Submitted by George Callaghan…
Let’s at least be honest about it. British education is in prolonged crisis. The problems in British schools are manifold. These are revolution en permanence in the exam system, dumbing down, the bureaucratic beast, indiscipline, lack of extra-curricular activities and the recruitment crisis. These problems are interrelated. The overall problem is metastisising from one school to the next, from the state sector to the independent sector, from primary to secondary and finally to tertiary education. In fact, this is part of a broader malaise which has infected British society in general. It is tempting to take a blended approach to examining all these issues but that would run the risk of being overly complex and confusing. This article is chiefly about schooling in England. However, much of what is written here will be applicable to the predicament in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. England having 93% of the UK population means that whatever gang awry in England impacts the remainder f the United Kingdom very heavily.
This article is not a rose tinctured view of the past. Looking back to the early 1980s before the rot set in schooling was still beset by problems. They were not as numerous or as severe as the ones today. The problems that schooling faced back then were different. There was no golden age in education and there probably never shall be. We must deal in relatives and not in absolutes. There are certain aspects of education that were much better in the recent past.
The United Kingdom still has some of the most renowned schools in the world. Eton, Winchester and Westminster are names that strike awe even in the uttermost ends of the earth. But the UK also has some of the worst schools in the developed world. How is it that a nation with world beating schools, an extremely high GDP, the home of the world language and the birthplace of countless geniuses has ended up all but destroying its own school system? It is a sorrowful and unedifying tale of stupidity, malice, vandalism, a pernicious ideology and bureaucratism on steroids. The Labour Party is mainly culpable but the Conservative Party also deserve a lot of flack. The devolved administrations under the DUP, Sinn Fein and SNP should also be excoriated for their myopic policies. There is a notion around that educational problems are soluble by blizzards of regulations. This specious notion has been tested to destruction and beyond.
Revolution en permanence
Every few years the exam system faces and overhaul. In 1988 O levels were scrapped. It was part of Margaret Thatcher’s brave new world. The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) was launched. O levels were hard. They were designed for people to fail and not to pass. Yes, people did pass them but not many. That is why people were often asked how many O levels they passed not what grades they were.
For all Thatcher’s talk of rolling back the frontiers of the state she did much to advance state control of education. Her predecessor as prime minister was Jim Callaghan. (Great name!). James Callaghan had only a secondary education but cared deeply about schools. Callaghan had had a bit of an education knocked into him by Christopher Hitchens’ grandfather. He lamented that as PM he had no say over what was taught in schools. Even in the state sector teachers had almost total control over schooling and looked to the government to provide money and almost nothing else. The teachers were the experts and the politicians had to butt out! The teachers’ trades unions such as the National Union of Teachers (NUT) jealously guarded teachers’ autonomy. How times have changed! NUT was obstinately left wing. Its foulest insult was and is ‘Tory’. Not for nothing are members of the NUT known as ‘nutters’.
Teaching unions in cahoots with politicians brought about the ever-increasing regulation of schooling. Thatcher was aghast at what she say as trendy lefty teaching methods. She had a point. Some schools were little more than far left madrassahs. Those attracted to teaching are overwhelmingly left winger. Left wingers can of course be superb teachers. Plenty of leftist teachers do not let their politics interfere with their teaching. However, there were some loony leftists who wanted to indoctrinate pupils. Some of them believed that spelling and grammar were old hat. Standard English should not be taught because that was simply reinforcing the capitalist fascist imperialist racist junta and making working class and ethnic minority children feel stupid. They argued that soap operas were as worthy of being taught in school as the works of Shakespeare.
No wonder Pink Floyd released a song with London pupils singing ‘we don’t need no education’. This would have been endorsed by some left wing teachers as grammatical. The next sentence ‘we don’t need no thought control’ would be dead wrong. Some ultra left teachers thought that brain washing their pupils was precisely their remit. Some pupils found such left wing evangelism so obnoxious that they fought back with a magazine called Bulldog. This magazine contained racist opinions and this article does not endorse that at all.
It is hard to credit now but until the late 1980s there was no National Curriculum. This meant that if your history teacher in reception wanted to teach you about Henry II he could do so. If you got a different teacher in year 1 who wanted to teach you about Henry II again she could do so. Supposing you moved to another school in year 2 and a teacher wished to teach you Henry II then she would do it and… there was no end to the number of times people could be taught the same thing. At the same time there might be huge lacunae in a person’s knowledge because things were not on any curriculum. Even basic literacy and numeracy were not there. It should go without saying that the majority of teachers were dedicated and sensible. Most of them did a satisfactory job of educating their pupils.
The germ of the National Curriculum was laudable. But it has metamorphosed into a monster. It was right to say that each child should be taught certain things at certain stages. Of course, not every pupil will grasp everything at the same speed. Some pupils will not attain mastery over some information of some skills. The purpose of the National Curriculum was to guarantee each pupil the rudiments of decent schooling. Girls and boys would be taught to spell, to write grammatically, to add, to subtract and they should emerge from schooling having acquired a smattering of facts about geography, history, science and so forth.
Kenneth Baker was the Education Secretary when most of this was going on. He also introduced In Service Training Days (INSET). This obliged teachers to come to school for a few days during the school holidays. It was usually either just before or just after the holidays. They would be given lectures on aspects of teaching and they would hone their virtuosities. It was not a bad idea. Some of the INSETs are valuable. However, a great many are worthless. The number of INSETs has increased. Useful things such as learning first aid are not taught. INSETs are held just for the sake of them.
O levels had numerical grades. 1 was the best and 9 was the worst. But too many people got grade 1. So numerical grades were scrapped. Alphabetic grades were introduced. GCSEs started out with grades A-E. Too many people got A grades. So A* was introduced. Too many got A at A level to A* was introduced there too. There are IGCSEs as well as GCSEs. Are they the same. Who knows?
