Saturday, November 10, 2007

Let's have less teachers for longer

No only is it proposed that kids stay at school until they are 18, we are to achieve this after a swathe of sackings of the 17,000 'weakest' teaching staff (for weakest read whatever you like, most rubbish, most demoralised, most difficult for management to deal with, whatever).

Sir Cyril Taylor (chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust) put it like this "if you have weak heads of department you ask them to move on and you go out and recruit fantastic teachers." You see the "head teacher that is good can take the necessary action, you get the wrong people off the bus and get the right people on the bus in the right seats."

Of course, it's all so simple now. You improve education by sacking thousands upon thousands of all those bloody teachers who've been mucking up the education system, which will simultaneously raise the morale of the survivors as they'll be so pleased they have not been given the chop. Then we hire all those incredibly talented and motivated teachers who've been standing at the schools gates just waiting for this opportunity.

They are waiting at the gates aren't they?

No, there is a crisis in recruitment at the moment. This is partly because the job is getting more difficult and partly because the government has been spending some time blaming staff for every failing in society. John Bangs of the NUT said that "We have the best teaching force we've had for years and years. Our experience at the NUT is that people who are beginning to feel burned out, leave. That's the big problem."

At least one blogger thinks its fine to sack teachers who are below par, and within limits he is of course correct. But we can already sack teachers who cannot do the job - but good managers first look to see why people are unable to perform the tasks set to them rather than simply label them bad at their job and throw them on the rubbish heap, regardless of whether there is a super-teacher round the corner just banging on the door trying to get in. In many cases we can improve the quality of teaching staff by helping teachers address their difficulties without having to resort to sacking much needed staff.

More than this we are not talking about getting rid of a bad teacher here and there, the proposal is that there is a *swathe* of teachers who should be sacked - that is bound to be demoralising for the profession, especially in those schools where teachers feel they are unable to do their job effectively - for whatever reason. Instead of offering support, the whole emphasis of the last decade has appeared to be on the failures of teaching staff and schools, blaming them for what is often (not always) out of their control.

This culture of blame, coupled with targets, over-testing, and deskilling of the profession is a real problem. Let's support staff rather than make them feel there is an axe constantly hovering over their heads. We need to fix the system we already have - but we also need to think about life long education rather than education as a one off preparation for the world of work.

This debate on raising the school leaving age is interesting to me because I left school at sixteen with a few O levels. I hesitate to say that it was the right decision - but it certainly was not the wrong one. I was fortunate to be able to return to education and eventually go to university later in life, but being forced to stay in education - whether vocational or academic would have been a personal disaster and to no useful end what-so-ever.

Andrew Brown at Cif said "Obviously no one wants bored, disaffected, uneducated adolescents on the streets. But using schools as holding pens for young men and women who would otherwise be out collecting Asbos does no one any good." This was essentially the initial impetus for the modern school system. Having passed laws making child labour illegal we found ourselves with a load of working class kids unemployed and kicking about the place. We quickly rounded them up, put them in uniforms, seated in rows and placed behind the bars of the school gates.

I also worry about this academic / non-academic divide that has dominated the education argument for so many decades. It fosters the idea that if you're not great at something then you shouldn't do it - but aren't these the skills you most need? If you're not good at reading and writing (for instance) then practice, reading exciting top level books is something you should be encouraged to do to help bring you on - but by labelling some as non-academic (perhaps justly) is to give up before we have begun.

Anyway, that's by the by.When it comes to vocational skills Francis Beckett points out that "it is all very well to force young people to take apprenticeships, but where is the compulsion on employers to provide them, and to make sure they are proper apprenticeships, not free labour?" Precisely, there is no guarantee that the so called vocational training will be anything other than cheap labour without any genuine aspect of self improvement for the subject of the regime, although I'm sure we can all learn from any experience no matter how patronising and stupid.

Alex Singleton in the Telegraph makes the rather obvious, but important point, that kids play truant because they don't find their classes any good. That's certainly a good part of the reason why I skipped school. That and being totally fed up. There is nothing in these proposals that will improve existing education - but there is everything about the government's attitude towards the workers in the system that makes their life that much more difficult.

At the end of the day creating a one size fits all, over regulated system cannot make for a healthy rounded society. As Stumbling and mumbling points out makes the interesting point that the proposals "ignore the fact that the 16-year-old school-leaver knows one thing that government doesn’t - himself."

In large part my on/off relationship with education was down to the poverty of aspirations that blighted my teenage self. Whilst school was a big part of that they did not have the ability to change other aspects of my life. You can't expect schools to be able to by-pass the family, drugs, poverty and the rest of it nor blame teachers for wider problems in society. For me they would have been on a hiding to nothing if they'd tried to keep me on - I was barely there for the last year and a half of my school days anyway. It was high time I left and got a shit job in Hayters lawnmower factory frankly.

Without looking at education in the context of our society and the overall lifespan of the individual we're bound to keep falling back on ideas like improving education by decimating the number of teachers or turning them into mini-prisons.

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