What I’ve Learnt About Education

To get through this let’s start with some assumptions and then we can take those and explain what I think about them. There are two scales for this. The macro and the micro, so how education considers the masses and how it treats the individual. Given my thinking style the following is likely to be a mess of thoughts and ideas rather than a coherent essay!

The Macro

I’m going to let you into a little secret. This is going to be controversial although maybe not that surprising if you’ve ever thought about education.

No one really knows what the education system is for, and no one is willing to decide the reason we do this.

Here’s my reasoning for this statement. No one has decided to state what examinations are for. What is their purpose. You might have some ideas about this but I don’t recall a Secretary Of State ever really telling us what the system is for. Let’s have a look:

Is the system to educate children so they know things? In this case they would be allowed to follow their own choices for learning and encouraged and supported by teachers and staff while progressing through whatever curriculum was attractive. Pupils would be supported to make progress and encouraged to develop their understanding. Learning would be at a speed which suits the individual and academic inquisitiveness encouraged. I don’t think you would have examinations. Just a written report about what how that individual could use their knowledge. This is not what happens in schools.

Is the system to measure pupils as a guide for future employers? If so then we would want a system that allows us to measure in a standard way each child across cohorts and the years. There would be a system in place that FAIRLY gave us a list of outcomes about each child. This is not what happens in schools. The measuring system is examinations and the results of those are used to measure individuals and schools which can’t be done effectively for each when the system is split like that, ask a statistician. We don’t have a system of examinations which compares across years because the results “keep going up”.

The government considers education to be a service which can be measured and that measurement is mostly the examination results of the individuals in the system. But how do you show progress? By progress I mean getting better examination results and not actual progress. The examination system is rigged to show better results each year because the exam boards are in competition with each other. Our current examination system does not do any of the things you think it does. The grade inflation – APPROVED BY THE REGULATOR – means that the grades don’t reflect an individual’s ability and they don’t reflect a school. The system is broken and no one seems to want to attempt to admit it.

One method for clearing up what the examinations do is to state that the results every year will be norm referenced. So, the top 5% will get a particular grade, the next 10% the next grade and so on. This would mean that the examination results each year would be the same. It is not the case that people ten years ago were any dumber than those today. If exam results were scored this way then the results a pupil achieves would reflect their ability compared to the rest of the cohort. BUT, this method would not allow the results to show “progress”. Government couldn’t say that their interventions with the system are working because the examination results would be static forever. There would need to be other ways to measure the success of policy changes and they would be academic studies which, because they can control for effects, would show that policy changes do fuck all to results and teachers just try their best most of the time.

For me, as an educator I would like the system to encourage personal growth and intellectual curiousness in people. I would like students to want to learn and to be fascinated by whatever aspects of the universe they want. This can’t be measured and so is highly unlikely to ever become a governmental system because every right wing government in my lifetime [which is all of them post 1979] wants education measured, to spit out students with certain letters or numbers to show how they can be economically viable.

On a gross scale we expect the education system to develop academically, and with knowledge, the youth of the current generation. We want them to know things useful to themselves and we then want to measure them as a guidance for how they can be used within society to progress the zeitgeist. We want people to have a list of “things I’m good at” and we want them to be able to use that knowledge. We want people to add to society, to be useful. We want people to be motivated and to learn. We want the system to be fair and for all people to have the same opportunities.

The recent experience of Covid Lockdowns showed me more than any other time that the education system is firstly a childcare system for allowing parents to contribute economically to society while their children are not with them. While I consider that a by-product of the education system it is clear that parents fucking love the fact that they don’t have to spend all day with their children and that schools can take them and look after them. Pre-Covid I don’t think I would have mentioned this as my first point but that is how it felt with comments on social media and generally the new and old media going on about how hard it is to have your offspring constantly around at home.

The government seems to think that the education system is a linear thing forcing knowledge into children to make them economically productive. Hence all the moaning about lost learning recently and generally down-talking students and pupils. It appears that to the government the education system is a “putting knowledge in kids” system and a childcare system. It’s down to teachers and educators to reach the economic worth of children and this is measured by examination results. The job that we do is measured by examinations. This system has only been around for around twenty years, before that I think schools were seen as successful if they didn’t burn down each year.

In the grand scheme of things we know that you should be careful what you measure to garner success. Schools have become objects of pushing exam results rather than education. It’s all about making the school look as though it’s doing a good job because good results mean a good school. I don’t think good results mean a good school. In the overall sense there is also an issue with random variations in results being used to push particular interventions. Consider that natural variation is a thing and so results just will vary from year to year. Also, consider that schools are constantly measuring children and comparing their results through the years against a benchmark from when they were eleven years old. There is NO leeway for individuality in this.

