The British education system is on its way down a very slippery slope. From Blair, to Gove, and potentially Hunt, the trajectory of our schooling is a dangerous one, and one that will leave the British labour market ill-equipped in the future, not to mention place unnecessary pressure on teachers and students alike. Blair’s academies, Gove’s free schools, and Hunt’s commitment to follow in their mind-sets of obsessing over Pisa Tables and trying to mirror the education infrastructures of Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, are all leading to the impairment of our students, who will of course one day become our citizens, our business owners, and our leaders. The damage is already taking its toll, as we’ve seen a fall in GCSE and A-Level pass rates for the first time since records began. Radical reforms and measures are required, but not the ones proposed by the current dictators of our education structure. We must invest wisely in our future; what we’re doing now is quite the opposite, and this slide towards unregulated state schools, disillusioned teachers, examination factories, Anglo-centric curriculums, disregard for the arts and humanities, and insurmountable pressure on the young people studying in our country, must be halted, before it’s too late.
The Blair era saw in the introduction of academy schools. While some still argue that it’s unwise to fund schools that are outside the jurisdiction of Local Education Authorities, academies, when well-run, can be highly beneficial for students. They can be a chance to engage local communities’ further in schooling, and some academies in Britain have exceeded their potential and claim some of the highest attainment levels in the country. Of course, not all academies have been so successful. However the real downside of academy schools are the impact they have on LEA state schools across the country. The state school I attended faced the same circumstances as many throughout the country. With attainment levels dropping, the school was faced with the constant threat of being turned into an academy. This put enormous pressure and stress on the teachers, who would have to reapply for their jobs in the case of such an eventuality. Stressed teachers make for stressed students; hardly an environment fit for nurture, learning, or for increased achievement for that matter. The pressure placed upon the school by the looming threat of academy status had a detrimental effect, and this particular case is representative of state schools across the country struggling to maintain high GCSE grades year-in-year-out. Thus, academies, or at least the threat of them, proved to be the first step in the wrong direction for our education system.
The Gove regime is well-documented, and my, and others’, criticisms of his approach and reforms could form an entire article in itself, or a rather hefty book for that matter. Nonetheless, his most relevant faults in his tenure as Education Secretary were; alienating teachers and teachers’ unions, turning History into a fact and date recall subject, imposing his personal preferences on English Literature as opposed to recognised American classics, firing anyone who didn’t fully support his tactics regardless of their competence, and of course, pushing through his pet project – Free Schools – and allowing unqualified teachers into classrooms. The Gove reforms have seen our curriculum become insular and UK-centric, and seen the analytical and evaluative benefits of the humanities subjects stripped to a bare minimum. By refusing to engage cooperatively with unions, Gove has created more disillusioned teachers than satisfied students, and in terms of attainment, the latest round of exam results speak for themselves. It’s fair to say Gove’s curricular amendments have emerged to be step 2 on the path to educational disaster.
The Free School’s initiative meanwhile is one that lacks validity, from its founding principles down to its practical development. Giving people the right to set up schools independent of local authorities is one thing, but to then give them free reign to ignore the national curriculum, grant them the right to put unqualified teachers in the front of classrooms, and then still pay for the whole project out of the taxpayer’s pocket, is quite another. Allowing unqualified teachers to educate our children is not only to the detriment of students’ learning, but is also an insult to every teacher who went through years of study and training to gain a qualification and enter into one of the most noble career paths. To tell them that any Tom, Dick or Harry off the high street can do their job just as well, without any training or experience, is a slap in the face for long-serving teachers. The Education Department has also gone to great lengths to cover-up how many Free Schools have already been deemed as ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘requires improvements’ status by Ofsted. The entire initiative is based on questionable principles, and predictably is being executed poorly, welcome to the third step of educational calamity.
While the 2015 election is looking increasingly too close to call, it appears irrelevant which party wins with regard to the field of educational improvement, as both main parties have the wrong vision for the future of our schools. Nicky Morgan seems content to advance the cause of ‘Goveism’. Meanwhile Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education-secretary-in-waiting seems hell-bent on following in his predecessors’ footsteps by attempting to emulate the ‘successful’ South East Asian education systems on British soil. The use of the term ‘successful’ is tongue-in-cheek of course, because one of the main issues in education is the way in which we measure the success of our schools. The unrelenting forces of globalisation have changed the rhetoric of education policy-makers, who now focus more on competition than learning, and prioritise the ‘global race’ above helping students reach their own potential. Hunt and his counterparts obsess over the Pisa Tables each year, and look at the rankings of schools in ASEAN nations like Singapore and Taiwan with envy, seeking to replicate their levels of attainment.
Now, there is nothing wrong with setting high goals, and aspiring to mimic the success of other systems. But there’s that word again – success. Should we measure success in education by grades alone? Or rather the well-roundedness of students who come through the system? Should we focus purely on Maths and Sciences? Or instead ensure a plurality of courses is maintained to a high level, allowing more students to excel in their given area of expertise? If we truly believe that the exam-factory system of Singapore for example is the correct model, as Hunt recently advocated, we mustn’t be tempted to take a one-eyed view of its institutions, being dazzled by the grades and refusing to dig deeper. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself has voiced serious concerns over the labour-force the Singaporean education system is creating; an army of science-oriented workers seemingly incapable of thinking-outside-the-box. Hardly a trait Britain’s creative economy would wish to import. Likewise, our politicians fall over themselves with awe at the South Korean grades every year, and appear blind to the pressure that is placed on students in these schools. Horror stories such as teenagers hooking themselves up to drips in order to work for up to 64 hours at a time, or children throwing themselves out of high rise apartments should not be taken lightly. South Korea has one of the highest child suicide rates on our planet, so forgive me for wishing to distance our education system from theirs! Trying to emulate South East Asian school systems, the fourth step towards educational catastrophe has presented itself.
What is clear, is that our education system is treading down a dark and worrisome path, but like any walk in the wrong direction, we can change its course, but we must do it soon, before we overstep the point of no return. What our education system desperately needs is a substantial injection of respect. Respect for teachers’ unions, respect for qualified teachers, respect for subjects beyond Maths and Science, and respect for the right of students to study without pressure and stress from above pushing them to breaking point. The best way to improve the education our children and our children’s children will receive is to attract accomplished, passionate and engaging teachers, which is incredibly difficult to do when teacher pay is so unattractively low, and respect for teachers is so absent. I am not about to draw the entire route map towards a British educational utopia, but what I will leave you with is a proposal of a first step in the right direction; teaching is one of the most noble and vital professions in our country, and if we wish to improve education, we must respect our teachers, and radically improve their pay. If we do that, we can start to exit the path of damnation that our education system is heading down.