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What Do We Need From Our Education System? (Part Two)

Before embarking on an attempt to reflect on our education system, let’s have a bit of fun.


How To Wind Up Teachers.

If ever you find yourself in a pub with a group of teachers over 40, then there is only one possibility as to what has happened. A cruel and vindictive God is punishing you for voting having Lib Dem in  2010, “to teach Labour a lesson“. That worked well didn’t it?

To liven matters up and to make things interesting, pose the following statements as fact. Undeniable, empirically proven fact. You read them in the Daily Mail is your clinching argument.

“Exams are too easy. Teachers can’t control kids. A Level is no longer the Gold Standard, and for good measure pay and conditions make the profession the ultimate doss.”

Then run…. very fast.

The Blair Government wasn’t ALL bad. (Just quite a lot of it was).

On the last point above, any teacher under 35 won’t remember how exploited their older colleagues were. Until the late 1990’s the pay was absolutely dire. Starting salaries of less than £10,000 in the early 1990’s saw the Major Government use the recession to drive down wages and it wasn’t until the usual pre election giveaway in 1992 that teacher’s pay was brought forward as an issue, and finally in 1998 matters were properly sorted out. This writer saw his take home pay (excluding promotions) increase by nearly 1/3rd in real terms between 1998 and 2005. Rightly so; teacher’s salaries finally began to catch up with similarly qualified fellow graduates.

But the best thing that the Blair Government did was to get rid of the mind numbing and economically nonsensical tasks that teachers were expected to undertake. Minor administrative jobs such as collecting and counting money, photocopying, typing, putting up displays and chasing attendance plus covering absent colleague’s lessons were a monumental irritation. Collating reports for example could take up a whole weekend, as living rooms became no go areas due to thirty separate piles of paper being compiled from hundreds of separate subject reports. Instead New Labour provided cash to employ lots of extra support staff to free teachers up to actually prepare and teach lessons.

The old holiday chestnut is another one if you want to bait a teacher for hours of free entertainment. But the truth is, as any spouse of a teacher will attest to this; the working week is totally full on with the average day for a busy person being 7.30 to six with the probability of two hours working at home. Factor in meetings and the such like and you will find over the course of a calendar year teachers do far more than their fair share. And from a personal satisfaction point the more promotions you get, the less you get to spend time in the classroom which is a real bummer.

The exams issue is a tough one. If you compare a 1980’s O Level paper with a modern GCSE, and A Level papers from different eras, then yes “standards” are different. But the problem with the old system, and one that Gove wanted to reintroduce, (this is up in the air again under Nicky “silence is golden” Morgan), is that the test was set up to fail all but the brightest. What’s the point of that? As an employer you surely want to know what a potential staff member can do. Otherwise you are taking a punt.

The system enormously benefited the lucky few as it ruthlessly eliminated our competitors and actively excluded anyone with a sniff of problems from any chance of success. But it also meant that the UK’s skills base was critically eroded and our overseas competition sailed past us as we talked about in Part One of this riveting missive. Hence the need for doctors, IT people and above all skilled workers so desperately needed for the 1/4 million houses PER YEAR we need just to stand still (Shelter Report Jan 2014).

After the Blair years (which started optimistically but fell into headline chasing after 2001) Gove’s constant carping was like a drip drip torture for parents, staff and students alike. If you are told often enough that something is substandard then you, and everyone else will believe it. And this is what has happened. Exacerbated by OFSTED the bad old days of teachers expecting the worst from Government are well and truly back. Morgan’s deafening silence is almost as corrosive as Gove’s witterings because everyone is wondering what is in the pipeline.

This is what The Association of College and Schools leaders had to say a couple of years ago regarding Gove’s chipping away at morale. “‘It’s potentially very dangerous to undermine confidence in the system. The students are working really hard and taking exams that are rigorous.’ They shouldn’t be told that their achievements are not good enough.‘It’s just wrong, it’s morally wrong to undermine their efforts.’

Why should a school leaver in 2015 be branded as average when their 2005 counterparts sat the same exams and had their achievements celebrated by a supportive Secretary of State, in this case Charles Clarke, “Today we applaud these good results and praise the candidates and their teachers who have worked so hard to achieve them,” said old Jug Ears. (“Scrotum Face” to Mark Thomas. Harsh, but google a picture).

“Discipline” always goes hand in hand with, “In My Day” and other such hackneyed statements. Ian Botham’s otherwise admirable autobiography contains this ultimate fill in the blanks phrase. “We had corporal punishment back in the day and…”. Yes, you got it first time. “It never did me any harm”.