How to distinguish the top candidates? S levels were introduced. Then scrapped. The advanced extension award was introduced and then scrapped.
There was AO level. That was scrapped. A levels were to be sat at the end of two years. That was scrapped. Then it was to be done over two years with AS level being the first part. That was scrapped.
There was the English Baccalaureate. Now that has been axed. A foreign language was compulsory to the age of 16. Then it wasn’t. Now it is. Or has that been scrapped too? It is awfully difficult to keep up to date with the vagaries of policy.
There were a dozen exams boards. Then it was slimmed down to three – OCR, AQA and Edexcel. Are they equally good? They are supposed to be. The exam boards offer courses to teachers on the new exam format. Schools pay for teachers to go. Then they know how to teach to test. But if the school cannot pay for this its pupils are disadvantaged.
OCR, AQA and Edexcel are businesses. Is there a conflict of interest here? Why not change the format of the exam each year? Then people have to come to a new course each time. Redo the course content a bit. Force people to buy a new textbook! Quids in! Wicked and self-interested careerists wish to maintain the status quo. They are doing very nicely thank you.
In the history exam there might be two essays to do and one source question. But next year they change it to one essay and two source questions. The year after they change it again. It is difficult for teachers to keep pace with the constant overhauls. Parents are often several years behind. Is it any wonder people are dazed and discombobulated? Teachers and pupils alike are exhausted from trying to adapt to an ever changing and ever more bewildering curriculum and exam system. Stay awake! Because the whole thing will be changed. But as we often return to a policy that was jettisoned several years ago should we not be more careful before she change policy next time? But no we must never learn from experience. No to trial and error. It is trial and exhaustion. Plus ca change c’est la meme chose. What is it they say about trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?
Time after time the system has been rejigged. People are left dizzy and reeling. What the hell is happening? Nobody knows. They never leave it alone. Invent a decent system and stick to it. It is never going to be perfect. Changes are announced all the time. Sometimes the change announced is not implemented. Everyone is punch drunk from the unceasing turmoil. The curricula are undergoing planned obsolescence.
Whatever the failings of education it is not from lack of reorganization. A major part of the problem is the never-ending reorganization and the fixation with form over substance. Relabeling things goes not improve them. Or should that be rebranding. There is a silly obsession with the semantics of education. Playing words games with educational policy does not benefit the pupils.
So much of this is headline grabbing by politicians. Will it play well in the media? Will it burnish my image as a reformer? How much airtime will I get? Every education secretary wants to leave her mark on schools. Each one mucks it about.
An education secretary will be appointed and vow to restore integrity to exams, to abolish reams of unnecessary paperwork and to bring back discipline in school. Every education secretary will then do precisely the opposite of what was just promised. A bonfire of regulations is long overdue.
Who are these education secretaries? Almost none of them has ever taught a day. What do they know about it? It is maddening to see these over opinionated busybodies ruining schools for millions of pupils. There is change for the sake of change. Politicians have got to be seen to be doing something. They have to be tough! They have to be reformers. Nay – revolutionaries! They have to stick their oar in.
Michael Gove was one of the worst offenders. This mouthy journalist said that anyone who had ever smoked a joint must never be allowed to be a teacher. Gove later wrote that he had regularly snorted cocaine in his 30s. But it was fine for him to be in charge of the whole education system? The imbecility, malice, cruelty, hypocrisy and injustice of his policy was galling in the extreme.
Schooling in England is like Trotsky said revolution en permanence. So many Labour MPs in the 1990s were former Trotskyites. Is that why they kept chopping and changing school policies? It is like revolutionaries said – the worse the better.
All too often teaching becomes preaching. The National Curriculum is used to promote left wing nostra. People learn what heroines the suffragettes were and how wicked the British Empire was. It is absolutely right that people should learn about the empire warts and all. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre is taught. The satanic evil of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is also faced up to. The millions of people who died in famines are acknowledged. No other country besides Germany examines the hideous side of its history in such depth. Is this masochism? Many leftists say this is not enough. But the manifold blessings that colonial rule bestowed on the colonies are not examined in such depth.
In England so-called ‘British values’ must be indoctrinated into tender young minds. These impressionable children should not be subjected to propaganda even when it is laudable. I am allergic to official ideologies. ‘British values’ are not originally British and certainly not solely British. There are many deep contradictions in this highly dubious notion of British values. One of them is tolerance – except for the BNP who are banned from various professions, except for the things you cannot say and except for the statues you cannot display. Children are to be told to believe in democracy. That is a contradiction in terms. A teacher ought to teach pupils the facts and present a range of different opinions. It is then up to the pupils to make up their own minds.
Research is done into teaching methods. Should we use smartboards? They only cost £10 000 a pop. Maybe that is why the school cannot afford basic supplies. We are told that power point presentations are the bees knees. Then educational research comes out proving that to be nonsense. I do not know what to believe. The super didactic Far Eastern approach is lauded. Then it is execrated. We have to be extra liberal like the Finns and have minimal contact time and no homework. If these academic papers are written with academic rigour supported by hard data how is there a debate? Is none of the evidence probative? But policies change like the weather. Is it any wonder schools are in such a mess?
This might seem redolent of the travails of the NHS. That is with good reason. Many of the same policy viruses which beset the NHS are also detectable in schools. But when the NHS changes something it is often for good reason. Medicine is a hard science with double blind tests. New drugs are invented. New treatments are developed. Pedagogy is not something which is provable to a scientific standard. All too often an educational theorem is ideology masquerading as a social science at best.
