Why Schools need a radical re-think and why the British Government fails to understand

In the news yesterday and today is the UK government’s announcement to bring back more Grammar schools – in essence schools which can select students based on academic ability.

On Wednesday I gave my TEDx talk and although the subject was ‘The Global Village’ I touched briefly on education and how working in Bangladesh challenged my preconceptions as an educationalist.

I’d like to expand on this a little and present my view on why the Government is continuing to go down the wrong route with this latest news. To be fair, it’s just a long line of wrong moves which have been followed by preceding governments too. No one, it seems, really has a clue. It’s a shame because if you asked the teachers on the ground floor – not the heads or those who’ve worked their way up the career path but those who are just classroom teachers day in, day out – you’d probably come up with the right answers; some of them at least.

And that’s an appropriate point, before I begin, to mention that in no way am I criticising the good work carried out by teachers all over the UK. I’ve been there and done that and know it’s a shitty job at times while also being the most rewarding work in the world. Teachers have to jump through the hoops they are told to by those in power above. All they want to do and care about is give the children the best educational experience possible.

That said, after too long in the system, teachers can fall into the trap of believing the rhetoric that government bodies preach. As I said in my talk, I came away from Bangladesh questioning why I was teaching in a UK system which demands qualifications at all costs. Am I providing children with the means to a happy and secure future, I asked, or am I merely churning them out because society and politics demands it?

This is the heart of the problem with the announcements today. There is this assumption that there are ‘good schools’ and there are ‘bad schools’. While there are, no doubt, exceptions, the whole idea of such labels is a nonsense. There are schools where you have elite, well-educated and well-brought up children often from affluent areas (but not always) and such schools inevitably do well in results tables regardless of the quality of teaching.

Today Teresa May said she wanted ‘all children’ to have the opportunity to go to ‘good’ schools. That’s absurd. All children all at so-called ‘good’ schools instantly makes all schools ‘good’ and we know from history that this is simply not allowed. OFSTED and the like immediately reset the boundaries when this happens. While I was still teaching in the UK, OFSTED declared that ‘satisfactory’ for a school was now no longer satisfactory and actually meant ‘failing’. It’s really very silly. No, the reality is that the afore-mentioned elite go to schools already perceived to contain such children.

Then there are the schools which are left with those who don’t fit such categories. Those schools are usually where you find the very best teachers because they have to work bloody hard to teach at all. I was at one such school for eight years and loved every minute of it with the kids (not with the politics among the staff however). It was hard work but while I was there the school was just getting better and better (why I’ll explain shortly). But in some schools (and even within schools getting it right like mine) the atmosphere is more like a prison – in terms of how the kids behave and how they are treated.

This where the Government gets it wrong. It’s all well and good allowing schools to select on ability but when you do that you guarantee both excellent schools (those that select) and the schools from hell (those that are left with the rest).

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not actually advocating schools which are completely mixed in ability – that can work but it can be bloody awful too! I’m saying that the powers that be are aiming at the wrong goalposts.

Interestingly, what I hear from those in the business sector (and indeed at the TEDx day one of our speakers touched on exactly this point) is that schools continue to fail to train students in the qualities businesses actually need. These kids may well have the degrees and other qualifications needed but they’re hopeless in other areas – such as the ability to work with others without being, as Dr Brian Little puts it, a complete asshole. Why is that?

In my experience, those that are going to do well academically are naturally going to be teach themselves. At least, that’s the best way to do it. A teacher’s job with such students is to open the door, provide the materials and stimulants needed and be mentor and guide to facilitate their own self-learning. When this happens and parents support too you’re more or less guaranteed top results all from the student’s hard work and self-motivation.

