Hey, Minister, Leave our Schools Alone.

At the outset let me confess to being biased and that I acknowledge being vulnerable to accusations of being out of date. But as this school year ends, I can’t help setting out my views on the subject. My motivation has been stirred further by the news headlines today, which speak of a £35 billion ‘Building Schools for the future’ programme. We are being promised 3,500 re-built or improved secondary schools by 2020 and 200 new and refurbished schools per year by 2020.The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) has reportedly found 8 out of 10 of the proposed designs mediocre, which is said to be a blow to the Prime Minister’s promise to deliver schools that are “the best equipped in the world for twenty-first century learning”.

Has anyone consulted teachers or pupils in the designing and planning? Who has addressed the question of what twenty-first century learning looks like ? Perhaps even more importantly, has anybody given any thought to what the twenty-second century may require of us?

Forty-five years ago

In 1963 I qualified as a teacher, supposedly trained to teach Junior School children between the ages of seven and eleven plus. I say ‘supposedly’ because although I spent three years at a very prestigious all-female Teacher Training College in an equally prestigious University town, I managed to emerge, along with a cohort of other earnest would-be teachers without anybody ever having mentioned the teaching of reading to us in our three year long course.

We did ask, rather nervously and rather late in the day. We were shown into a locked room, which contained copies of every book from every reading scheme currently in use in Primary Schools – untouched and unseen by any other students as far as we knew. We were told not to worry because all we would need to do was follow the schemes used in the schools we would work in, because no child would arrive from the Infant Schools unable to read.

I admit that I did receive the kind of education at college which I would advocate for all young people, where one was surrounded by rich and varied cultural experiences. There was every encouragement to think and enquire and expand horizons. But I could only make good use of it because I had already had that early grounding and had a kit-bag of skills ready to use.

However, I had wondered early on in the training course what kind of schools some of the lecturers thought they were preparing us for. I recall one in particular who advocated letting the children lie down as they clustered round for story time. I often thought about her at the end of the school day when the fifty rising-fives who had the misfortune to get this very green horn as their first teacher found it difficult to even find room to sit around on the floor at my knee.

Changes, fads and fashions

So I had no problems about attempts to get more structured and appropriate training for would-be teachers. Better planned, longer and more rigorous teaching practices could only be beneficial to both the teachers and the taught. Also some greater structuring of the material presented in schools was to be welcomed.

In the mid-seventies I recall having to help make a model long-ship two years in a row, when successive teachers in my younger son’s Primary School ‘did’ Vikings, with apparently teacher two not knowing that teacher one had been on that particular voyage of exploration less than twelve months before.

Soon after I started to work in the sixties I was to become wary of fads and fashions and external interference in the life of our schools.

Why teach?

I wanted to be a Junior School teacher because of the role model I had when I was ten. She had a high desk and a tall chair. She pointed with a long stick at information beautifully written on the blackboard in the Marion Richardson script. I still have vivid recall of the content of some of her ‘topic based’ lessons.

From my year in 1953 six of us went to Grammar or High Schools, five of whom eventually went on to higher education, one became a headmistress and three of us became teachers. Not bad for a school whose buildings had been condemned as unsuitable before the start of World War Two and was located in the heart of the Black Country, better known for its heavy iron industry and its atmospheric pollution than the pursuit of learning.

By 1963, when I qualified, instead of a tall desk and a high chair I got a table, with no drawer and nowhere to put any equipment. The blackboard was already doomed and the fashion was for the ‘dear little children to find out for themselves’. No formal teaching of reading, grammar and spelling, handwriting and sums.

Teaching methods

We were soon plunged into the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA). ITA was supposed to encourage the children to write more freely, without being hampered by worrying about spelling. I think there are still a lot of adults out there who could probably sue Local Authority Education Departments for neglecting to give them an adequate education.

We used Cuisenaire rods to teach arithmetic, soon to be followed by the New Maths, which involved moving plastic farm animals from one field to another and crawling about the floor with coloured hoops and plastic balls, or wooden blocks, or assorted other shapes, to demonstrate ‘sets’.

But this was really small beer, because we found out about these by voluntarily attending courses in the early evening after work. There was a strong expectation that all members of staff would simply attend. No overtime, no time in lieu and definitely no Baker Days, or INSET days, or non-teaching time.

The implementation depended on the enthusiasm of each Local Authority Education Department, the influence of their various Education Advisers and at the end of the day the decision of the individual Head Teacher.

So I suppose you could say there was a postcode lottery of a kind, even then, although bear in mind that the most unlikely little schools, in what would now be entitled deprived Inner City areas, could achieve amazing results.

Changes in policy – and philosophy?

However the days of such cosy individualism were numbered as successive governments have set up their own cultural revolutions. Grammar Schools have gone, but City Academies are on the rise. Can anybody remember if ‘Faith Schools’ are in or out, or which or why, and have you worried enough about their charitable status?

How many revisions of the National Curriculum can you remember? We have League Tables, failing schools, schools put in to special measures, Literacy Hour, Numeracy Hour, paperwork and yet more paperwork for teachers, followed by overbearing and damaging inspections. We also have SATS, but apparently we have to employ an American firm to grade, mess up and delay their publication.