I call to mind Lord Falkland’s maxim – if it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change. That ought to be the conservative view on schooling. Yet the Conservative Party has so often failed to defend its own philosophy particularly with regard to schooling. More than occasionally the Conservative Party has actively advanced the leftist-bureaucratist agenda of ever deepening state control.
As the saying goes a century ago every undergraduate had to pass an exam in Latin to university. Now universities teach remedial English. But exam results are better than ever! So we are incessantly told. Do not believe the Stakahanovite statistics dished up by politicians. The statistics about grades can be reeled off by many a politician. It is redolent of Stalinist statistics – dizzy with success. So many politicians have measuring things as their idee fixe. But what makes education superb is seldom expressible as a metric. Because of this obsession with quantifying things there is a drive to compile data.
The dumbing down is plain to see. Even some politicians have finally publicly acknowledged as much.
Look at a textbook from 2019. Look at the same textbook published 10 years earlier. Try 20 and 30 years earlier. It is on the same topic and published by the same publishing house for the same GCSE or A level course. The difference will be remarkable. The content will have been simplified, the vocabulary will have become regressively more rudimentary, the key terms will be spelt out, there will be more pictures though some content is untouched.
Look at exams published over the decades. You will see that the questions became less and less taxing. People rise to meet expectations. They also stoop to meet them. Just as in sport if you play a strong opposition it raises your game. Pupils have been conditioned to accomplish less. The brightest ones are not being stretched as they should be. It is levelling down. Make it so simple that all but the dimmest can pass. But that does a huge disservice to those of superior aptitude.
As grades get ever higher the UK slips down the world educational rankings. Something must be amiss. Britain is performing poorly in maths and science in particular. The UK’s record in foreign languages is little short of abysmal.
People are not becoming stupider or more idle. But they are not become greatly smarter. When grades get better and better in almost every subject for 40 years almost without exception do you not smell a rat? Are we mass producing geniuses? I suspect not. Yours truly is included in this. If I had sat my A levels ten years earlier I would have been awarded a lower grade in all subjects. Twenty years earlier I would have been awarded two grades lower. That takes us back to the 1970s. Prior to the 70s grade inflation scarcely existed.
In the old says few people stayed at school till 18. Those who got the school certificate in the 1930s were a small minority. It made employment much easier for them. People were less inclined to try because things were not so competitive. In the 1930s even people who had dropped out of university were sought after by employers. Any experience of tertiary education put a person far above the average in terms of erudition. Therefore, people did not strive in their exams so much. There was such a thing as a 4th class degree until the 1960s. The gentleman’s 4th was done away with.
There were some serious shortcomings to the school system prior to mass higher education. The educational system provided a splendid education for the top decile academically. The rest experienced various levels of neglect. But let me be frank. It is the uppermost decile that matters by far the most in education. They provide the software engineers, the judges, the doctors and the financial wizards. How about the bottom decile? If people who are educationally subnormal achieve a bit more than at present it will make very little difference to them or to anyone else. Convince me that I am wrong.
The 11+ in English and Maths divided pupils into those who went to grammar schools and those who went to secondary moderns. The top 20% went to grammar school and the rest went to secondary moderns. Those at secondary moderns left school at 14 and 16 and entered the labour force. Usually they had no qualifications at all. Grammar school pupils were entered for O levels and sometimes they stayed at school till 18 to sit A levels. Grammar schools opened up opportunities to working class children that were previously unavailable. It is a cruel irony that the man who took this way from proletarian children had been privileged with an education at Winchester College and Oxford University. Tony Crosland notoriously told his wife ‘I am going to destroy every fucking grammar school in the whole of England and Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland.’ It was in this spirit of vandalism that Labour proceeded to ruin what was best about British schools. Crossland a Wykehamist ‘broad of church and broad of mind/ Broad before and broad behind.’
Crossland only partially achieved his goal. Some grammar schools survived. Northern Ireland experienced horrors in the Troubles but due to grammar schools achieved an admirable level of educational success. The Conservatives are not inculpable when it comes to wrecking superb state schools. Margaret Thatcher was education secretary under Edward Heath. Thatcher notoriously took away free school milk from impoverished children earning her the unflattering soubriquet ‘Maggie Thatcher milk snatcher.’ No wonder she was so keen to promote the alternative moniker the Iron Lady. Despite her nom de guerre she showed no stomach for the fight with the teaching unions in the 1980s when some Tories suggested reopening grammar schools in places where they had been abolished.
Uni is now for anyone with half a brain. In the 1950s large scale expansion of universities was first touted. Kingsley Amis rightly said ‘more means worse’. This lower middle class left wing don can hardly be stereotyped as curmudgeonly aristocratic Tory.
Another issue is should we have endless exams? Primary school pupils do public exams almost every year. It causes them anxiety. Pupils are preparing for the test, doing it and then going over it. It takes week away from actual learning. Why not make it fun? Learn for the sake of learning and not for tests.
Grade inflation happens. However, there are less pernicious reasons for grades going up. There are several factors behind grades going up but inflation is the foremost. Here are some of the innocent factors. There is also teaching to test. Because teachers and schools are judged by exam results schools ruthlessly concentrate on teaching the course content only and nothing extraneous. People have lamented since the 1990s that schools now are only about exams and not about education. Further, teachers focus on the competences needed to score well in exams rather than enhancing the intellectual development of pupils more broadly.
Another explanation for more high grades being awarded is that there is more effectual teaching in some respects. In bygone decades some teachers were below par. There was almost no quality control. Teaching was a job for life. Inspections were infrequent and minimal. Parents had minimal involvement. Pupils did not consider that it was their entitlement to complain. There were some advantages to the previous system. Teachers were not hectored and harassed by pupils, parents, politicians and the press. The teaching profession has become a whipping boy for society’s ills. Many gifted and passionate teachers are driven out of teaching by the sheer weight of bureaucracy, the incessant stressful inspections, unreasonably parents and bolshie pupils. Neither situation as perfect. Both have their pitfalls. But the previous dispensation was less undesirable.
