I have been in education for over twenty-five years. In that time, I have worked in inner-city primary and comprehensives, independent preparatory and secondary schools, public boarding schools, and private educational centres providing additional tuition. I have also worked for examination boards.
The education system in this country has changed radically since I started out as a newly qualified teacher in 1992. SATS at the end of Key Stage 2, were introduced in 1994. I’ve witnessed changes in GCSE grades, introduction of new GCSEs and A Levels as well as the introduction and scrapping of SATS tests in Year 2 and Year 9. I’ve seen the emergence of super-size academies. The closures of many independent schools. Not to mention numerous changes to compulsory subjects throughout education.
So, in that time what have I noticed?
Are qualifications becoming easier?
Are schools getting worse?
Is behaviour far worse than it used to be?
Academies were originally set up following Tony Blair’s initiative in 2002 as non-profit making trusts, which were no longer under the power of local authorities and could set the terms of their own governance, pay, curricula and conditions. The idea was to bring in external sponsors made up from the business community who would be able to pass on some of their dynamism and thus turn around failing schools. At the time this seemed like a good idea. However, over the years more and more academies have been built, as schools realised that this was a great way to boost falling budgets. Academies are set up with a small group of governors who have immense powers.
Academies throw up all kinds of problems. Firstly, their size impacts negatively on a student’s education. For education to be successful it needs to focus on the needs of the individual. How can teachers in a school of several thousand be expected to get to know their pupils well? A conservative estimate would be that most teachers are teaching about five hundred different students a week. How can they be expected to get to know these students well, when even teachers in primary schools, teaching thirty students in a class need time to get to know their students?
Academies are not permitted to make a profit and can set their own pay scales. However, many employ ‘SUPERHEADS’ on ridiculously high salaries offering such bonuses as first class travel or lump sum payments. Furthermore, accountability is a huge problem as many trusts appear to operate within their own frameworks concerning school closures and admissions processes and most are controlled by a very small number of governors with no public scrutiny.
GCSEs are getting more difficult as they are becoming more specialised. They now set out to test the gifted student as well as the less able and so the content becomes far greater, as well as more specialised. For example: in English Language, students are required to study a writer’s craft and make comments on language, form and structure. Long gone are simple and straightforward questions about meaning and inference. This is fine if you are a student who is enthused by reading literature, but sadly most students are not, and they would benefit more from more practical based qualifications such as Functional Skills in English and Maths. The current education system requires a student to be academic and yet the majority are not. It would benefit so many students if they were given a choice at 14+ to choose between a practical and academic route.
Behaviour in classrooms is no worse than when I started as a teacher, but the teaching profession is viewed with little regard these days by parents. You cannot pick up a newspaper without reading an article where parents are bemoaning a Head’s decision on uniform or in putting a student in isolation. There is still a problem with low level disruption in lessons which impacts on other students and prevents them from learning. No amount of legislation will ever rectify this. It is down to the individual school to develop their own discipline policy and the success of this, is hugely dependent on parental support.
It is true that today we are far more aware of the existence of additional learning needs. Yet, it is becoming increasingly difficult for such students to gain the support that they require. So many students are left to function without support because of a lack of funding.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some very good schools out there, but I would say that these are in the minority. Sending your child to a state school is a lottery system with no certainties. I came out of teaching in schools, because as a member of management, all I seemed to do was analyse statistics and set unrealistic goals. I felt that the needs of the individual had been forgotten, ironically in a desire to ensure equality of opportunity and curricula. Now I have returned to doing what I always enjoyed most. I teach in a private education centre where each student receives an individualised educational programme to meet their needs. The progress that students make is phenomenal. I recently had a student who was told that he had no chance of achieving anything above a level 1 in English. After a year of being taught in our centre, he came out with fives in English Language and Literature. Sadly, many people are unable to offer this opportunity to their children because of the cost implications.
After twenty-five years in teaching and looking back on all my experience, I believe that the best results depend on great communication, understanding of needs and positive relationships. This suggests that schools need to be smaller and more focused on the individual. It’s such a shame that more teachers are not involved in the major policy decisions. Perhaps it is about time that they were?