School haze

One vivid memory from my primary school days involves the dire warnings of the future from a traditional old sort of a teacher about the forthcoming “National Curriculum”. His fire-and-brimstone approach painted the newly created world of education would be all “format” and no “freedom”. Standards would be prescribed, classrooms would become cages for our dreams.

That was in the 1990s, and now Education Secretary Michael Gove is undertaking the most significant review since its creation. Somewhat predictably, the review and its remit is tinged with political posturing on all sides of the education debate; is the naming of anti-Slavery campaigners and the axing of Winston Churchill ideological, should children learn from rote, should children be filled with facts without opinion, why should children be forced into formal education in the first place, and so on, so on, so on…

Having been introduced to the NC at its inception, thousands of adults today retain the distant memories of learning certain subjects over and over again every other month (Oh good, the Roman Invasion again, it must be Tuesday!). The new regime was backed up with ‘attainment targets’ and ‘programmes of excellence’. Later on in the process, fake-leather ‘Records of Achievement’ would be handed out, all the better to keep our exam board certificates fresh within plastic pockets. (I have, long since, lost my ‘Record of Achievement’….).

Inevitably, subsequent political changes at Westminster have tended to dictate education reform. Nothing works on the stump more effectively than promising to shake-up the schools. The current National Curriculum document speaks in languages alien to my recollection of High School during the 1990s;

The most significant change is the development of
diploma qualifications in 14 lines of learning at levels
1, 2 and 3. The first five lines – engineering; society,
health and development; construction and the built
environment; IT; and creative and media – will be
piloted in schools from September 2008. The diplomas
combine practical skill development with theoretical
understanding, covering sector and general learning in
applied contexts.

“Society” – and “citizenship”, which now appears to have been scratched – are Labour reforms, and “practical skill development with theoretical understanding” is policy wonk speak which could only have been created by the kind of people my primary school teacher warned against. The tick-box education system did not happen on the day NC was introduced, though it certainly polluted everything else since.

Bad decisions were made in the race to be seen ‘responsive’ to education concerns – most infamously the decision to axe compulsory language education beyond Key Stage 3, effectively denying children the opportunities which come from being able to converse in either modern European languages or the new business world languages of Mandarin or Hindi. Search the current NC documents for “language” and no results are found.

Measuring standards across schools is the priority for Governments, fearful of judgements on the reading, writing and arithmetic skills of the children the State is tasked with educating. Sadly the urgency to be seen succeeding has filled most staff rooms with fog and bluster; it takes years for the education reforms of one Government to be seen “at the other end”, and the increasing impatience for instant results sees children’s educational experiences swapped and changed more times than management away-day agendas. It is hard not to feel sympathy for teachers whose lessons are built from continually changing materials; one year firm-but-fair could become freedom-and-expression. League tables, another on-high prescription for all which ills, force Local Education Authorities into a bizarre competition format within and beyond their borders, although the inability for low- and middle-income families to move children from one underperforming school to another – should they want to – means League Tables are often only useful for one partisan side of the education debate to criticise the other. Parents, children and teachers, whose work ultimately creates those Tables, are left shielding their heads from the sniping.

If Gove is serious about NC reforms, his rationale needs to be far more radical than his Department’s briefing notes suggest. It is shocking to me – as someone who relished learning the little things to keep the brain ticking over – that Ministers have highlighted omissions such as “geography curriculum does not identify any continents, rivers or mountains or name any countries apart from the UK.” If Gove is honest in his endeavour to reintroduce ‘facts’ into the classroom, this deserves support and praise. The curriculum was always ‘alien’ to Britain by its very nature; if it takes one Conservative to improve on the foundations from predecessor Conservatives, then that should be congratulated.

The wider education debate is far more involved than merely publishing new booklets explaining what can and cannot be taught to eager teenagers. The opportunities for learning and expression across younger years has been blanketed under boardroom tussles and Government grandstanding for decades, generations held within the grip of ideology and party politics. Gove is clearly an educational enthusiast, bias cut towards the schooling he received. In the wider education argument drafting prescriptive checklists and targets seem wholly inappropriate.

My teacher was concerned by how the National Curriculum would miss the specifics in its model for the wider ‘ambitions’ for education. I fear he has been proved correct. Gove should making ‘free schools’ with lowercase letters, and axe the National Curriculum entirely.

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Lessons of Praise

OFSTED has raised concerns about the teaching of religious education in schools. In response – perhaps inevitably – the Church of England has expressed “concern”, the National Secular Society has suggested RE should become optional.