We are often told that huge numbers of teachers are grossly incompetent. That is hard to believe. These people have passed PGCEs which are extremely demanding. If PGCEs are essential to teach – as many say they should be – then having a PGCE guarantees that someone is a decent teacher. And if a PGCE does not guarantee that then it should not be a prerequisite of teaching.
Another factor is people caring about exams more. Time was that in most occupations people did not care about exams. It seems hard to credit now but in the 1950s most people left school without any qualifications at all. Most people entered the job market at 14. Jobs were plentiful. There were factory workers, shop assistants, miners, dockers, builders, general labourers, bus drivers, soldiers and suchlike who had not need of anything beyond the most basic literacy and numeracy. Those who were not scholastically inclined – that is most people – perceived little incentive to bother their barneys at school. Why should they? But these days there are few jobs where people can show up without a single GCSE and not have people look askance at them. This is why all but the dimmest care a little bit about exams. That is a good thing.
Teachers and exam boards come under unceasing pressure to award higher grades. They are only human! They have a whip on their collective backs. Pupils, parents, politicians and the popular press all demand it. Therefore, statistics are massed rather roughly. It is anti-pedagogical. Nothing could be more corrosive of standards in education.
Bad work is called satisfactory work. Satisfactory work is called very good. Very good work is called brilliant. And as for ‘brilliant’ – it is overused. What is truly brilliant is hidden among all the overrated work. It does no one any favours. The slowest pupils then think they do not have academic difficulties. The medium ones think they are smart. The smart ones are not sure who they are. As one headmistress said to me ‘you need to know what you are bad at.’ There is no use in believing you are fabulous at a subject when you are not. We do people no favours by lying to them and telling them that they can achieve things that they cannot.
Coursework is partly responsible for grades creeping ever upwards. There was a sound logical case for introducing coursework. Many people suffer grave angst around exams. Someone can have an off day or be under the weather. Conversely, some people can have an ‘on’ day and do better than they deserve in an exam. A girl might menstruate during her exams and this can adversely affect her. Underperformance can be caused by other factors such as a family bereavement. People can ask for special consideration such as bereavement and even the death of a pet. After taking this into account exam boards add 1% or 2% to the score. The exam board cannot always investigate these claims. The board tends to simply accept them. Coursework is different. It takes weeks or months. Coursework is a fairer reflection of sustained endeavour. It is about long term achievement. People say you cannot condense a year’s learning into an hour. Some people can produce superb work but cannot handle time pressure. Boys tend to have the advantage in exams but girls outperform them in coursework.
Coursework has gone badly wrong. When it was invented in the 1980s the internet was in its infancy. By the 1990s coursework had become the major component of some A level courses. The internet was taking off. By the mid 1990s it was possible to buy coursework.
Oxbridge essays came along in around 2000. Oxford and Cambridge graduates were paid to write essays along the lines of GCSE and A level coursework. This was not so people copy it. I stroke my beard. But to provide an example of splendid work.
Anti-plagiarism software has been invented. It has reduced the incidence of copying considerably.
Teachers were only allowed to help pupils up to a point. They could elicit answers but not actually furnish them. Teachers were facing demands to guarantee certain grades. Teachers are only human. Some succumbed to the temptation to overstep the bounds of what was permitted in terms of assisting pupils.
Parents sometimes did coursework for pupils. So did private tutors.
Coursework has been reduced in scope. Despite its failing it is still worthwhile. In some subjects it is essential. It is also a taste of academic research. It enables pupils to pursue an independent study.
We are led to believe that few if any pupils should fail. The inherent problematicity of certain pupils is overlooked. It is a case of all must have prizes.
We are in the Lake Woebegone scenario; ‘the average is high and all children are above it.’ Garrison Keilor’s mordant wit is lost on many parents who believe their little darlings must be talented. Someone has to come last. Michael Gove once wrote ‘half the children are below average but try telling that to a pushy parent.’ The gobby hack was right for once. To give Michael Gove his due when he was education secretary he did something to restore rigour to the exam system. For the first time in 35 years grades went down a tiny but. Cue sacks of wrathful mail delivered to his office. A moist correspondence stained the pages of the gutter press about how disappointed pupils were.
A little failure in adolescence can do you a power of good. People need to experience some setbacks. They need to be inoculated against such reverses as adult life will inevitably throw at them. In adult life you will not always land your dream job. Romantic relationships sometimes end nastily. People get made redundant. People get the sack. People go bankrupt. If you reach your 20s never having been blown off course and then suddenly you experienced a major setback you will not be able to cope with it.
Let’s face facts. Most people are only satisfactory at most things. Most people are bad at a few things whether that is academic subjects, sports, music or other areas of life. Most people are also talented in only one of two areas. In the old days of alphabetic grades A-E what letter would indicate being satisfactory? That would be a C grade. In % terms it would be a little over 50%.
100% should virtually never be awarded. It ought to be a theoretical endpoint towards which people strive. If more than a handful of pupils achieve full marks then that proves that the work is unchallenging. This especially so in humanities subjects where perfection is surely unattainable. How can an essay be unimprovable?
People ought to be modest and recognize their limitations. I have many limitations – many of them severe as the quality of this article stands testament!
If your child is being awarded near perfect grades time after time then either your offspring is a prodigy or something in the system is deeply flawed. I know which is the more alluring explanation. The more probable explanation is not that one.
There are other examples of periods in history where middle aged and elderly people lamented the decline in academic standards. It could have been that they were sometimes on the money. But even if they were wrong previously that does not prove that people are wrong now when they say that academic standards have fallen through the floor.
