Saturday, 22 January 2011

Britain: Nation of Failure - a partial answer to Birbalsingh

Like many, I've been musing on some of the many announcements and provocations that have been said by or about the government's education policy in recent weeks.

When Nick Gibb, the man in charge of the new curriculum is said to have declared that he wants maths to look like the 1950s style education he received at prep school, with content such as 4-digit column methods by the age of 7, I'm concerned.

When Michael Gove talks about the current curriculum being jam-packed and yet needing to contain a 'minimum specified knowledge', I'm... well... hesitant.

And when Katharine Birbalsingh writes that teachers are trapped in a broken education system, I'm confused.

You see, my (admittedly limited) experience would suggest that all three are, at best, wrong, or, at worst, lying.

Personally I think I must have had a similar experience to Gibb and Gove. I learned column methods at an early age. I am replete with facts, much to the annoyance of my family and friends. However I regret that I didn't talk more at primary school. I regret that I didn't learn the skills of debate and persuasion because I was so busy learning facts. I'd have been a much more effective teacher and leader earlier if I had had a greater education in 'people skills' that had started at Primary School.

And with maths, even though I knew a lot of facts and methods, I never really started to understand them until I was teaching the national strategies. Then, I started to 'get' how everything linked together and was able to pass that on to teachers. Mike Askew (et. al) finds just this in his review of maths teaching back in 1997 (right at the end of the previous conservative government). He finds that teachers that can make connections between concepts have the greatest impact. See that - you've got have the concepts - but they're not the most important thing - the connections between the concepts are even more important.

It's a bit like trying to build a house without mortar. The bricks are clearly vital, but without the mortar it will just leak and fall down. It's just too simplistic to say we only need knowledge - a point that I'll come back to.

Unlike Nick Gibb, I received my knowledge based curriculum at a state primary school. It served me really well. And everyone in my class. Despite being in the heart of a council estate that is the 10% most deprived in the country, all of my friends from my class went on to get good educations, one became a golf professional, some went on to university One even went to Oxford.

Go the state sector. Go knowledge-based curriculum you might say.

However I received a shock when I left my primary school: There were two other classes in my year group.

Another 60 children.

60 pupils of the same age who had been kept from the 'more able' ones for their entire school career. We had been isolated from them, and they from us. Now let me make it clear that there were children who had struggled in my class, so I can't imagine what academic standards were exhibited in the other classes. It certainly represents Britain as a nation of failure. At least two thirds of children who weren't even getting close to 'making the grade'.

I say 'I can't imagine', but actually I can now. You see I now teach on the same deprived council estate where I was educated myself. What I see is 80% of children 'making the grade'. 80% - what an improvement from 25 years ago when only 33% were doing so. Some of their parents do struggle with either, literacy or numeracy and there is a greater group of grandparents who have the same issues. So we have an education system now that is improving literacy rates in communities - creating generation after generation more literate than the rest.

So - concerned, hesitant, confused - I've been listening to the likes of Gibb, Gove and Birbalsingh and have been wondering what they are trying to do.

My conclusion is that the really want a more simplistic system. Let's face it  - it would be easier (and therefore cheaper) to just test for knowledge and measure schools that way.

Unfortunately, I believe that as we live in a highly complex society, we need a complex education system to improve it. A simple system will work for some, but will leave many as failures. The children and students who can't attain the 'minimum specified level' will, at an early age, discover that they are failures and they will switch off from learning. This will start a cycle of failure which will see them fail academically every year until they finally escape from the education system which has so brutalised them. The success of society will be dependent on those few that do success to be the kind of big-hearted people who are willing to 'give something back', supporting those people who have failed.

At the Conservative Party Conference last year, the room fell uncomfortably quiet when David Cameron was talking about his vision for a 'Big Society' (yet there were claps and cheers for pretty much everything else). If elitism is going to work, it can only work if the elitists are all philanthropists - if they actually believe the 'Big Society' thing. While I'm happy to believe that Cameron might believe it, the rest of his party seem yet to be convinced.

But as the new education system creates less 'haves' and more 'have-nots', it is only the big-hearted, Big Society, elitist 'haves' that can stop all of Britain suffering as it slowly becomes a nation of failure.

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