It IS possible to force a student to obtain higher grades – pushing with extra classes, one-to-one sessions, additional coursework and so on. But the results are inevitably awful especially if one push leads to another. I’ve seen this at its worst in Asia where there is a determination among parents that their children must be doctors or lawyers and so on. From kindergarten through to university many children are pushed onwards with the expectations that they will be the best and obtain the highest marks. These children buy into their parents’ dreams and even though each step of the way gets harder and harder they try to live the dream as though it’s their own. the lucky ones buckle at the pre-university stage where they simply cannot obtain the grades needed to go on to those high-level courses at university. At that point the dream ends and though it is painful at the time this is a good thing because then they get to go on to courses more suited to their own characters and interests – as well as more appropriate for their academic ability. With a bit of luck they go on to have happy careers.

While such intense parental pressure is less common in the UK, still similar things occur – students either creating their own pressure or bowing to parental or school pressure to be brilliant. I believe that the reason we have (some) incompetent doctors, teachers, lawyers and so on is because many of these people should never have been attempting to work in these professions in the first place. My handwriting is truly appalling and I always used to joke with my students that I should have been a doctor (the medical profession being known for its illegible medical notes) but added “had it not been for the fact I would have killed patients”. The last part isn’t a joke! I don’t have the kind of brain that can handle remembering everything a doctor needs to in order to make proper diagnoses. I would have made a terrible doctor – thank god no one in their right mind ever thought otherwise! In truth, I’ve seen too many kids grow up and lead miserable lives because of making a completely wrong career choice. The pressure to try and keep up in an area just not your thing must be immense. Depression and feelings of ‘not being any good’ well up until something has to go – either mental stability or the job.

I do not believe in pushing for the highest qualifications as the goal of education. I believe in giving children a positive and rewarding experience which results in lifelong learners, people who love learning and to equip them to be the best they can be – but nothing more.

When I was a teenager, just embarking on adult life and feeling particularly socialist and anti-elitist, I was determined I would never go to university and instead would get a job as a binman. It was my local vicar who, wisely, pointed out to me that I had a mind that wouldn’t be satisfied with that kind of job for long and instead I would be taking the job of someone for whom being a binman was the right level. This is not to denigrate the intelligence of those involved in waste disposal but to say he was right – I had an academic brain which would never have suited that kind of job – I’d have been rubbish at it (excuse the pun) – and I would have stolen the job from someone who would have been right for it. For once, I listened to good advice and did (eventually) go to university. I found my niche and I’ve worked within, pushing boundaries where I feel so inclined and not allowing anyone to dictate what kind of person I’m supposed to be as a result.

In 20 years of teaching I’ve seen this work time and again. Help students be the best that’s right for them so that they’re equipped (and, yes, qualified) to be in the right place for them in society – whether they be doctors, politicians, cleaners, farmers or even lead alternative lifestyles with which they are happy.

On the whole, schools are doing this. Where that fails though hits hard and not necessarily in the so-called ‘failing’ schools. It goes wrong in the top schools too. In fact, though I don’t have statistics to prove it, I would guess it goes most wrong in the public school sector. I’ve met hundreds who went through public school and my own two children experienced it for a couple of years so I do at least have first-hand experience. What is it I think goes wrong? Well that leads me to the title of this post: what the real radical shake-up is needed in the UK education system.

Schools have more than adequate systems for monitoring progress and qualitative development of school children. It doesn’t matter how many times you reinvent the goalposts – it just isn’t going to get any better than what teachers and schools already do. So forget league tables based on SATs and GCSE results. They tell you nothing other than how clever the students are.

What’s ignored by measures and society in general, is the well-being of students. I don’t mean how current OFSTED measures look at how much the kids ‘like’ the school or what the parents think of the teachers. I mean actually changing how the whole curriculum is delivered and conceived.

What is needed are ways to monitor and develop inner confidence, love of learning, supportive natures, citizenship, team-working, approachability, inner security. Make these the priority over development and results. 

I said earlier that the school I worked in for eight years in Cumbria got better and better while I was there. Part of this was a brilliant discipline system they introduced in the last few years where consequences for misbehaviour were firm but also very clearly laid out and gave opportunities for students to walk away from where their disruptive behaviour was leading; and rewards for working well and cooperatively were also clear and supportive and available for all types and ranges of ability. The result was everyone felt safer.