The Dutch auction on standards has wrecked British schooling. Too many top grades are awarded. No wonder universities cannot tell who is smart. In the mid 90s Oxford University abolished its own entry exam. It supposedly gave an unfair advantage to independent schools. Looking at GCSEs gives an unfair advantage to independent schools. Looking at predicated A levels grades gives an unfair advantage to independent schools. Looking at actual A level results gives an unfair advantage to independent schools. Interviews give an unfair advantage to independent schools. Reading personal statements gives an unfair advantage to independent schools. Reading work submitted by applicants gives an unfair advantage to independent schools. Reading references gives an unfair advantage to independent schools. Sounding like a stuck record? Any means of assessing candidates was unfair. After ten years guess what? Oxford reintroduced its own entrance exam which had been abolished for …. Giving an unfair advantage to independent schools! Sound familiar? It is the policy merry go round. Déjà vu!
Russell Group universities have had to their own admissions tests for several years. That is because they cannot tell those who got real A * and those who got devalued A*. The same goes for people seeking to read medicine or allied subjects anywhere.
Schools always needs some organization. This necessitated paperwork. There had to be a school roll, there needed to be accounts kept and exam results had to be noted. Nobody ever disputed that. However, in recent decades bureaucracy has become a monster. The bureaucratic system is byzantine in its complexity. This labyrinthine system wastes staggering amounts of staff time. It is profligate of squeezed budgets. It is sclerotic when we need flexibility. It is the worst of both worlds – officious and yet highly capricious.
Not content with wrecking state schools the bureaucratists decided they must visit their woes on the independent sector. Until the 1990s the independent sector was separate from the state sector and ne’er the twain shall meet. Since the 1990s the state has encroached ever more on the independent sector. The state should butt out of the independent sector. What is needed in all schools is less regulation not more. Power hungry, nosey bossy boots people think that know what is best for everyone. They will stop at nothing to micromanage every facet of one’s life. Tories are supposed to subscribe to a small state philosophy. The Conservative Party has only tinkered with bureaucracy in education. Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) still bestrides schooling. If Ofsted people want to help they should get back in the classroom and reduce class sizes.
When Michael Gove was education secretary he attacked the blob. He meant bureaucracy. In a bold experiment he authorized a free school. This was a state school with less regulation. Free schools have been fairly successful. A PGCE was supposed to be sine qua non for state schools. In fact, state schools were so short staffed them sometimes hired people without them.
Gove said there should be a licence to teach. He never implemented this policy. So he wanted more bureaucracy not less. Teachers were going to be subjected to an MOT skills test every two years he said. This never happened. It would have driven even more people out of teaching. It was a brain fart.
What goes on in a school is not secret. Hundreds of people go to a school every day. Pupils tell their parents things. School do not need endless and onerous inspections. They are more inspected than ever. It does not make them better. It makes them worse. They are so busy jumping through hoops for the inspectors they do less actual teaching.
Form filling it the mainstay of a teacher’s job. The same holds true for healthcare professionals and police officers. Those forms do not fill themselves you know! Pupils are put off school some days just so teachers can perform bureaucratic tasks. On other occasions the teaching assistant has to take the pupils so the teacher can complete the paperwork.
Teachers have the highest average number of sick days in the work force. That is strange considering teachers also have the most holidays. Teachers often admit that are taking time off for stress not illness. As for holidays – those are increasingly eroded by having to do paperwork and planning in the holidays.
There are now armies of educational bureaucrats. That includes in schools. Nothing is too good for the desk jockeys. This wastes money. We do not need lots of bureaucrats. But they have to invent rationale – however implausible – for their fat salaries. They have to have work to do. So they invent futile tasks for teachers. Teachers have to capture data and collate statistics. Teachers have to set target grades for their pupils. Er… that would be one above where you are now. If you are at the top then it is the next one up. Duh!
In ye old days a teacher was a teacher until he retired. A few became head or deputy head. Then there were heads of department. So far, so sensible. But oh now we have to have career progression. We cannot be content with teaching our subject. We need a deputy head of department. We need two deputy heads of the school. One is i/c curriculum and the other pastoral. We need an assistant head as well as a deputy head. How about two assistant heads actually? We need an IT co-ordinator for every department. We need a deputy IT co-ordinator too. I know how nonsensical these titles are. I was an IT co-ordinator and had no duties at all since I was the worst at IT in the department. We had a head of biology, head of chemistry and head of physics. Fine. But then we had to have a head of science? No need. Then some bright spark said let’s have a head of humanities.
All these grand panjandrums have to cook up a reason for their grandiloquent titles to exist. So they write vainglorious reports about how vital it is that they demand people fill out more forms so the panjandrum can fill out a form about filling out forms. It is all about getting promoted.
Those who can do. Those who can’t – teach. Those who can’t teach become educational bureaucrats.
People get higher salaries for doing these offices jobs. They do less teaching and in some cases none. We are told that what they do is superior. Schools are short staffed because some of the teachers have few or no teaching duties. If everyone pulled their weight then the staff shortage would be seriously lessened. But were are told this is high status – being a penpusher. As for actually teaching pupils: that is for hoipelloi.
The betterment of education was never wrought by endless and mindless bureaucracy. Bureaucrats need rules to enforce and policies to implement. They can inspect and hector the teachers. It is a grand job for the power happy.
The bureaucratic behemoth crushes initiative and creativity. You had better not do things your own way. You must tick the boxes.
In 2008 the government issued regulations to schools that were three times the length of the Bible. How is anyone supposed to read all this let alone absorb it? The quangos are hyperactive in churning out turgid memoes and policy documents. All of them are couched in impenetrable and soporific bureaucratese. The quango state which over 20 years ago Blair promised to end has grown ever larger. It is halcyon days for busybodies and do gooders.
