NUT on the 26 March 2011 TUC demonstration against the government’s austerity programme , photo Suzanne Beishon (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)
Headlines about the recent education report from the OECD blared that a quarter of adults in England have maths skills no better than those of a ten year old. Undoubtedly this is a major cause of concern.
However, Education Minister Michael Gove will try to use this to soften up public opinion for more cuts and privatisation.
Here three teachers, members of the NUT teachers union, explain the reality of government policies that seek to make education meet the needs of big business – not students and society as a whole.
Testing, testing, testing…
Mick Whale, Hull
Many people will have been shocked by the findings of the recent OECD report. England is languishing in 22nd place out of 24 major economically developed countries when it comes to literacy and 21st when it comes to numeracy.
Some respected educationalists have questioned the validity of the comparisons between the different countries in the report.
They may well have a point, but taken at face value, the report raises serious questions about the education system in this country.
Employers’ organisations continue to complain that British young people do not have the skills necessary to carry out the jobs in today’s world. Many young people would reply with the question: ‘What jobs?’
However, leaving that crucial point to one side, it is important to look at why, after more than a decade of often constant reform, under both Con-Dem and Labour governments, and change to education and schools, we appear to be going backwards.
Teachers, who work excessively long hours trying to deliver a first-class education, could provide book-loads of anecdotal evidence that would support the basic conclusion of the report: the English education system is failing.
There are lots of interrelated factors that explain Britain’s educational turmoil. Central to the problems that schools face is the way that they are held to account by Ofsted and the role of league tables and performance targets.
No socialist would oppose the driving up of educational standards, which is what Ofsted is supposed to do.
Neither would socialists oppose letting parents know how local schools are performing, which is what league tables are supposed to do.
The problem is that an Ofsted failure in most instances means that the headteacher faces probable dismissal.
A failure to hit a particular target can also trigger government or Local Education Authority (LEA) intervention against a head and a school.
This has been true under both Labour and Con-Dem governments. The punishment for failure now is the almost certainty of a school being turned into an Academy.
The pressure to reach unrealistic targets is applied to schools in general and individual teachers within them.
What has been created by successive governments is a climate of fear. Fear of failure, fear of being Academised and, for many teachers and headteachers, fear of losing their jobs.
Government transmits threats to LEAs. LEAs threaten heads and heads threaten teachers that if their class does not meet its target, they could be sacked.
This climate of fear has created a workload problem which has to be experienced to be believed. Endless, often useless, pieces of documentation have to be produced to try to prove that everything possible is being done by everyone to meet the targets.
Some headteachers try to protect their staff, but many heads bully teachers with threats and intimidation and often impossible demands.
Many teachers I spoke to in the build-up to the 1 October strike in Yorkshire were thankful that the strike would give them an extra day to catch up with outstanding paperwork.
No wonder that, even at a time of high graduate unemployment, 50% of young teachers leave teaching after five years, as one survey found.
Many older teachers are trapped by family commitments, mortgages, etc, in a teaching job which is stressful and life-shortening. In short, many teachers who love teaching, hate being teachers in the current system.
All of these factors by themselves go some way to explaining the current malaise. The culture of fear in education has set back education.
In order to survive (or dodge) Ofsted and the target-setting agenda, schools, heads and teachers have to show that the students they teach are making progress.
The easiest way to do this is to raise the number of pupils passing tests or reaching higher national curriculum levels.
This is particularly the case for GCSEs. Good exam results keep Ofsted and the government from intervening.
To get students exam passes, pressure is put on teachers to teach to the test. What this means is that rather than getting the rounded-out education that comprehensive education is supposed to deliver, students are spoon-fed how to answer the questions in the exams. This undermines the ability of students to develop their own learning skills.
This explains the paradox identified by the OECD report that pupils in Britain were leaving school with more exam passes than before, but no improvement in skills.
The national curriculum in England and Wales makes an assumption that all students make progress at the same rate every term and every year.
This flies in the face of most educational research. Learning, like all things in life, does not follow a straight line.
