Schooling in a Spot of Bother

The English education system isn’t leaving room for students to flourish.

Jane Miller

(Photo by David Boyle)

In 1969, at the age of 36, after 11 years in publishing, I started teaching English at Holland Park, a London comprehensive school. That was a high point for teachers who were interested in educating working-class children, but even then there were friends who thought it masochistic of me to teach in that sort of school.

Teachers — probably because a majority of them are women — are despised in this country, almost as much as social workers; and politicians of every stripe feel it their duty to tell teachers how and what to teach. A young, inexperienced teacher will find it hard, if she does as she’s told, to get each one of the 30 5-year-olds in her class reading by teaching them phonics.” She is not allowed to use her initiative in such matters, which makes it difficult to develop the expertise she needs if she’s to work with children’s different strengths and weaknesses.

Just when the number of NEETs (young people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training) has increased by 8 percent in a year, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, is planning to introduce harder examinations for some 16-year-olds and separate ones for the supposedly less able. No one has ever proved that harder exams make students better at anything, as far as I know. Harder exams simply mean that more people fail them and fewer people take them. Gove has already put a stop to essential repair work on school buildings, cut funding meant to improve virtually non-existent sports facilities, and abolished the small living and travel allowance the last government introduced to encourage young people to stay on at school after 16. At a time when prospects for the young have never been worse, discouraging them from gathering qualifications is criminally foolish. 

Gove is given to invoking — grandly and quite unspecifically — high-level research” that backs his hunches, and he is especially fond of telling us that harder exams, fewer A grades and a return to a more academic” curriculum are what top universities” want. Top universities,” it should be said, have never shown the slightest interest in the education of the majority, and are only concerned about school examinations insofar as they make the job of recruiting the best students easier. Nor have top universities” shown much interest in schoolteachers, though virtually all universities in this country, as in the United States, began and grew — and found themselves having to accept women students — precisely in order to train and qualify schoolteachers.

Schooling in Britain has always suffered from this concentration on the best.” Not only has this run alongside massive school failure and an inherited aversion to schooling in at least half the population; it has meant that technical training is regarded as unimportant, and funded at a lower level than academic” courses. In my youth, business studies were kept out of top universities.” Now they receive funding denied to the humanities.

Good teachers glory in their pupils’ learning, changing and ultimately taking control of their own education. When students taking a General Certificate of Secondary Education examination were asked in a recent religious studies paper to explain why some people are prejudiced against Jews,” Gove exploded publicly, saying, To suggest that anti-Semitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and frankly bizarre.”

Of course it must be condemned, but there is something pretty insensitive and bizarre, it seems to me, about a Secretary of State for Education telling teachers that all they have to do is tell children what they may think — and what they may not think.

That leaves room for no history, no discussion, no engagement with the world those children inhabit — or with a future to which they might contribute and in which they might flourish. Let us hope at least that we come through the coming months and content ourselves with our customary freak storms and flash floods, along with the curse and pestilence visited upon us by the bankers and politicians — and, yes, the Olympics, which will be the subject of my next column.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Jane Miller lives in London, and is the author, most recently, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts (2016), a collection of her In These Times columns and interviews.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.