Some schools have numbers people. Staff whose job is to analyse the numbers and results as pupils progress through the years. In my career I have met many of these staff and only a few actually understood numbers and statistics. Many places even outsource their number manipulation to companies whose market did not exist twenty years ago. This number tracking is meant to allow schools to track pupils and intervene where necessary while also tracking staff and cohorts to ensure they are making progress. Well, that’s great you might think. Managers in school can see which staff are doing a good job, which staff aren’t, which pupils are making good progress and which pupils aren’t. Here’s the thing: if you’re good as a “middle manager” then you know your staff, you know their weaknesses, you can intervene and help staff. If you are a vaguely human teacher then you know when pupils are struggling, you know when pupils are doing well. We don’t need this layer of bureaucracy to help us do our job. Amazing, I know, but the management intervention just isn’t needed.

Schools are clearly a place to dump children for childcare so parents can contribute to the economy of the country. It genuinely feels as though that is the primary by-product of our education system. Just look at all the shit that followed schools closing for the Covid lockdowns we had. Parents seemed unable to cope with having their children around all the time and the economy ground to a halt because children had to be looked after. I honestly thought that learning stuff just happens to be the least important thing that education does.

The education system has never been about learning for learning’s sake, no matter how much idealists like to say it.

The Micro

Let’s look at what we might expect for a pupil attending a school. I’m writing this from the perspective of a parent and interactions with parents of pupils I teach. I know that I would like to think that all staff at a school have my child’s interests as their main focus. I would want them to understand my child’s personality, I want them to understand the motivations and weaknesses of my child and I want them to work tirelessly to help my child achieve their “potential”. More about “potential” later.

In the day to day running of lessons in a secondary school I can assure you there is no way that I, as a teacher, am able to do my best for every pupil all the time. I teach classes of around 30 pupils for an hour at a time. Five classes a day means 150 pupils. All of whom we would like to think I work to improve their knowledge each day. The reality is nothing at all like that. Teachers are human. Pupils are human. Some days it’s all we can do to get through a lesson and get to the end of the day. Some days everything flows really well and we might consider we have done a good job. Some days it’s a heap of shit and you know you’ve done terrible and write that day off.

In the fixed period of time that exists in a lesson I can focus on a few pupils. There is no chance I can help all pupils to the same extent. You would like to think that I understand all of the weaknesses of the individuals and have the chance to boost them all through a lesson. But let’s look at this. I teach for around twenty to thirty minutes each lesson, longer in sixth form lessons. I then set some work, so by the time the pupils are actually doing something there might be twenty minutes of practice time. In that time I’m working to evaluate at the class level what they understood. The individual gets lost in that. I have, at most, thirty seconds to help an individual if they are all to be treated the same. This is just not going to happen.

I have conversations with parents where they ask what specific weaknesses their child has with a topic or subject. You honestly think I can keep a matrix in my head of which topics for which kid for around two hundred children? I might be special, mentally, but I am definitely not that special. That’s why we hand examinations back to pupils, so they can evaluate what they can do and what they can’t.

Parents want to know that I have every pupil’s progress in my main focus. While I can do that, kind of, sort of, it’s not as good as parents think. The government has policies which force me to focus on a few in class and consider their needs. It could be those at the top or it could be those at the bottom or it could be those with special needs. All of this energy is lost for the person in the middle. I honestly don’t think I can focus on all the groups the school policy forces me to.

Here’s the rub. Education comes down to the pupils. Humans are complicated lumps of sentient meat and having to focus every day for five hours a day is an impossibility. It’s hard work. Pupils don’t and can’t do that. They have to be teased and coaxed into working on school stuff. That’s all fine but with my subject as soon as you are a little behind the rest of everything is going to be a struggle. We change topics and move things around to spread out the types of work we do but in the grand scheme of things other factors are always a bigger influence on pupils that teachers in an individual lesson. This has been understood for many years. I don’t understand why it isn’t understood by government or most school management.

There may be some terrible teachers out there. In fact there are. I’ve worked with some. But you are always going to have a ten percent tail. They are always going to be there. You can’t really do anything about that tail. I know that schools pretty much hope that they leave at some point and go somewhere else. For me, my input to teaching relies on my energy levels and some times that’s high and others it’s low. I probably have a lower “fuck it” threshold that most, but then I think my lessons go OK and my pupils broadly do OK. Oh, OK is not an acceptable outcome. OK just means middling and so all lessons are meant to be excellent or something similar. Gone are the days when OK means OK. Being OK is fine for me, but then I’m not a manager.

POTENTIAL. This word gets bandied about as though all pupils have some lofty goals they should be aiming for. In reality it means fuck all. What happens if you reach your potential? Can you stop. Is “potential” a limiting factor? I absolutely hate that word in the education context. As a teacher I want pupils to do the best they can for the majority of the time. All while recognising that humans are complicated and sometimes this just doesn’t happen. That child has potential just means we think they have the capacity to learn a lot – more likely they have the capacity to get good examination results which isn’t always the same as learning. “Reach your potential” – I hate it.

The Secret

In ten years from your GCSEs no one is going to give a shit about what you got. They open doors initially but they don’t slam them shut for you. There are plenty of future opportunities to get where you want, you just need to find your motivation.

This is communication number 1941, so here are some things that happened that year:

  • An earthquake kills 1200 in Saudi Arabia.
  • The valley of geysers is discovered in Kamchatka.
  • The first British jet is flown.
  • A lot of pretty depressing holocaust stuff.