; it was only as my career developed that I realised just how I was unconsciously using all that knowledge and understanding I had acquired.

Teacher training is very different now: ‘school-centred’ was deemed to be much better, and it gave schools access to the money! Now, precious little of that vital general training seems to take place: there’s plenty of practice and experience in ‘delivering’ a subject curriculum, but divorced from understanding the minds of the little pitchers into which it’s being poured. I speak with experience here, for I was involved in setting up the initial teacher training scheme in my school. In those days students had to experience teaching in least a couple of different schools and I was often horrified at the poor deal some of my final placement students had received in their first training school: it was clear that a school had decided to have lots of students because they brought in lots of money, but had offered them very little support and training. I’m not at all convinced the situation has improved. What’s clear is that it’s uneven across the country, across different academy chains: there’s no guaranteed, standardised training… and if the teachers who are supposed to be mentoring the students are stressed and overworked, the temptation to cut corners must be great.

The end result of this is both teachers lacking a complete training, as well as teachers trained to teach by numbers and deliver a subject, in other words de-skilled and disadvantaged compared with earlier generations of teachers, not grounded in a sense of their own personal skills, strengths, aptitude and above all, sense of professionalism: this last has been consistently weakened and attacked by successive governments and generations of managerial headteachers. And so we get a teacher writing the other day about how it’s necessary to have standardised national testing because otherwise teachers can’t know how their students are doing because teacher assessment is all subjective…

Information technology has a bigger part in the current chaos than many people realise. Because data collection and analysis is now possible, easy and a source of profit for companies that market software, it will be done: it’s unavoidable, it’s the norm and the clock will not be turned back. Whether data-tracking of students in such minute detail is necessary or desirable is not really the question any more. And so, the workload issues it generates for teachers cannot be made to go away. When I started teaching, none of that was possible, and I don’t really think my students suffered because of that lack.

It’s also the political – as opposed to the educational – use that’s made of all this number-crunching: it now means that schools can be forced to compete with each other, that teachers can be deemed to be ‘failing’ if their results or ‘progress indicators’ do not come up to certain norms. In other works, data has become a big stick to beat up both students and teachers. Ever since the dreadful Kenneth Baker in the 1980s, every education minister has had to prove her or himself in their rise to greater things by playing with the train-set that is education; the fact that many of them had never experienced a state school education is of course totally irrelevant…

There’s another thing: the great divide between state education and the private system (which all taxpayers subsidise through its charitable status). At one level it’s a sideline, but it’s a socially divisive one that this divided country could and should do without. And this is where we come on to what can be done to change things. Other countries do it quite differently, and their school students do not seem to be total numpties compared with all our Einsteins: the obvious and most interesting example is Finland, and plenty of information about their radically different system is available out there so I don’t need to duplicate it here. Suffice it to say it’s based on local schooling and a thoroughly professional and professionally-trained teaching corps.

If we had a system of students all going to their local school – primary or secondary – then all schools would need to be brought up to the same level of staffing and resourcing. And there would be no need for the endless, polluting school runs where streets are jammed by the diesel tractors of parents who deliver their children to what they think is the best or right school for their child…

It does all come down to money in the end: how much is a child’s future worth? How much do we want to invest in the future of our country? And, sadly, my impression of England is that we want education, as we want so many other things, on the cheap…

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Henry Adams: The Education of Henry Adams

September 25, 2017

This was a Librivox recording that I listened to as I travelled on holiday recently. Someone once suggested it as worth a read; I’m not really sure, actually.

The Adams family, of Boston, was clearly a long and distinguished line which produced presidents and diplomats; the Henry of this autobiography was born in 1838, and lived into the early twentieth century; he recounts his life from the perspective of learning and education, in terms of what he did and did not learn in various places and from various experiences, and the pursuit of education was a lifelong quest with him. He travelled widely in Europe, though not, it seems, in his own country, and during the American Civil War his father was US ambassador in London and Henry was his secretary.

The book was tiresome in its detail and endless sequence of names, details no doubt much more relevant and interesting a hundred years ago, and in the USA, and the evenness of its tone became dull eventually, allowing the impression to grow of someone born with a golden spoon in his mouth, able to live a life of privilege, without ever really needing to take work seriously.

What kept me reading? I was certainly minded to give up after a while, but Adams’ reflections on how one learnt and how one didn’t learn I found interesting, and they turned me to reflecting on my own experiences of education through my life. He raised the well-worn trope of the relative pointlessness of what school, college and formal education offers one – though I still tend to disagree with this argument. I suppose, in the end, as someone getting on in years myself, I was hoping for some interesting reflections from Henry Adams’ own later years, but to my great disappointment, these he skated over alarmingly rapidly and cursorily, so I might as well have given up…

The most interesting section of the book for me, in the end, was that dealing with the Civil War because Adams was in London with his father dealing with diplomatic issues and the British Government, and I had no idea of the crassness, or the ignorance, or the self-serving nature of the British politicians and their behaviour during those years… although now, I do ask myself – why are you so surprised?

And I am grateful – slightly – to Adams for calling forth some serious reflections on my own life and education, which I think I may write about here at some point in the future. And the Librivox recording was a very good quality one.

Ha-Joon Chang: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

September 12, 2013

This Korean economist is increasingly in the public prints with his analysis of events, and his book was well worth the read. Yes, it’s a bit rushed, even breathless at times, but it’s neatly structured (most of the time) and the arguments develop clearly; I found his line convincing.

He’s unapologetically a capitalist, so there are no revolutionary suggestions or manifestos here. What he does is demolish, brick by brick, the arguments in favour of free markets that have taken over the world and done so much damage over the last thirty years or so. He adopts an almost catechetical approach: there is the ‘what they tell you’, followed by the ‘what they don’t tell you’, and then detailed analysis and evidence to back up his position.

What is most astonishing is how many pups we have been sold, how many times we have been conned and lied to over the past generation, how much we have had the mantra ‘there is no alternative’ dinned into us by the free market hegemons. Quite honestly, I never felt that the free market ‘worked’ (in favour of most people), but to see it pulled to pieces by a respected economist is an awakening. Nor am I particularly in favour of his approach which would take us back to the ‘acceptable face of capitalism’; I dream of someone finally putting together a twenty-first century Marx-style analysis that might convince enough people that things can be done completely differently…

For me, the two most enlightening ‘things’ of his 23 were the chapters on Africa and education. For most of my life Africa has been regarded and discussed as an almost irretrievable basket-case, and we are shown that this is both untrue and far from inevitable. Equally, the current explosion of higher education in Britain, and the West generally, is exposed for the sham that it is in a lot of cases: education in specific fields does not lead to better jobs, achievement or wealth, but education (small ‘e’) as an old-fashioned liberal idea is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society. Would that Mr Arrogant (aka Gove) would read that chapter.

So, some serious yet accessible analysis here: a much-needed breath of fresh air about our world, that will be ignored by those in power… no change there, then.

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