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.

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.
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