How the Nation is Failing its Students

In this first article of a series, Tim Hind explores some of the tensions that beset the teaching of our students as we approach the end of the millennium

 

WE HAVE BEEN told that we have one of the best education systems in the world and yet we are also constantly being told that it is inadequate. So what, if anything, is going wrong?

The Church of England has been at the forefront of education for years. It is mainly owing to the Churches (not exclusively Anglican) that we have any widespread education at all. We need to re-evaluate the value to society of a strong education system and begin to use our influence again for the good.

Over the last decade, we have seen major changes to education practically every year with the introduction of Local Management, Grant Maintained Status (and its demise), the National Curriculum, League Tables, Numeracy & Literacy Hours, Assessment and, potentially, Performance Related Pay - to name just a few.

All this has been against a backdrop of reduced funding, in real terms. We saw redundancies in teaching and support staff and various attempts to shift the capital costs onto business by means of the Private Funding Initiative - a sort of privatisation of the building stock by the back door.

These changes show some of the pressures that teachers and schools have been under. But these merely compound what has become an almost impossible task to perform, because, over the years, we have ceased to value our teachers. We, Society, have blamed them for our own inadequacies as parents and have failed to provide them with the right environment to carry out their profession. We have almost removed the tag of 'professional' by the way that we have criticised them.

Conditions of Service

The problems the profession faces go right across the board. In secondary education, the non-contact time that used to exist has been whittled away as budgetary factors have bitten. Proscription in the curriculum has removed some of the creativity that enables teachers to bring subjects to life. But it is in the Primary Sector that the biggest changes are now needed if we are to empower teachers to get the best out of tomorrow's professionals.

Good teachers in sound classrooms with the right equipment must be the aim for all schools. In order to perform her, and in the primary world it is principally her, work, a teacher needs to prepare, resource, deliver and round off every lesson. With 10 subjects to address weekly to up to 30 children this takes 60 or more hours to be done conscientiously. Would things be different if the role of Primary School Teacher were a predominantly male one?

On top of this, preparation, with differentiation, means fresh material to be researched. With no non-contact time at all in most of the smaller schools, all of the cutting, sticking, mounting and marking is carried out after hours. Nor are Saturdays and Sundays the refuge of peace and tranquility that they should be - the opportunity to recharge batteries that others enjoy.

All this would have been true if the curriculum were static and the teacher was able to brush up last year's lessons for a new generation. When the curriculum is changed - from subject work to topic work, and back again - from Dearing Hours to reduced Dearing Hours to Numeracy Hours and Literacy Hours - the additional work that teachers have to do, merely to stand still is immense.

Add to this the fact that each new intake will have its own peculiarities which need to be catered for and that this year's class will have individual children with individual needs.

Improvement in quality of learning comes from carrying out tasks, evaluating the impact, revising the task and going through the cycle again. Every enforced change breaks that quality cycle and sets progress back. Many recent initiatives were untrialled or trialled with heavy incentives to enable them to be successful. The same cash outlay per pupil evaporated when the initiative was rolled out nationwide.

The first major improvement in the conditions of service for our teachers must be to allow them time and space to work as professionals. Give them stability in the curriculum to allow changes to evolve. The second will come from the first. As we see teachers being allowed to be professionals, so we will start to treat them like professionals, showing respect where due.

Experts in the field of Human Resources are now beginning to acknowledge that working for more than 50 hours per week is counterproductive. One Suffragan Bishop has advised his Diocesan Bishop that he should consider doing less. As Christians we have a duty to teachers to allow them quality of life. We need to provide increased resources within the primary sector so that teachers can have the classroom support and non-contact time to achieve that aim.

Public Attitudes and Support

Frequently the failure of some aspect of children's education been blamed in the press or by politicians on the teachers. When they really want to stick the knife in they use phrases like 'trendy teachers' or 'modern techniques'. I am concerned about the drip, drip effect on morale from this. What are the motives of those who say these things?

Looking at one aspect, we get an insight into the situation. The introduction of the literacy hour has been designed to raise the level of literacy. Teachers have been blamed for the poor standards of literacy and so a 'back to basics' change has been introduced into the curriculum. Does this solve the underlying problem?

How has society has moved away from former values. Firstly, we have been living through a communication revolution. Television, video and the Internet mean that books are no longer the prime sources of information. We must identify ways of changing the things we teach or rejuvenating the teaching of the things that we value - having proved that their valuation is justified.

Second, more couples are both working and unlike previous generations are living away from grandparents. When parents come home tired, the habit of reading to their children becomes lost. Parents find it difficult to create time for reading. In some instances there ceases to be any parental support for their children.

Let us be honest, as a society, about what we want our teachers to do. If we want them to compensate for our inadequacies, let us create a framework where they can perform those tasks. Otherwise, let us embark on a training programme for parents to enable them to do properly the task that they have been called to do.

To show how bad things have become for some teachers, I have heard of a recent case where a teacher had a student teacher working with them. In the first week when the student teacher was doing her teaching practice, and hence was preparing the lessons, the teacher felt guilty in the evenings because she wasn't having to work to prepare. She should have felt liberated! She said she was so used to working flat out that she found relaxing stressful!

This must be a warning that things are not right with the way that we treat the profession.

Tim Hind is a member of General Synod. He served on the Diocesan Board of Education in Bath & Wells and as Vice Chairman of the of Governors of the Kings of Wessex Church of England VC Community School in Cheddar. He is married to a primary school teacher.

 

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