What are we doing involving parents so much? Yes parents usually care. Most of them always did. But most of them know sweet FA about education? How would they? I do not blame them. The man in the street does not know much about medicine. Just as most teachers do not know much about business or driving a train. A limited degree of parental involvement can be a good thing. The trouble is because everyone has been to school everyone has an opinion on it. We all had teachers who we loathed.
There is this drivel about pupil centred learning. Who do you think it was ever centred around? The teachers were not soliloquizing.
There appears to be no stopping this juggernaut. Too many vested interests are involved. Many people have lucrative jobs in the bureaucracy. They have a well oiled PR machine at their beck and call. Their friends control the teaching unions. They have politicians on their side particularly the Labour Party.
It is bedlam out there. Shocking behaviour has lost its power to shock. Teachers are sometimes assaulted. They are often monstered on social media.
This is not taking aim at pupils in general. A large minority of pupils are delightful. Most are as you would expect mediocre in their behaviour. Sometimes bad but rarely terrible. A small but not a tiny minority is atrocious. Some are rude like you would not believe. Rude, argumentative, truculent and even violent. Being told to ‘fuck off’ is a weekly experience for teachers in many schools. Shockingly, nothing is done about it. The pupils are spoken to about it at most.
The heartbreaking thing is that every class has at least one good pupil. Often it is the majority of class that is courteous and eager to learn. The education of the good ones is ruined by a small group or even by one person. Disruptive pupils can create merry hell.
There are pupils who have animated conversations right in front of the teacher’s desk during a lesson. They do not even pretend the pay the slightest heed to the teacher. There are some pupils who refuse to even sit down.
I have known a colleague to be punched in the mouth by a 14 year old. The boy was suspended for only 3 days. Teachers are spat at and the malfeasants get a ticking off. Who would subject himself to such supreme indignity?
If pupils are given detention and do not turn up there is seldom a repercussion. It takes heavy violence to be expelled. Expulsion is not a decision any head takes lightly. People become teachers because they wanted to educate people and never because they want to deprive people of education. But a head must think about the good order and smooth running of a school.
Take Ashburton School known as Trashburton. As the Sun said ‘even the SAS could not restore order here.’ There were and are some brilliant pupils there. However, a significant minority would wreck lessons for the good ones.
Why are badly behaved pupils there? Some of them are very low academic ability. They should not be in school after 14. Imagine coming bottom in every single subject. Imagine how that feels? The humiliation must be unbearable. Small wonder that some pupils are frustrated and furious. They are wont to lash out. Staying in school is torment for them.
Mass secondary education is to some degree about keeping people off the streets. It is also about keeping unemployment down and providing a reasonable pretext for uncontrolled immigration.
Everyone has an educational ceiling in each subject. In Maths I reached mine at 15. Being a mediocre pupil in the subject I could not achieve anything more in this subject. Even the best teacher in the world would not be able to make me learn much more. The same held true in chemistry, physics, IT and suchlike. I have a ceiling in other subjects too. In some it might be PhD level. There comes a point where a person cannot progress further in a subject because this person lacks the innate aptitude. Most people reach this in most subjects around the age of 14. As well as lacking the inherent ability they may lack application.
The solution is simple. Let a considerable cohort of pupils leave at 14%. Say 30% of of all pupils. They would go into sheltered employment. There are plenty of jobs they can do that require only the very rudiments of literacy and numeracy. These include construction, shop work, cleaning, farm laboring and so forth. They would work reduced hours perhaps 20 hours a week in view of their youth. At 16 about a further 30% should leave school. Again, they could find jobs suitable to them. Employers would be encouraged to come to school to recruit pupils. That would leave 40% of people still in school. These would be the brainier ones and those more inclined to try. They would sit A levels.
There ought to be university places for about 10% of the population. This was the case when Thatcher became PM. Perhaps 10% is too low so 20% at most. The state could easily afford to cover all fees for these undergraduates and provide maintenance grants. University should be hard to get into. Making it competitive would encourage pupils to make a sterling effort in their last two years at schools. As things stand pupils who attain abominable grades will still be taken by many universities. Some unis will take those who fail altogether!
What about those who have left school at 14 or 16? They might be late developers. They have missed up to 4 years of school. If they are ever inclined to come back to education than those 4 years should be provided for them free of charge in an adult education college where they can do GCSEs or A levels. They should be allowed to do it full time in 4 years or part time over 8 years.
People who return to education later in life tend to do so with renewed conviction. I have seen it. At university some people wandered in as if by accident. But mature students would be at the lecture well ahead of time. Always seated in the front row they took notes sedulously and worked like Trojans. Their decision to seek education was so much more considered. They made an unstinting effort. They were a model to us torpid typical age undergraduates.
People take school for granted. They do not think of the countless tens of millions of children denied a schooling in countries such as Pakistan and Chad. These children would give their right arm to be in school.
If some of our children left school at 14 and did minimum wage jobs they might suddenly perceive that school is not so ghastly after all. See that penny drop. Then they might be willing to return to school and behave themselves.
Millions of man hours are wasted teaching those who are unteachable. It takes pedagogues away from those who wish to learn and are capable of learning.
For those of inferior scholarly ability being in school feels like false imprisonment. We should not be surprised that they kick against it. Teachers end up being riot police.
Leave no child behind. It is a super slogan and a woeful policy. We have defined child as someone under 18. This is hugely profligate and unworkable.
The core principle of school is: ‘it is always the teacher’s fault.’ No matter what happens or what does not happen or who does what – it is the teacher’s fault. It can never be a pupil who is to blame for what he or she does. It cannot be the parents’ fault for bringing their children up badly. It cannot be the fault of criminal gangs who may have suborned a pupil. Nor is society at large responsible. Heaven forfend that it is politicians with wrongheaded policies or spending cuts that are to blame. Oh no sir – it is the teacher’s fault.