Sometimes it can take years for an idea, a concept or a skill to become fully mastered by a student.
This does not mean that the years spent accumulating that idea, concept or skill are wasted or unproductive.
Rather, they are necessary time periods where progress is gained, but the national curriculum and the targets and tests do not recognise this.
The casualties are the school students. They are taught in a culture of constant testing. For those able to reach the required level, all is well.
But those ‘failing’ or finding literacy and numeracy difficult are often given a diet of more literacy and numeracy.
No wonder so many pupils become disengaged and anti-school as they are forced to do the things they enjoy the least. Interestingly, Finland is the country which tests its children the least and it was 20 places above England, second in the table!
The current generation is just as bright as previous ones. In fact some educationalists believe that the ‘computer generation’ is able to process information much faster than previous generations and therefore could be becoming cleverer.
The crisis in education reflects the crisis in society as a whole. The teacher trade unions, together with the wider workers’ movement, need to ensure that a socialist programme replaces the false methodologies of a failing system with a system which recognises the worth of everyone.
The education counter-revolution
Martin Powell-Davies, NUT national executive, personal capacity
The Con-Dem government is waging a class war on education in Britain. Driving on with privatisation and cutbacks, it is reinforcing privilege, division and inequality.
This follows the deep erosion of state provision under successive Tory and Labour administrations.
This educational counter-revolution has an important economic context. At a time of capitalist crisis and high unemployment and underemployment, as a civil servant, rumoured to be an adviser to Tory education minister Keith Joseph, chillingly put it:
“There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which increasingly society cannot match…
“When young people cannot find work at all… or work which meets their abilities or expectations… then we are only creating frustration with perhaps disturbing social consequences… people must be educated once more to know their place.”
No government has yet sought to restore an openly selective system. But successive government policies, the national curriculum, school league tables and SATs exams, have opened the way to two-tier education and reinforced the class divide. New Labour’s Academies and faith schools paved the way to Gove’s present onslaught.
School admissions policy is a key battleground in every area. Academies, faith and foundation schools have become their own admission authorities. Official statistics confirm higher exclusion rates in Academies.
Proponents of Free Schools and Academies, such as Tony Blair look to blame teachers, trade unions and local authorities for the problems created by a divided society and education system.
The OECD report can also form part of a propaganda campaign which hopes to soften up public opinion for further attacks on teachers and further moves towards privatisation.
But evidence from the US confirms that, on average, privatised charter schools do no better than their state-run counterparts.
PISA results for Sweden show a significant fall in its international ranking since the introduction of free schools and as social segregation between schools has grown.
There is no doubt that many schools have been attracted towards taking Academy status by the promise of advantageous funding arrangements at a time of shrinking budgets.
But even those heads supporting conversion recognise that the ‘bribes’ to participate in the break-up of state education will not last forever.
The treasury will demand further cuts. Of course, smaller class sizes and greater funding would make a significant difference.
But again, the international evidence exposes the truth. Pupil-teacher ratios in Swedish Free Schools have got worse, not better, as their owners aim to increase their profit margins.
In what the Guardian described as “a sign of Labour’s determination to show it is open to reform” Tristram Hunt, the new shadow education secretary, signalled greater support for Free Schools.
He said: “If you are a group of parents, a group of social entrepreneurs, teachers interested in setting up a school in areas where you need new schools then the Labour government will be on your side. We are in favour of enterprise and innovation.”
None of the establishment parties is in favour of well-funded comprehensive education. Yet again the urgent need to build a new mass party for the working class is underlined.
This article is based on an extract from Martin’s review of School Wars by Melissa Benn in Socialism Today,
Profit from schools
The pursuit of profit is a significant part of the state-subsidised privatisation of education. Each of the 35 circulars and acts since 1988 has created more opportunities for private companies to move into the education market estimated to be worth around £100 billion.
It includes school inspections, textbooks and software as well as outsourced local authority functions such as accountancy, building maintenance and professional development.
