Education - I don't believe it!

By Roshan Doug on Mar 8, 12 07:38 PM in

It's a late winter's afternoon and rather dark outside. I'm on a bus, coming home from the city centre. I'm financially depleted - again! - having shopped in stores out of my league and bought stuff I clearly don't need.

An elderly couple - wrapped in scarves and oversized coats - are seated in front of me carrying a couple M&S bags. They're like the remnants of the forties, a by-gone age when mono-cultural certainty was shared by all. They're talking, commenting on a news item in the Metro that reminds them of their own alienation. 'And they're teaching soaps - stuff like Coronation Street,' says the man to his wife, appalled at the state of the world and bemoaning modernity. 'Coronation Street! - can you believe it?'

The wife nods sympathetically - a tad disgusted as if her husband has just announced that he wants to eat a teacher for dinner washed down with a glass or two of cabernet sauvigon. 'No!' she exclaims horrified. 'Well, that's just ridiculous!

I jest and - perhaps - exaggerate a little. But honestly, how many times have you heard such dispiriting comments decrying the quality of modern education?

Now I'm not ridiculing such a perspective - or indeed the people, like the elderly couple, who feel so irate about the contemporary state of schooling. But I do think it's easy to echo reactionary sentiments when you get to that wise old age - you sort of become a living, breathing caricature, an angry old man like the fictitious Victor Meldrew.

Yet despite such sprinkling of casual criticism, the irony is that education has never been so scrutinized, so monitored, so measured as it is today. Anyone not in education might be surprised to learn that pupils are the centre of everything there is in schooling. For instance, so many agencies have been set up to ensure a certain consistency of education in all its facets - management, delivery, teaching and learning. Partly due to one or two highly publicized - and horrific - child abuse cases, policies such as Every Child Matters have put children at the heart of everyone's concern. In fact, it's so difficult to do anything other than what is considered relevant and useful to pupils' learning and assessment. Today schools are comforting agencies for the pupils - organised to guide our children smoothly, carefully into the adult world.

So on the contrary. The problem of education is not the specific contents for it needs to move with the times, reflect the changing composition of our society and its needs. And that also applies to the techniques teachers use to engage with their pupils - whether that means using a text like Romeo and Juliet as their resource material or the latest episode of Coronation Street. There's no point in teaching skills in a style outdated because the modern world is not the same as it was during the post-war era, when Britain was emerging as an appendix of the empire. I can remember in my old secondary modern when teachers used to cane you if you didn't understand Ohm's Law or had forgotten the dates of the Hundred Year War - or something else just as redundant and inconsequential. Today - thank goodness - education is more than just teaching pupils abstract knowledge that has little or no relevance to the world beyond the confines of their classroom walls.

No. Today it's not so much the contents of education that we should be questioning but the management of the curriculum, the way head teachers and principals of colleges manage their staff; the way they organise their workload; their fawning to their political masters and the way they adhere to their guidelines on everything. This unadulterated subservience to people like Michael Gove, the current education secretary, is rather alarming. Gove is keen to instil traditional skills by using traditional methods by focusing on traditional academic subjects like English literature that centres round the canonical works (the classics of writers like Swift, Milton, Shakespeare et al). And he is keen to emphasize the stuff of good old British history - not the namby-pamby topics like the slave trade, colonialism, working class history, the chartists, the Suffragettes and so on. What Gove wants is an education that restores pupils' pride in being British and gives them a sense of mono-cultural commonality, a real definition of what it means to be British.

But I'm not sure how important this is. Certainly such a focus has a place somewhere in education. But where exactly and how much priority teachers and educationalists should give to this is debateable.

Instead - and I hope it doesn't sound too subversive - I think head teachers should treat their academic staff with a degree of respect and give them the autonomy to teach the way they want.

No! Professional integrity to teachers? Stop this mad man, I hear some readers cry.

Seriously. Management should allow individuality and creativity to infiltrate the classrooms so that it might inspire the pupils and not just enable them to tick boxes for the purpose of an inspection. Schemes of work and lesson plans are all very well but it's the teacher's personality that matters. Sadly the spirit in which newly qualified teachers enter the profession, soon vanishes once the harsh reality of dancing to the tune of educational managers gradually becomes the main consideration. And when - on a rare occasion - teachers exercise their natural, inbuilt desire to cater for their pupils' collective or individual needs, they are invariably given a dressing down in a disciplinary.

And it's here that they are ridiculed and - metaphorically - eaten alive. How dare they teach popular culture of the masses, a medium that might help these teachers and their pupils to engage with current affairs and learning. How dare they go astray, how dare they decide how they work and choose what teaching strategies they adapt?

As our Victor Meldrew, the passenger on the bus might retort, 'I really don't believe it!'


Laurence said:

Whilst it is all too easy for some sections of the media to denounce the reforms that Michael Gove is trying to introduce to Britain's education system, it the apparent gulf between the skills that school-leavers have and those that employers actually require that is the issue at stake here. Time and again, employers report that standards are simply not up to scratch. Certainly, having witnessed the standard of written work even at graduate level, I must agree that something has gone wrong with the eduation system.

It is all very well to teach 'popular culture' but studying the likes of Coronation Street simply does not stretch children's minds in the same way that a Shakespeare text can. Rather than opening up the creativity of children's minds, the teaching of a soap opera is merely indulging the trivia that our celebrity obsessed society is increasingly concerned with. Moreover, such teaching is irresponsible as it is selling our children a lie: that it is giving them the skills to compete in the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fairness to Mr Gove, he has quite categorically stated that the Government is actually attempting to 'decentralise' the education system, so that headteachers have more autonomy over how they spend school budgets, whilst also giving teachers more flexibility i.e. deciding the level of homework to be set. He is, in my opinion, absolutely right to place renewed emphasis on the teaching of core skills, and a more balanced teaching of British history. Our children need to understand Britain's history and its place in the world; without it we are left with disparate groups that feel no allegiance or sense of belonging with their own country.

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