Those arguments brook no discussion here but it is my experience from both sides of the fence is that kids are no more badly behaved than we were in the 1970’s; it’s just that some teachers abilities to deal with smart alec boys and surly girls has diminished. Teachers are taught to plug in their laptop to the interactive whiteboard, deliver a funky lesson and expect the kids to work at full tilt for every single period in the school day. When little Johnny and Janine challenge this inflexible approach, the default position for a small minority is to appeal to the fact that they are “professionals” and deserve respect based solely on that fact. The best advice is simple. Be yourself and talk to the kids, not at them. And praise goes a long way.  Just as you expect and always get from management (chortle).

The Background Context.

The Banking Disaster which was the depressingly predictable part of yet another turn of the Capitalist wheel has hit our young people disproportionality hard. Ed Miliband was right when speaking in Hull a year into his ill fated leadership on this subject. He said, “For the first time in living memory, perhaps ever our kids cannot automatically expect to have a better life than their parents.” 

Miliband identified a key issue and the ripple effects it caused. Under/unemployment, zero hours contracts, crippling rents, debt (including payday lenders), welfare cuts et al have given the whip hand to the bosses and this is exacerbated and taken advantage by the Debt System which prefers to masquerade under the guise of the “Financial” System.

Having the advantages of well off parents being cushioned from reality seems to be the key factor when seeking interesting well paid work. One of the few Tories with more than one functioning brain cell, David Willetts admitted this in his 2011 book, “The Pinch“.  The then coalition cabinet minister wrote about how middle class kids prevailed over their working class contemporaries, “, The competition for jobs is like English tennis, a competitive game but largely one the middle classes play against each other.”

But the Tories should not be the only Party worthy of opprobrium when dishing out who’s to blame for the plight of our youngsters.

Tony Blair and New Labour placed jobs and education at the forefront of their policy initiatives. In March 2003 Labour had slashed the youth unemployment rate to just 7%, a fantastic achievement which belied the Tory attitude that not only was unemployment “a price worth paying”, but it was an issue beyond solution. I can sense that you can smell the upcoming BUT.

Here is is. BUT since that record low, and despite relative economic growth, youth unemployment rose year on year in the latter part of the Blair/ Brown Labour Government. By late 2006, well before the run on Northern Rock and the credit crunch, youth unemployment had hit 12.9%, and by the time Labour was ejected from power in May 2010 the surge had reached 18%, meaning that Labour must reflect on why things started to go wrong even in benign economic times.

Why has Nobody Heard of the Leitch Report? 

In 2004 the Blair Government, worried by rising youth unemployment and the development of the so called NEET (Neither in Education, Employment or Training) generation so brilliantly captured by Paul Abbott’s “Shameless” TV show set on a Manchester estate where the locals got by through petty scamming and benefit fraud, commissioned a report into what the UK skills base would look like in 2020.

The Leitch Report, which was published in 2006, did not make comfortable reading for Labour Ministers. It confirmed what many involved in education and business expected; that despite vast investment in education and skills over the first seven years of the Labour Government, outcomes in literacy and numeracy for UK young adults were well below our economic competitors in Europe and around the world. 21% of UK young people could not even master the basics of numeracy, and for reading and writing 15% were virtually illiterate. In 2005 this placed us 15th out of 18 when compared with our economic peers.

As a result, and because we weren’t (and still aren’t cutting the mustard and producing home grown high skills workers)  the boom in employment had not been in the manufacturing or high tech sector, but in service jobs, especially in the retail sector.

If you look at UK society pre 1914 1.5 million were employed in domestic service in the UK according to the BBC History website. Malcolm Chandler’s book, “The Home Front” contends, “Pay was very low because there were so many looking for work. It was also a job, which did not require a high level of education. Most of the work was manual.” The substitute for domestic service these days is retail and call centres. The cause is poor education and the effect is cheap, easy to exploit labour for the bosses.

We should be aiming for, and achieving a highly educated a well paid workforce by designing and constructing 2 million world class, carbon neutral homes, converting our economy into being based on renewable energy and freeing up people to raise their kids. Tony Crosland (hardly a doyen of the so called hard left) advocated as much in his book, “The Future of Socialism” where he also called for a more progressive attitude to domestic life.  Our schools are key to these objective.

Because our young people were shut out of management they were the group most at risk when the crash came in 2008.

Next time…. Tony Blair: The Verdict, plus the Tomlinson Report and How Schools Can Be Comprehensive Whilst Improving Standards.. 


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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