Sunday, March 15, 2009

Brilliant. UK education gets an A* for defeatism

British schools are failing horribly. But when a useful idea emerges that might help, it gets shot down in flames

Bankers becoming teachers? What a bonus! Or maybe not. The Government's plan to fast-track ex-City workers into teaching has unleashed a furore from people who see it as a scam, a quantitative easing of the unemployment figures. "What will they teach?" is the common refrain. "How to screw up the stock market?" Well, perhaps they could teach more children to count. When 150,000 pupils start secondary school innumerate every year, I'm not sure we can afford to be so precious about who is at the blackboard.

One of the most inspiring teachers I ever met was a finance man, Steve Mariotti. After being mugged in the Bronx he tried to deal with the trauma by becoming a maths teacher and signing on at a sink school. After two terms he was close to giving up: he asked his worst students if they remembered a single thing he had said. After a blank silence one boy retold, in detail, a story Steve had given from his business career. This boy didn't care about abstract maths. But he was hungry to understand money and profit, the language of the street. So Steve kept teaching, but made more use of his life experience. He created an "entrepreneurship" curriculum (called NFTE), which improves results across many different subjects, and is now used in 13 countries.

I have seen his ideas working in US charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. In a school in Brooklyn, with metal detectors on the door, I was mobbed by a group of teens selling T-shirts, home-made gizmos and books that were the practical product of the course. Some of the books were in Japanese: I must have blinked. "Yes we've just started Japanese," I remember the headmistress saying. "I don't see why our students should be denied the opportunity". There, in one of the bleakest parts of the city, was ambition on a scale those children deserved. She saw no reason why her mostly African-American pupils should not go as far as any on the Upper East Side. And she was right. But she was lucky to be running a charter school, free from deadening bureaucracy.

I have seen great schools transforming the lives of poor children in Britain too. But there is a fatal lack of ambition in much of the education debate. Increasingly the view seems to be that whole swaths of children have become almost impossible to teach, that teaching is mostly behaviour management and that anyone who thinks they could do it better is naive. That is the tenor of most of the comments about fast-tracking bankers. But there is no genetic reason why Finland routinely comes top of international league tables that Britain keeps slipping down. When one in five children is leaving school without any recognisable qualification after 11 years in the classroom, a period in which we have spent 650 billion pounds on education, we literally cannot afford to be defeatist.

Defeatism is widening the gap between rich and poor. In 2002 the Government decided that learning a modern language was asking too much from children. It made languages optional. The result is that fewer than half of 14-year-olds are now taking a language GCSE, and some schools are closing the opportunity to all pupils. Languages, like proper science, are increasingly the preserve of the fee-paying minority. So are top exams. If you grow up in Singapore, or New Zealand, or go to an independent school, you can take international exams that are more rigorous than the dumbed-down GCSEs that Manchester Grammar School has just said it will scrap. If you're in the UK state system, you're being told to travel third class.

Last week we learnt that more than half of the pupils who got three As at A level were educated at private school: a shameful figure, since the independent sector educates only 7 per cent of children. The 13 per cent of pupils who are on free school meals, the Tory education spokesman Michael Gove said this week, made up only 0.5 per cent of those getting three As. This is indefensible: Gove called it "an affront to our national conscience".

But where is the sense of shame, of urgency, in the Establishment? Having lumped "Schools" together with "Children" and "Families" in an Orwellian mega-department, the Government is now backsliding on its own city academy programme, which was supposed to free teachers from bureaucracy. More than 70 academy heads said last month that the steady erosion of their independence was making it harder to raise standards.

Eight years ago I sat in a Whitehall office trying to convince education officials to create a fast-track teacher- training scheme for graduates. This was important for what later became Teach First, a programme that brings top graduates into teaching. The officials were not interested in what could be achieved, or what had already been done in America. Their sole concern seemed to be that a new training scheme might devalue those who had slogged their way through the old one. I seem to remember the use of the word "unseemly". The huge outcry about a little government scheme to recruit new teachers sounds the same. They should suffer like we did. It won't work.

There can be no monopoly on thinking when one in five children leaves school without one C grade at GCSE. Of course, not all bankers will make good teachers. They're hardly famed for empathy. But the junior bod from the equities desk, or the ex-corporate lawyer, might well be harbouring a vocation. Many of those who went into the City in the past ten years got there, contrary to myth, from poor backgrounds. They are used to stress and negative feedback, which could prove invaluable: to judge by the hostility of teachers' comments in the blogosphere, they may find the classroom a pushover compared with the staffroom. What few have lacked is ambition. And that, surely, is to be encouraged.


British education policymakers ‘are out of control’

Schools are being swamped by initiatives, legislation and edicts on children’s wellbeing as education policymakers run “out of control”, head teachers said. Their criticisms coincided with a report by the House of Lords Merits Committee, which said that the Government needed to back off and adopt a less heavy-handed approach.

Jane Lees, the president of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the opening of its annual conference in Birmingham that future heads were being deterred from seeking leadership roles because of the mass of bureaucracy and lack of support. She said: “The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of talented potential or experienced leaders, but more of a reluctance to take on the mantle of leadership with all its responsibilities and accountabilities. It seems we have football manager-style employment of heads.”

Schools find out in May the extent of their responsibilities for children’s wellbeing, when the results of a joint consultation by Ofsted and the Department for Children, Schools and Families is announced.


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