Which Sir Humphrey Appleby persuaded which hapless Minister to take that route? If identified I suggest he gets sent to tour the country cleaning and monitoring school toilets, which were identified by children as their biggest problem when the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, the late Peter Clarke, was first appointed.

There has been a dizzying flow of Ministers of Education, not to mention changes of name for the Departments over which they preside. Every change of name or personnel has brought yet more changes for schools and for the children who attend. I am sure that now I would be hard pressed to keep up, with either the changes or the work load. I certainly know of many competent teachers who have opted out because of the pressure and the culture of blaming rather than encouraging. Poor role modelling for our children.

In all of the tables and targets I have seen or heard little of the philosophy which should underpin and inform what we should be doing with and for our children in and out of school hours. I have heard little of teaching about kindness or caring for each other. I have heard even less about nurturing young lives.

I have the impression that the only recent Minister to have much knowledge about what it’s actually like in schools was Estelle Morris and sadly she couldn’t stand up to the bullying and pressure of the politics swirling around her post. Her delight on being appointed was palpable; sadly, so was her resignation.

School playing fields have been sold off, Domestic Science has been given no place in the thrusting, target-driven curriculum and we are amazed that we have obese children fed on ready meals, living in families of sedentary adults, with parents who have never learned to cook using fresh ingredients.

Every time a problem has been noticed in the last ten years, a quick fix has been prescribed, without as far as I can detect any real consideration of the causes or much concern for what kind of society our children will have to inherit. Where are the strategic thinkers and planners? Not the spinners and masters of the sound bite, but some real managers, who can foresee consequences?

The changing role of schools

During the Industrial Revolution a docile workforce, accustomed to attending large factories or mills and applying themselves conscientiously was required. Hence the proliferation of huge factory like schools, where children attended for morning and afternoon shifts and were taught to apply themselves unquestioningly, until it was time to move into the workforce, which had the same kind of expectations. The majority of young people left school at 13 or under, 14 years of age, then at 15 shortly after World War 2.

I remember clearly the change to 16 in the 1970s with the Raising of the School Leaving Age (ROSLA). By then I was teaching remedial reading in an all-singing all-dancing £1 million Comprehensive School, where all forms of selection, grading or setting according to ability were frowned upon.

Why did we need that extra year? What were the dynamic plans that were all drawn up and ready to be implemented? By then it was obvious that young people were growing bigger physically and in some ways maturing earlier. What use could have been made of an additional year at school to help these youngsters move in to the adult world of work?

There has been demonstrably less and less need for docile shift workers in the local pit, or mill, or factory or even car assembly plant. Instead there is an increasing demand for people who can be flexible, are prepared to travel distances to work, or to relocate altogether. The ones who can read, write, think and pick up new skills quickly and have enquiring minds are winning out. The ones who think they should have a job for life, within walking distance of home and failed to learn, or be taught, the basic skills are the ones who are destined to lose out.

Commissioned working from home, keeping up with the latest CIT developments, being highly self-motivated, being prepared to learn new skills, relocating if required are all part of the pattern for the twenty-first century workforce.

Who is thinking, dreaming and planning and consulting those with the true expertise to meet the needs of our twenty-first and twenty-second century children?

Knife crime and changes in the family

Presently we are experiencing a spate of knife crime. It is hideous and has no place in a civilised society and I have no problem joining in with those who say so publicly. But, Minister, the answer is not to threaten to put people into prison, when caught carrying or using a knife on the streets. I habitually carry a Swiss Army Penknife, not for my own safety nor to stab my fellow pensioners in the supermarket queue. I simply find it a very useful little tool. But if one of the local Community Constables ever takes an interest in the contents of my handbag would I, or society, really benefit from the proclaimed policy of an automatic custodial sentence?

Don’t we know enough child psychology to realise that telling a young person to stop doing something, and threatening punishment, only makes them more determined to do whatever it is we want them to stop? Even in 1960 I was trained to offer something more positive and attractive to divert from the dangerous and anti-social. Positive reinforcement for doing positive things might actually be a quicker fix than a £35 billion programme to build and refurbish structures which will not in fact serve the needs of our children by the time they are built.

The book Family and Kinship in East London charted the demise of the extended family and the caring community, while the quotation that ‘it takes a whole tribe to raise a child’ points out the need for more than isolated nuclear families – or more recently single adult households – to give a child all the warmth and support that is needed to nurture them into becoming the responsible adults who will have to meet the responsibilities of raising the next generations.

Leave teaching to the teachers

Minister, why not leave the minutiae of teaching to those who might just know something about it and spend a fraction of that £35 billion on finding some strategic thinkers and planners to help them draw up a framework and a real plan for the future? But in the meantime, Minister, please take your six-week summer break. Only, while you do, ask yourself why we still use a mediaeval model drawn from the legal system, which led to the old Universities having three terms, with a long vacation in the summer. This has given us an exam system with the major career path determining tests being written at the worst time of the year.

You could of course start quite simply

Where are we now?

Where do we want to be?

How are we going to get there?

Until you can come up with something that actually meets the stated aims of the 1944 Education Act, which specified universal education suitable for each child’s age, aptitude and ability please leave our schools alone.

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