But it is the substantial organisations now running chains of academies, such as ARK, E-ACT and the United Learning Trust, with resources easily able to rival local authorities, that are set to dominate the new school system.
Other for-profit providers such as Edison Learning are waiting in the wings for the government to lift the ban on running schools for a profit.
These chains are already free to ignore national pay and conditions for staff. One of the principal aims is to atomise the workforce and undermine trade unions.
Parents will also find their rights “significantly diminished, with governing bodies largely appointed and controlled by the sponsor”.
Instead of a local authority overseeing provision of places, admissions and special needs, at least in principle in the interests of the population as a whole, individual schools and chains will try to put their interests first.
Ready to teach the Heptarchy?
Jane Nellist , Coventry
In my early years of teaching, under the Tories, the national curriculum was contained in ten heavy unusable folders that sat neatly in my cupboard.
Gradually it’s been slimmed down but the rigidity remains, now only legally binding for the shrinking number of maintained schools.
Schools have been tempted to consider Academy status with the ‘carrot’ of the freedom from the national curriculum although many have clung onto it.
As for Free Schools, well their founders are able to impose their own ideas onto a curriculum for their pupils.
I’ve always maintained that the best teachers are those that can be subversive and go ‘off piste’ when it comes to the curriculum, in order to meet the needs of the children they teach.
As a teacher, you have to make the curriculum relevant to students if it is to mean anything. That’s becoming harder and harder in this world of excessive scrutiny.
How sad that in some schools, art, music and PE lessons are sacrificed so that there is more time for the English and maths lessons, all to ensure that test results meet the ever rising targets set by government so that they avoid being picked off.
Aren’t students being deprived of their right to a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum (most misused words in education) if utilising paint and other art media as well as musical instruments is a rare occurrence? I would go so far as to label it child abuse.
It’s important to recognise that the national curriculum underpins the whole system of accountability through a testing regime (SATs) and rigid inspection in the form of Ofsted.
The right wing has always distrusted teachers but, more importantly, it sees the curriculum not just as a means to educate our young people but to control what they learn.
The implications of a Gove-inspired curriculum include more learning by rote and a ‘body’ of facts. Is this a curriculum that will help to develop a new generation of young people to deal with the challenges they will face, or is it more like training for ‘In it to Win It’ or any other quiz show?
Isn’t it more important for seven year olds to have the opportunity to study history in relation to their own local area using artefacts and resources which are relevant rather than be hung up on memorising terms such as ‘Heptarchy’ (the seven kingdoms set up by the Anglo Saxons!)?
This curriculum is going to stifle creativity and learning and it is going to damage the life chances of young people.
Teaching unions have an important role and responsibility to our communities to fight it.
Our aim should be that teachers are trusted enough to develop the body of learning for their school that meets the needs of their pupils and that they are accountable to their community.
Government ‘experts’ only seem to include heads, retired heads, celebrities, or people who are making quite a lot of money out of education. The real panel of experts is us, the teachers, the parents and the students!
- Free, high quality education for all, from nursery to university. Increase public spending to provide decent staffing levels, smaller class sizes and good quality resources and buildings
- Abolish the national curriculum, Ofsted inspections and league tables. A new core curriculum should be developed with involvement of teaching unions, students and parents
- Big business out of education. Bring all Academies and Free Schools back into public control. Fully democratic LEAs run by elected representatives, subject to recall, including school teachers and non-teaching staff, parents, local trade unionists, community organisations and secondary school students, to run schools
- An immediate end to performance pay, a minimum 20% non-contact time for teachers and significant pay rises for all school staff
- No cuts to support staff. Expand mother tongue provision
- End selection on any grounds
- End poverty pay and benefit cuts. Poverty, overcrowding and poor nutrition are major contributors to poor educational attainment
- For the trade unions to build a new mass party to defend education and provide opposition to the pro-big business establishment parties
- For a determined strategy of action by teaching unions to defend education, including a 24-hour general strike
- For a democratic socialist alternative to cuts and capitalism that would allow the skills and talents of all to flourish