Thursday, February 9, 2012

Who'd be a teacher in the UK? And who'd want to be a teenager?

In the latest batch of education "reforms", the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has declared a revamp to the inspection system, as described here by the BBC.

In brief, Wilshaw intends to remove from any inspection teams the previous requirement to give notice to any school or college for inspection; he also wants to re-assess the grading system for schools so that any school that is consistently graded as "satisfactory" (compared to the opposing extremes of "outstanding" or "deplorable").

Wilshaw says that "we have tolerated mediocrity for far too long" in our education system. His inference is clear; that our education system is broken, and that poor teaching is to blame. On the first point he may well be right; on the second, he is completely wrong.
Now, I'm not saying that all teachers are perfect, or that we should not strive for better standards, but the "Chief Inspector" (read "Chief Persecutor") of Schools is doing what all politicians do: treating education as a political football.

Education is a stressful profession to get into in the the UK. The financial rewards are modest, in spite of the government's encouragements and incentives for people to train as teachers. Due to previous "reforms", many schools "compete" for students (and therefore government revenue); this is meant to help improve standards. Teachers are regularly assessed in their techniques to check that they are giving the best quality teaching. Teachers are meant to act as motivators for students who are also being assessed themselves more and more.
(The schools system, to paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, has become a factory: teachers no longer really "teach"; they show students how to best pass exams, which he talked about here. I'll talk more about the "industrialisation of education" later.)
Teachers nowadays are given more and more responsibilities than ever before, yet with less and less real power: a textbook recipe for disaster. Due to "safeguarding" issues, they are given the task of looking after the social care of their pupils; meanwhile, to those youths who are anti-social or worse, they can do little in class except follow bureaucratic "procedures". No wonder, then, that some school classrooms in the more deprived and socially-dysfunctional parts of the country resemble war-zones. And all this while teachers are meant to be doing what they can to "raise standards" in those very same war-zone classrooms.
So the Chief Inspector's recommendations, to introduce "on-the-spot" inspections, will send panic through the corridors of our high schools. Teachers already are stressed about the current regime of constant pressure to raise the game while using less cash and with more and more extra responsibilities. Anyone saying that teaching and studying is easier than it was before, simply has not been in a modern UK high school.
And the idea that schools can no longer rely on "mediocrity" to avoid criticism is to simply be ignorant of reality, let alone logic. Anyone understanding how averages work in mathematics or in anything that can be measured, will know that "being average" is by definition the norm. Expecting all schools to be "outstanding" simply means that your method of measurement is skewed, and therefore unreliable. Not all teachers can be "outstanding"; this is because they are human beings, not robots. Neither are students, and it would be absurd to expect otherwise.

Education in the UK in the 21st century is, to use the former Home Secretary John Reid's quote to describe his ministry, "not fit for purpose". I talked before about the "industrialisation of education". This problem began with Labour's seemingly admirable aim to have half our young population in university. This instinctively meant that A-levels and GCSEs gained even more credence (read "status") so that young people were expected to have a degree in order to get a good step up onto the career ladder. Hence the problem we now have at our "industrialised" schools that Sir Ken Robinson talked about. It's all about passing exams and getting the best grades for the students; a conveyor belt approach to getting young people into university.

And for what? It's only now that the country is in a recession that we see the lack of vision and myopic thinking that has led to an entire generation of educated, unemployable young people.
The point is this: the degrees that young people are doing are in many cases, effectively useless. Employers have been guilty of putting too much focus on having a 21-year-old candidate with a degree, rather than a 21-year-old with five years of relevant or useful work experience; employers value a piece of paper over the actual experience of being in the work environment. What is the point of an academic university system that bears little relation to the kind of skills and knowledge that our young people actually need in today's working environment? This is the precise reason why many of them cannot find a job; the UK doesn't need 20,000 Sociologists; it doesn't need 20,000 historians - it needs young people with skills that will keep the UK competitive in the world. And our education system is not built for that as it stands.

Our education system is completely out-of-date. Apart from the skills issues I've mentioned, there should be a comprehensive look at our "industrial" education system. We need an organic education system. This means looking at completely restructuring our approach to people and education. The "traditional" subjects (maths, literature, science etc.) are no longer enough; nor are they the best way to find a young person's talents.
Finding a child's talent means using a holistic approach, using a wide variety of methods of teaching in in order to pry out young people's talents. As things stand, a child is pigeon-holed up to the age of eighteen, and therefore is limited in knowing what educational choices best suit them. It's a miracle that so many people at the age of eighteen have a clear idea of what career would best suit them: the primary and secondary system gives so little scope for a young person's self-analysis of their talents; as things stand, our education system is nowhere near vocational enough.

Teachers in the UK are undervalued; students in the UK are being taught the wrong things. Both are the fault of the knee-jerk logic and short-sighted thinking of the government towards education.
And it is teachers and students who are suffering in the real world.

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