How are teachers to uphold discipline? You had better not raise your voice. That would be bullying. You had better not reprimand a pupil that would be psychological harm. I saw a deputy head call two 15 year old bruisers ‘idiots’ for their boorish misconduct. That was 2005. They boys did not mind. If the deputy head did that now his job would be on the line.
Lack of extra-curricular activities
Guiding pupils in extra curricular activities used to be one of the boons of teaching. But with health and safety culture it has become a nightmare. Everything is hazardous and must be risk assessed. If it is rock climbing then there is a certain logic to this. But what if it is debating? I have never heard of an injury in debating except wounded pride. To walk half a mile down the street to another school for a debate requires forms to be filled out and written permission from parents.
Who would coach a sport of take pupils on a trip? If anyone gets hurt it is your fault. You should have intervened and prevented it before it happened. But no physical contact with the pupil even in a first aid situation or to prevent two boys fighting. You would be accused of molestation if you pulled them apart. That is why unions advise members not to agree to take these activities. The pupils miss out.
We have never had so many ‘educated’ people. Yet we have never had so few who wanted to be educators. Why is there this dissonance? The gulf is growing as we speak. In the 5000 years in which literacy there has never been any difficulty in recruiting a sufficiency of teachers. From what you will have read you will not be at all surprised to learn that it is a struggle to find enough teachers. There is a bulge in the next age cohort down. The problem is about to get much worse.
What is going wrong? The salary is not as appalling as it was 40 years ago. Then again it is now as good as 20 years ago. Money is clearly not the explication.
Not enough people want to become teachers. No surprise there then. Moreover, many of those who qualify as teachers drop out after a few years. Given how abominably teachers are treated it is unsurprising that many say ‘fuck this for a game of soldiers.’ Teachers are routinely insulted by their pupils. Politicians are forever denigrating teachers in the press. Some parents are abusive. The constant policy U turns are waring. So teaching is haemorrhaging teachers. It is often the abler ones who leave since they can more easily secure attractive employment in other sectors.
The popular press inflames people against paedophiles. It goes without saying that sex crimes against children are detestable. But teachers are obvious people to accuse. A few of them are guilty! Teachers can also be accused of racism, of homophobia of saying anything pupils do not like. If a teacher is suspended and investigated it can take months. Even the slenderest of evidence based on the testimony of a pupil with a proven record of calumny will lead to months of suspension. If the teacher is totally exonerated there will be some who will suspect him or her forever. Who would go through such grief?
Parents and pupils complain about all sorts. Schools are minded to appease them.
To become a teacher you need a PGCE. 20 years ago these were not needed in independent schools. Now they are de rigeur. How do you get on a PGCE. You need to assure the powers that be that you are not in the BNP. The British National Party is a lawful political party. It has never advocated killing anyone. I despise the BNP but its members should not be prohibited from being teachers, police officers or prison officers. Michael Gove brought in this discriminatory legislation. So much for the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing that no one would be discriminated against on the grounds of political opinion. Gove was trying to curry favour with far left bigots and burnish his politically correct credentials.
The BNP teaching ban confirms yet again the left wing stranglehold on schools. Can you imagine the uproar if a far left body had its members banned from teaching? In banning BNP members from being teachers we have gone down a dangerous road. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoffer first they banned the BNP but I was not in the BNP did not speak up. Then they banned UKIP. But I was not a BNP member so I did not speak up. Then they banned Brexit Party from teaching but I was not a Brexit Party members so I did not speak up. Then they banned Tories from teaching and there was no one left to speak up for me.
Sinn Fein was the political face of the IRA for decades. Everyone knew that. Sinn Fein put a balaclava on and became the IRA sometimes literally. IRA men were caught and some of them were SF members. But Gove’s gallant Tories never forbade members of an openly pro-terrorist party from teaching.
The Blair years were some of the most destructive for UK schools. Blair decided that all teachers would have to pass a tests in maths, English and IT. All teachers by definition have passed GCSEs. One would have hoped that GCSEs prove that a person can write and spell. But no they do not. It was typical bureaucratic overkill. What a waste of time. Who ever said prior to Blair that teachers were semi-literate?
Blair’s school guru was Chris Woodhead. He was an odd choice. Woodhead told the media that sexual relationships between teachers and pupils are ‘educative on both sides’. Any sexual contact between a teacher and a 17 year old means prison time now. Woodhead had a romantic liaison with his former pupil. Yes, it was after she left school but that behaviour would still have him banned from teaching today.
The government has recruitment targets people to do PGCEs for each subject. In physics the government reaches just 60% of the target! It very, very easy to get onto a PGCE course for physics because we do not have enough physics graduates and very few of them want to teach. Therefore, if you get a 3rd in physics from the worst uni in the realm you are still all but guaranteed a PGCE place. The same holds true of other STEM subjects. In chemistry and IT the situation is almost as bad. Graduates in IT and economics can get handsomely remunerated jobs in the private sector more easily than graduates in other subjects. At the other end of the spectrum is history. The government achieves 160% of its recruitment target! There are far more history teachers than are needed. This oversupply means that it is hard to get onto a PGCE course in history. Even if you have a 1st from a top university you cannot be sure of a place. Those who get PGCEs in history find themselves teaching related subjects too like politics and English. That is all right. But they might be asked to teach maths or biology. If that is GCSE that might be all right of the teacher has an A level in the subject. But what if they are asked to teach maths A level and the teacher only has maths A level herself? She will not be confident about it. Teachers are routinely required to teach subjects that they know are beyond them.
