With the possible exception of the NHS, education is probably the most kicked political football in British history. We’re always being told that kids need more of this and less of that- always changing depending on which party is in power- so much so that teachers are left struggling to keep up, floundering in the tides of educational reform. To dismiss all this and say leave it alone is at best simplistic, and at worst damaging to students. Instead, let’s take a measured approach to the debate, by looking at what education really is, and assessing how we can get there, bypassing ideologies along the way. But let’s start at a look at how the current government is doing- we need not take the medication for an ailment we don’t have.
The current state of education
When we have teacher PPA time being cut, academic staff bearing increasing workloads whilst suffering a 13% real terms paycut, and we have 4 of the biggest teaching unions all pass (with an overwhelming majority) a vote of no confidence in Mr Gove- then we have a system that clearly doesn’t work for staff.
When we see the tripling of tuition fees, a system that experts believe has led us to be sitting on a “mental health time bomb”, the cutting of financial support for 16-19 year olds, and soaring youth unemployment- we clearly have a system that isn’t working for students.
When we see Vice Chancellors pay soaring whilst their staff’s is falling, universities investing in flashy campus’ and big billboards rather than course content, and schools are more and more being placed in the hands of unaccountable private companies- we have a system that very much works for the business elite and the dogmatic Tory.
So maybe a medicine of sorts is required.
What is education supposed to be?
I stumbled across an interesting definition on Wikipedia, that despite the websites reputation, I think we’ll run with, it rings true to me (if you dislike this definition please comment below).
“Any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts may be considered educational. “
That rules out most of my GCSE’s then.
This definition really cuts to the heart of what is wrong with our educational system at present- the constant need for examination. It is, of course, a symptom of an economic system that only leaves space for efficiency, things with utility. Gone in our schools is the time for debate, for inquiry, for passion– we’re too busy ticking off the syllabus checklist. I think this is why I enjoy university so much more than I did GCSE’s and A levels. I have the time now to explore what I want to explore, where lecturers can talk to a room full of interested students, and while exams and assignments are still important, they’re not the main objective. Learning is the centre of what happens in my lecture theatre, present in a way it never truly was in my school classroom. Challenging the way you think is so much more important than teaching you the lyrics to the national anthem.
Another cause of this problem is that I think rather too much is expected of schools now- we’ve lost perspective and now treat primary schools as a panacea for societies’ woes. From solving obesity to cheap child care solutions, schools fulfil a lot of roles in modern society! No wonder we get so angry when teaching staff strike. We need to remember that learning should be at the heart of the system, and any reform proposed should first face the question- “will anyone learn more because of this?” “Will this encourage students to explore new ways of thinking and acting?”
So what needs to happen?
We need to start supporting the staff in schools and universities. If the moral argument of “it’s not fair to them” fails to get you, then consider that when they’re being treated poorly, it’s going to affect the quality of education students get. Instead of complaining about the selfishness of a teachers strike or a marking boycott, let’s try and understand what it is they’re fighting for. If it’s in the best interests of education in this country (as I believe it is) then surely we should be rallying behind them and showing solidarity in their fight for a fair and prosperous educational system? These are the front line experts whose opinions we need to start respecting more.
We need to fight the privatising of education with every fibre of our being, to stand against the running of schools and universities like businesses. Business thrives off competition- that’s how a market works. The problem with competition, however, is that there are winners, and there are losers. What would that look like for an educational system (or shall we say market)? It would mean some not getting as good a quality education as others. It would mean corporate profits “earned” off the back of an elitist and divisionary system. For me, that is simply unacceptable. School should be a place for us to begin to define ourselves, to explore the world in a safe and nurturing place, a place for all to have that equal start in life, the best chance we can have. An increasingly privatised system erodes those most fundamental of goals.
We have to ease up on exams. Yes, we need to be able to see how students are progressing and we need a way of assessing if schools are doing well, but we’ve become too obsessed with this. It used to be a way of ensuring that pupils were doing well, now it almost seems like the entire point of school- to pass exams. Perhaps if we created a culture where learning for the sake of learning was the aim, where pupils and teachers alike were given more time to explore their subjects in more depth, and there was a looser National Curriculum in place that allowed more freedom, then we might find that children actually enjoy going to school. Who knows, maybe when we do get round to testing them we might find that they score better, now they don’t have the stress of an overbearing exam schedule, and have been able to inject some passion and enthusiasm into their studies.
If all we do is “teach to the test” for all pupils, then it what way does that encourage new ways of thinking and acting? In what way does it encourage us to develop into unique and gifted individuals, ready to embark on meaningful and satisfying lives? If we’re all learning exactly the same things to pass the exact same test, then we just create armies of fact regurgitating machines. That pretty sums up my experience of A levels anyway.
Let’s foster a renewed sense of wonder in our schools and universities, encouraging imagination and learning for the sake of learning. There’s something very beautiful about learning something that will not help you with your career prospects in any way, of simply allowing your mind to explore, limited only by your own curiosity. Let’s listen and respect and work with the professionals, rather than allowing ourselves to be turned against them. Let’s challenge the move to making schools and universities factories for pumping out efficient, unthinking workers- let’s educate about education.