Saturday, 9 April 2011

"The Trouble With Education"...Again

Education in the UK has been a political football for years. Both Labour and Conservatives have attacked each other's education policies while in opposition, while making what appear to be sweeping changes when in power. Whether it's Tony Blair with his "Education, education, education" mantra, or John Major with his "Back to Basics" campaign, all politicians with an interest in education declare their intention to sort out the problems they see in Britain's schools once and for all. It has been a recurring theme at Tory and Labour Party conferences for decades. And yet, in today's Daily Mail, we read:
"Despite a doubling of spending on education since 2000, from £35.8billion to £71billion, Britain has plummeted down world rankings, according to the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
During this period the UK slipped from eighth to 28th in maths, from seventh to 25th in reading and from fourth to 16th in science. It is now behind relatively poor nations such as Estonia, Poland and Slovakia."

Read more (if you can stand it) at:

As a teacher for 30 years, I am gripped by a sense of dejavu yet again. Back in the 1980s, before the Thatcher Government introduced the first ponderous (and horrendous) National Curriculum, the Government was quoting statistics that proved British children to be performing poorly in science tests compared to Japanese children. The National Curriculum that followed was an expensive, unworkable flop, with about 14 folders on every subject. They were later replaced by a single folder, but that did not prevent many hard-working and dedicated teachers ruining their health in trying to make Mrs Thatcher's folly work.
The Major years saw the creation (some would say "job creation") of OFSTED, which was supposed to be the instrument to galvanise schools into raising their standards. It certainly led to a good deal of pressure upon schools to do well in OFSTED inspections. For some teachers, as I have said before, the pressure was so intense that they committed suicide.
There have been many initiatives since, such as the Numeracy and Literacy Hours, the introduction and (optional) abolition of SATs testing and "Every Child Matters". All these schemes were usually preceded by a barrage of statistics such as the ones given above. So, there is nothing new about the "worrying" statistics in today's "Mail"; it is probably a sign that the ConDems are planning another "initiative". In the film "Apocalypse Now", the Martin Sheen character says:
"In Viet-Nam, the bullshit piled up so fast, you needed wings to stay above it".
Although we would put it in more restrained (and constrained) language, that sums up the view of many who work at the chalk face in education.
I have no access to statistics by way of confirmation, but I believe these observations of mine to be true:
1. British primary school children are not as good at Kendo as their counterparts in Japan.
2. London schoolchildren are years behind in the learning of French compared to school students in Paris.
3. Italian children are better at making pasta than British OFSTED inspectors.
4. British politicians are as adept and unscrupulous in their  use of statistics as politicians everywhere else.
I was once described as an "old cynic" by a Headteacher. Let my answer to that person be my last words here:
"There's only one thing wrong in being a cynic about education - I'm always right".


  1. As you know Geoff, I trained to be a teacher and got a B.Ed., although owing to job shortages at the time I left college, my teaching career was rather brief!

    I deplore the way education, like the NHS, is a test subject used by politicians intent on pursuing their own ideologically-driven experiments. I see a number of faults:

    1. Far too much testing of the pupils, creating ridiculous amounts of unnecessary stress. SATs in particular are worthless, and there is clear evidence of coaching to pass the tests, rather than teaching the subject.

    2. Some kind of school inspections are necessary - taxpayers have a right to know that their money is being productively spent - but the stress that Ofsted inspections cause to institutions and individual teachers is completely out of proportion to any benefits. It would not be too hard to introduce a better system of inspections, with a more supportive role instead of the present critical function.

    3. League tables are intended to introduce a form of competition among schools. Why? Only free marketeer ideologues would see any value in such a measure, which in the main demoralises teachers and pupils who are in schools judged to be doing badly, and creates excessive demand for those judged to be doing well.

    4. Assess whether a national curriculum is needed, and if it is, simplify it to broad aims, not micro-management.

    5. Discourage faith schools and allow no more to open with taxpayers' money, with a long-term aim of all such schools becoming diverse or losing state funding. They are divisive and have negative consequences for society. Faith schools are a major part of the problem of continuing sectarianism in Northern Ireland, Glasgow and anywhere else it exists.

    6. Shorten school holidays. The summer holiday in particular is far too long for children, and holiday child care is a problem for many parents. The school day is shorter than when I was in education, so why not pick up the slack with shorter school holidays, and perhaps four shorter terms instead of three. The curriculum is crowded enough as it is - more time would enable teachers to let subjects breathe more. There are 38 weeks in the current school year - why not four terms of between 10 & 11 weeks each?

  2. What? No response to shorter school holidays?

  3. The four term idea has been mooted before, but has got nowhere. I note that when you speak of Faith Schools, you seem to be thinking of Christian schools exclusively. Any views on Muslim schools, where there have been recent instances of physical assault?

  4. BTW - you are right about SATs - in some schools, they have an absolute fetish about how well they do. In primary schools, where the numbers are relatively small, a very small number of children failing to reach the required SATs level can lead to a significant drop in the school's place in the league tables.

  5. I meant all faith schools. My comment does not specify which faith, although my examples of intolerance that they foster are, admittedly, Christian.