Michael Gove in his infinite unwisdom said that only those who had a 2:1 would be allowed to teach. He never repeated that asinine opinion. If his view was implemented then the UK would have hardly any maths, IT or chemistry teachers left. Once civil servants brought this to his attention he swiftly performed an about face.
Another Gove bright idea was to make teaching a master’s degree occupation. This moron had no real master’s himself. Why does teaching need to be a master’s degree occupation? It never was before. Gove wanted to make teaching even more onerous than it already is? He soon shut up about that one. I wish these gobby ignoramuses would stop opining. There are real problems to solve. He does not need to invent chimerical ones.
What does a PGCE consist of? Much of it is listening to weird with beard drone on in a mixture of sub-Marxist platitudes and management consultant gobbledegook. It is like something from the pages of ‘How Mumbo Jumbo conquered the world’. As well as left wing indoctrination the course will be about endless form filling. Lessons must be planned to the minute. Spontaneity and responding to the needs of the pupils will not be tolerated! The lesson must have an aim and an objective. They cannot be the same thing. They are synonyms? So what?
There will be lessons were the PGCE students observe qualified teachers. The students will have to plan lessons ad infinitum. The student will then have to write hundreds of words critiquing her own lesson. She will be watched teaching many times. There will be lots of appraisals. But remember not to teach the pupils too many facts. They do not need to know anything because now we have the internet! They just need skills.
The course is demanding in the extreme. It is not academically demanding. PE teachers have to be able to pass! It is organizationally difficult. A whole forest will be felled to fill out enough forms. That is teaching; form filling. It does so much for the pupils.
Conformity is aggressively policed. Woe betide anyone who does not espouse PC pieties. There are certain shibboleths to be observed.
A PGCE is an emotional assault course. Can you cope with the stress? It is about being interrupted by pupils 100 times a day and saying please be quiet without your patience ever wearing thin. It is about being subjected to ritual public humiliation by your pupils.
This is lunacy! Why do teachers need to be good and filling out interminable forms? This does no good to anyone. It takes away from time to do the job.
People are told that business imperatives can be applied to schools. Heads often come back from a course thinking they have kept abreast of the latest business thinking.
The laws of supply and demand might have to be applied. Teachers of STEM subjects might have to be paid more. How else do you attract enough candidates of sufficient calibre? How do you get this money? You could dock the salaries of teachers in oversupplied subjects like English and history. I wonder how that would go down? Like a pork pie and Purim. There would be civil war in the staff room. As I said the recruitment crisis is not mainly due to finances.
In London the recruitment crisis at acutest. Why? The cost of living is far higher than the salary. Yes, there is London weighting but it is nowhere near enough. London relies on immigrant teachers. Were it not for them then the schools in London would fold in a day.
In London many pupils speak English as a second language. Some of them arrive not speaking the language at all. As you can imagine that makes teaching an awful lot trickier. Behaviour tends to be worse in large cities.
Teaching requires a DBS. This form takes weeks to get. It shows that a person is not on a barred list. A person can be barred for crimes against children – no complaints about that rule. A person can also be barred for holding opinions. The DBS declares any criminal record no matter how trifling or how long ago. A woman I know was convicted of possessing a marijuana joint in the 1970s. That is still declared when she applies for teaching positions. She is allowed to teach but it is a black mark against her name. There is also ‘information disclosed at chief constable’s permission’. So a person who has never been charged or convicted can still have the police casting aspersions on them. This really is outrageous. It completely militates against the presumption of innocence.
Alcoholics are barred from teaching. They usually make the best teachers particularly of English.
Teachers do not have the right to a private life. Gove’s rule is that teachers must not bring their profession into disrepute outside school. So teachers cannot engage in legal activities? Expressing a controversial view is a teacher’s right. Having a scandalous private life is a teacher’s right as well. This is gross intrusion into a teacher’s free time. It is a denial of personal liberty. This neo-puritanism is nauseating.
The UK could simply accept teacher training qualifications from some non-EU countries and not demand people undergo retraining. I have seen perfectly competent teachers from India be demeaned by retraining.
The DBS system needs to be streamlined. Many people scoff at Romania but in some respects it is admirable. If you want the equivalent of DBS in Romania walk into any police station with your passport. They look you up in the database and press print. It takes one minute and is free of charge.
There are several policies that the United Kingdom could adopt to solve the recruitment crisis. Education is a devolve matter so the devolved legislatures would have to do so severally. As argued hereinbefore if more pupils left school earlier it would save money. This could be used to increase salaries. But that is not even half the battle. Class sizes would be smaller. The larger the group the worse the behaviour. Take a troublesome pupil. A deux he is often civil. There is no audience so he is not playing to the galary. Moreover, if only the smarter pupils stayed then they would be the ones worth teaching. It would be gratifying for the teachers.
The UK ought to return to O levels. A levels should go back to being as tough as they were in the 1980s with strict grading. To ensure that there can never be a return to the catastrophic grade inflation scenario quotas need to be set for each grade. No more than 10% of people should be awarded an A grade for example. People must be told to prepare for a shock. Schools should have strict discipline with instant expulsion for those who swear at teachers.
Who would do the job as it now stands? I advise people not to go into this line of work. I got out years ago. It really is infra dignitate.
The worst may be yet to come. Corbyn and his crew purpose to abolish independent schools. This is an asinine policy that Labour ditched over half a century ago. Independent schools provide scholarships. They bring in tens of billions of pounds from overseas. They save the taxpayer fortunes. Independent schools often have the STEM specialist teachers that state schools lack. But if independent schools are outlawed many of these STEM teachers will leave teaching altogether.
It is not all bad news. There are some fantastic teachers and pupils. Great things are still achieved by a few pupils. But it could be far, far better.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.