My memories of RE at school – comprehensive school, how out-of-date a phrase does that sound in this age of Academies – are faded muddles of textbook copying and asking the only Muslim child in the class to write our names in Urdu on the blackboard. The compulsory element of RE was ditched for the final two years, and on the whole we all downed the subject faster than the shared bottle of 20/20 in Gateway’s carpark.

As I get older, my attitude towards the teaching of religion in non-faith schools grows less certain. I used to be pretty ambivalent on the matter, coming to this point via total disagreement – “Parents chose a non-faith school for a reason!”, that sort of thing – to lukewarm support – “If it helps increase understanding between faiths in this difficult time”.

I am not surprised by OFSTED’s observation that teachers aren’t entirely sure what their lessons are supposed to create. My memories include heated discussions on morality and sexuality, far removed from the Year 7 days of copying out from a textbook the basic layout of an Anglican Church. I understand that RE has been diluted into something resembling a high school version of A-Level General Studies, an hour-long free for all where both teachers and pupils are perilously close to crossing into forming their own opinions on political and cultural topics of the day, and I suspect the Department for Education is still uneasy about that.

It is clear in my mind that unease about Islam and other faiths in young people comes from both front-room and class-room. If structured lessons can help explain the basic elements of all faiths, to root out the urban myths and misunderstandings, then in the long-term that could be very good for this and future generations. However, schools have had quite enough restructuring under the previous government, do teachers really need to become ‘citizenship’ lecturers on top of everything else?

The National Secular Society is quoted suggesting that, like the teaching of foreign languages, religious education should be optional. Let’s face the truth on this; pur national reputation for languages is dire. Since becoming an optional subject, the learning of French, German, and Spanish in High Schools has plummeted. The long-term consequences for our economic well being may yet to be fully realised; could the same be said for taking away religion from the timetable?

Could the rise of the English Defence League and such Facebook groups as “Our flag offends you but your benefits don’t!” be linked to a lack of multi-faith understanding at primary and high school levels?

The NSS is right, in my opinion, to cast doubt on the right of the State to decide if doctrine should form a part of the school timetable. The problem clearly is that nobody quite knows what to do with religion now, especially in a nation which will never be as Christian as it once was. As someone who believes in the separation of Church and State, I am nevertheless uncertain about how much children should be shielded from religious teaching within school hours. OFSTED have thrown the debate into the air.

I wonder if anything good (or Good) will come from their report…

Labour Balls Up

Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Cushions and Soft Furnishings, is a notorious arm-twister, class warrior, and in the running to be solely responsible for Labour’s forthcoming defeat the General Election.

His latest wheeze is a £300m Broadband Bribe, with the intention of giving any Labour leaning voter even less incentive to aspire to a better life. As often happens with Labour after a few years in power, they’ve retreated into very safe territory; promote the ‘dependency culture’, label all opponents as ‘toffs’, and take it from there. With the country suffering from the longest, deepest recession in history, you’d have imagined somebody at the Treasury would have at least coughed a bit during the Cabinet meeting to discuss handing out free broadband to people in marginal constituencies, but I understand the idea of saying “No” to Ed Balls brings up combinations of genitalia and vice-grips.

Balls’ bullying tactics will doubtlessly see this scheme rolled out just in time to shore up support in time for the election. Never before has “shameless” been more appropriate a word. If this scheme is all about helping the lowest earners, helping children do the best in school, why has it taken 12 years for the only solution to be the giving away of easier access to Facebook and Bejewelled?

If the worsening state of education is not enough – and there’s plentiful examples of the GCSE system becoming mere window dressing for Labour’s doubtful education ‘claims’ – Ed Balls is of course riding a leadership bid horse all the way to the summer. In another desperate move, MPs from smaller Northern constituencies are being arm-twisted against the idea of moving from First Past the Post to Alternative Vote in time for the General Election. This is Balls’ aim to keep as many on-side MPs returned to the Opposition Benches, without the hassle of a fairer voting system or cut in MP numbers getting in the way.

It doesn’t take a flick through a GCSE Politics textbook to see where this idea comes from.

There really is only one shot at getting education right. My personal view on the state controlling schools has been coloured ever since the National Curriculum appeared to clip the wings of every decent teacher in my school – “What, the Romans
again?”. Now education policy has become overtly politicised, school building programmes wrapped up in debt-laden schemes, children forced to take too many exams and generally under achieving. Children unable to even write their own name after 5 years of a Labour government (and this hasn’t got much better) is one of many ‘milestones’ currently along the route leading to Ed Balls’ door.

“Class war” is a tired and extreme tactic often used by desperate members of the left-wing looking for some mud to throw in times of trail. Given the state of school education in this country, I suppose it is not surprising that Labour have not learned the lessons of such electioneering…