But there was also the community feel of the school. My department was the Music department and myself and the other members of the staff made it a place for family and friends, not students and teachers. Time and again I was told by parents that their children had found a home within the department where they felt safe and valued. Ours was not the only department to be doing this and as a result the school grew in friendliness and, at times, joy.

This was a difficult school, in an impoverished area with lower working class students often from very broken home backgrounds. When I first arrived at the school I was verbally abused by some of the older teenage boys (whilst truanting lessons but remaining on site!), a lot of the school was vandalised, I had students walk out of the middle of my class with a “fuck you” at top voice and one student was expelled after a long list of misdemeanours over several years when he aggressively shoved through me in the corridor on the way to classes. Many other students were expelled for much worse. I even had one kid throwing rocks at my car as I drove in the streets in an attempt to make me crash.

I don’t think there was a conscious management decision to work on community spirit. I think I was lucky to be there at the right time (in recent years, that same school has suffered a great deal and from what I understand is now in a worse spirit than it was when I first worked there which I think is a great shame but shows what happens when management loses its way). But as the kids felt happier and rules were stuck to, so their development soared and grades improved. When children feel safe and valued, then they want to work. The results will always follow. Every year for eight years I worked there, I enjoyed my work more and more thanks to the improving positivity of the environment. I left out of the frustration that management didn’t want to do more to foster this. There was more work to be done and it’s a shame that years later, the school seems to have lost much of what was built up.

This is what Teresa May et al need to concentrate on. There are many students in some of the top schools who feel miserable, under pressure and worthless. They may or may not come out with top grades but sooner or later, whether at school or in adult life, they become depressed and unable to handle life. Some commit suicide or attempt it. Others turn to drink or otherwise soldier on for years or decades with their souls destroyed. It’s awful to see and I’ve seen it too often. In the schools from less affluent areas, the effects are crime, vandalism, unemployment and a general inability to function in society. The lives are just as disaffected and miserable. Again, I’ve seen too much of this – even more of it, in fact.

Forget selection by ability – actually nobody wins in the long run with that. Turn instead to nurturing and monitoring how well students cope with life. If little Johnny is struggling with handwriting, sure give him extra support. But if he is struggling to know how to interact with his peers, support him and train him in that first. Teachers are doing this but the pressure to turn out results overwhelms the desire to make sure their wards are doing well within themselves. Johnny needs to feel good about himself much more than he needs good handwriting. That boy may just grow up able to work with others in a career as an adult in ways which are rewarding and fulfilling. And if his handwriting is still bad? Well, he can always become a doctor.

students and teachers gathered at the cars for a meal out in 2013

students and teachers gathered at the cars for a meal out in 2013

About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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5 Responses to Why Schools need a radical re-think and why the British Government fails to understand

  1. Beparvah !! says:

    I had to write an essay on this last year during my union public service commission and even encountered this in interview.. glad to read another perspective..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kruti Mehta says:

    Right on point Ken.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shirley Ann says:

    Absolutely brilliant post Ken! I couldn’t agree more with all your thoughts. I personally have nothing against Grammar Schools and feel that if kids want to go to them then all power to them. However like you – I don’t think Grammar Schools are the answer but rather a complete shake down of the system as it stands right now needs to happen. Not all brains work the same and the problem with the education system here and elsewhere is that they have a one-box-fits-all mentality. Interestingly universities are far more open minded and willing to accept students having had different educational experiences other than the traditional A-level route that is pushed and believed to be the only way by schools. You only need to have made this choice of educating differently and communicating directly with universities to find this out, and in fact they welcome such differences because often these children can think for themselves and are questioning, curious students. They have not had the love of learning squashed out of them by the system. Again – university does not spell success for everyone. Each should be allowed to flourish and thrive in the best way they can – so if a child is skilled with wood then whose to say that he is not successful? This misconception that uni equates to success is a mindset drilled into the population at large and it’s this mindset that needs to change.

    Thanks for a well written and thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

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