All children are equal, but are some more equal than others
Failure in education is a view expressed continually by politicians, pundits, OFSTED, unions and parents in the time I have been a teacher. Schools are failing; white boys are failing; 10,000 teachers are failing. Surely the whole system is failing? It is interesting to find that opinions keep coming about education but no real questions that can be tested so answers can be found.
Michael Gove found the rhetoric and political will to change the examination system to have a higher academic focus because exams were all becoming too easy; freed up the ‘market’ for schools to open as Academies or free schools and we are coming to a point where we can start to make judgements about whether this has been a success or a failure. All driven by the failures stated.
The key question though, which I rarely hear, is what do we want from our education system? The problem with that question, is that it opens up a whole can of social worms, which is a politicians biggest fear and why they look for easy answers. There is plenty of evidence about this, as the last parliamentary report shows, from an all party committee. But its failure is that it looks only at teachers and parents, without regarding the key to the system, which is the individuality of the students inside it and what is best for them.
Our education system should allow all students to flourish, enjoy and be educated to the level they can achieve. It should ready students for the world they are about to enter as adults, with the skills required for their jobs and private lives. As a meritocracy, the brightest and /or hardest working will rise to the top and be the drivers of our economy and future. So lets unpick this.
What are the skills required in our modern economy? Algebraic equations or to have read Shakespeare or to know poems by heart? Current government requirements to drive up standards.
The CBI published a report indicating the top 10 skills required for work. 2 out of 10 are academic, while the others are those softer skills; yet they are the very skills being removed from the curriculum because of Gove’s reforms of the exam system. So where is the right balance and more importantly, how can we test if we have the right balance, without it becoming a political dogfight.
Are students all the same? The simple answer is no. Therefore if students do not start equal, there will always be inequality. We then burden the education system with trying to remove something that is inherently there, criticising teachers and the system for a problem not of their creating. If we start with acknowledged truths, we should then look for a system that can improve all students, whatever their personal circumstances.
- Children learn in different ways and they have different intelligences. Yet we have a system that only rewards academic success and casts whole groups of learners as failures for generations because they do not fit into this system.
- Exams are only one way to test ability in subjects. Again, policy makers who excelled at exams, favour exams. They tend to be the ones who move into power and so skew what they think is important. Practical skills are just as important and we need to find ways that are trusted to assess these.
3. Behaviour/apathy is the single biggest issue holding back attainment in schools. The best schools work with parents to improve this, but some parents do not have the skills/will to improve the attitude of their sibling. This is what the current commons report above tried to tackle.
4. The poor are already a year behind their peers at 5, because in general, the poor are poorly educated and so struggle to support their children, at best, and don’t care at worst.
So how do we allow for social mobility, push the poorest students to achieve, ensure the system is fair for everyone and have a system that can test a range of skills for all students. Well here goes.
The first and most controversial is to ensure the poorest children are not left behind; this means greater state intervention from a very young age. This would mean nurseries run by the state to nurture a love of learning and reading. If you do it at this age, you will remove many problems further down the system. This does cost, but think of all the additional costs in schools, society and prisons created by this issue.
The second is to remove the feminisation of the primary sector. There are not enough men who teach primary education and the lack of role models is clearly a problem, especially where male role models are lacking at home. This can be remedied in a number of ways. Financial incentives for teachers; allowing more male secondary staff into the primary system to teach Core subjects and PE.
More removals from the main school system, into facilities to cater for the students who cannot cope in the classroom. This is predominantly boys, but should not exclude girls as well. Again for these students, the state has to intervene to support the family. It should not be seen as a failure to move, but a positive to a more appropriate school, where students can learn in a more kinesthetic environment. Yes this would be less academic, but would look to create students who felt their worth in education, rather than seeing it as the enemy.
These would all be for primary education. At a secondary level, we need to take one of the biggest fundamental changes to our psyche in modern times. Over the last 30 years the way to success has been to go to university and be a graduate. In this time period the percentages attending university have increased from 15% to 40%. This has been a massive increase and one fuelled by an increase from the ‘middle classes’ sections of society. This then is a success and one that should be recognised. But does this mean the other 60% are a bit thick and failures of the education system. In many ways this is what is portrayed, which is obviously not true and potentially removes a lot of confidence from our society. Is it clever to be able to take apart and fix a car engine or boiler? To be able to plaster or rewire a house? It takes skill and training to do that job and yet they are not valued in society as much. The proof is the number of plumbers/plasterers/electricians/bricklayers we have coming through the system in this country. At present you only do these if you have ‘failed’ at school. This is wrong and our perception as a country needs to change on this. This is the single biggest failure that Gove has given the education system, the perception of failure for many students.
To change this we need to give students a choice of a vocational route through school. This should not be about students who can’t do anything else, because at 11 they will still learn the core subjects, but we will value their education in learning a trade. I would also suggest that the most able engineers should consider the vocational route as well, and this should not exclude academic ability from this particular route. I would also suggest it should not be the dumping ground of the poorly behaved. Again, state intervention should be there to support the families, with the very worse cases being sent to boarding schools. The poor behaviour is learnt at home and/or in the community and removing them from that area, may be the only way to deal with the very worst offenders. If we don’t deal with it at this point, they become the criminals of the future.
Suddenly, we could have a system that caters for our children’s and countries needs, that allows them to excel at what they are good at and gives them confidence for their futures. This is what the education system is supposed to do. The biggest stumbling block though is that it wont win votes and i doubt any of our current politicians have the ability to argue the case.
Back to blaming the parents, teachers and students in the vicious circle of failure!