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We still haven't learnt the lessons of education history

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 16, 2013

By Mike Sagar-Fenton

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Mike Sagar-Fenton

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For schoolteachers it’s the end of the Autumn term, the longest and strangest term which starts in September beach weather and ends up in the darkest hours of winter. The last lap before Christmas climaxes with concerts, carol services, nativity plays, school parties, most of them disrupted by the regular swath of colds and flu as the weather turns colder. Soon however they can go home and forget the kids for a while, get on with their own Christmases, and ponder what the new year may bring.

It’ll probably be trouble, and it’ll definitely be change. Change has been the only constant in any teacher’s career. Education education education was Tony Blair’s famous mantra, rhetoric without substance like most of his pronouncements, and though other politicians may not have indulged in such sloganeering, education is the honey-pot none of them can leave alone, or rather the Pandora’s box none of them can resist opening, shuffling the contents around and then closing again. No child since the 1970s will have left their school – or at least state school – in the same regime in which they began. As for the teachers’ lot, I started counting how many Education Acts and other instruments of change there have been since 1980 but had to give up (though I recommend Dereck Gillard’s excellent online “Education in England” for those with stronger stomachs).

So with all that tinkering, ideology, the beloved “biggest shake-up since whenever”, have we got there yet? Hardly. In 31st place in the international rankings, facing crises in literacy and numeracy, behaviour, obesity, ADHD, bullying – cyber and otherwise, sexual harassment, and generally poor attainment. And more proposals for change.

How hard can it be? The principles are straightforward: we all want the best for our kids: we want them to have the same opportunities: we want them to come out of school with basic intellectual skills and some specialised knowledge in their own chosen fields: we want them to be fit and well: we want them to be educated to the best of their ability, be it academic or practical. That’s the mandate teachers have from us, and that’s the job they’d be getting on with if politicians left them alone.

But they won’t. It’s too tempting. Other ministries like Transport or Defence or Agriculture are faced with a fairly comprehensible task, with clear objectives and no obvious short cuts. But the Department for Education is like Play-doh, infinitely elastic, subjective, a laboratory for ideologues with political agendas, where hobby-horses are ridden and the perceived mistakes of the past (especially of Ministers’ own educational experience) can be rectified, and the Minister’s very personality expressed. Teachers are their natural prey. No Education Minister in recent history has come to office with a good word for them, but rather a burning desire to give them a good spanking and to blame them when their own schemes go awry.

Teachers aren’t perfect. Some have the vocation and talent to inspire children year after year, but many chose what seemed a safe and secure career, tending to be unimaginative, risk-averse, and frequently supine in the face of the contempt in which their masters hold them. But though they have more to contribute than anyone else, even the best of them have little influence on education’s future because no-one asks them and no-one listens to them. Instead you have the reductio ad absurdum of Michael Gove’s policy, to do without qualified teachers altogether. Gove, like most of the cabinet and the opposition, went to a private school which wasn’t obliged to employ qualified teachers.

Instead of “driving up standards”, that awful phrase, by investing in better teachers, training them, supporting and cherishing them, politicians bring their own nonsense to the table. Academies. Free Schools. Faith Schools. AS levels. No AS levels. More chalk and talk. More British-based history. SATS. No SATS. Bring back SATS. No playing fields. Local pay rates. League tables. Harder exams. More exams. Focussed curriculum. Wider curriculum. Baccalaureat, but not really. On and on and on.

No-one can produce their best when the goalposts are whizzing by faster than they can see. The best teaching is organic, responsive to changing trends but stable and free from political interference. The best thing Mr Gove or any other of the starey-eyed oddballs who seem to be drawn to the DfE can do is to go absent; or as Pink Floyd never said, “Oi, governments, leave them teachers alone...”

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