Sunday 7 August 2016

Education needs better ideas than grammar schools

There seems to be a debate about grammar schools. I don't think it matters. A childs education is largely contingent on the amount of effort put in by the parents. A school can make a difference but only if the teaching is good. Grammar schools are no guarantee of that. It just so happens that if parents care enough to get their kids into a selective school they will be mixing with other kids whose parents also give a shit. Obviously that will bring about better results.

Personally, I don't like the idea of grammar schools. I think it leads to social warehousing where the comprehensive schools are stripped of their bright pupils, creating sink hole schools full of kids whose parent simply do not care. Meanwhile, grammar schools gain prestige where it is assumed that one is necessarily better educated by way of what school you went to. This is how we get the "Tim Nice-but-dim" types in the civil service and in all of the top jobs. Stratification in education ultimately damages social mobility in my view.

I think what we have to look at is improving all schools. That is somewhat more challenging. A bad system will lead to bad teaching. If teachers are forced to teach to a test, and to satisfy tick box criteria then stats culture takes hold where it doesn't matter if kids are leaning anything just so long as the metrics say they are. It leads to uninspiring teaching and it drives good teachers out of the system completely. And that is usually the product of state run and maintained schools. They become political footballs to me measured and played with, much like the NHS. Ultimately it is for the parents to judge whether the teaching is effective, not the state.

Somehow we have drifted into a situation where parents withdraw from their role as educators of their own children and consider education the job of the school. The school is only half of it and is mainly there for the purpose of socialising children. A good education comes from knowledgeable and active, curious parents.

Ideally schools must engage pupils. Many drop out of the system not because they are incapable but because they are not challenged, under-stimulated and bored. How can schools adapt to the needs of children when they also have to satisfy a state criteria?

My own education informs my view of stats driven teaching. I was never at all interested in space and astronomy. To this day I find it a deeply dull subject. But somewhere there is a report card showing that I have understood the concepts and and passed the "learning objectives". This is because a science teacher under pressure to push up her averages sat down with me for an hour and explained all the concepts in list form and ticked off the boxes as I confirmed my understanding. None of it has stuck with me and that is not teaching.

Nor is squinting at an OHP to copy out notes about oxbow lakes. I failed Geography simply because I regarded it as thoroughly tedious, yet when taken as a whole the field of geography is and should be one of the most fascinating. It dips into the deeply political and the social and the historical and it ought to be exciting. Having some dullwitted junior teacher have us watch dated Open University videos is an abandonment of a vital subject.

To teach anything effectively you have to have a passion for a subject. It's the only way you can bring dry subjects to life. Conveyor belt teachers straight off the production line who have no real experience outside of the education system are neither role models nor especially inspiring people. Children need far more exposure to real experts in the same way that university students are. Half the challenge of teaching anything is getting kids to see the point of it. Learning is addictive if you are learning toward an objective. In that regard kids need to be able to set their own learning agenda and teachers should be making core subjects relevant to their interests.

What we need is to pull education away from managerialism and integrate schools the wider community and the world of work. Presently they are run as sealed off units that barely interact leaving young people completely bewildered and directionless when they leave school, not knowing what is out there and not knowing what is even possible. Hence why so many are so lacking in ambition.

It seems to me that resurrecting grammar schools is yet one more sign that the establishment is completely out of ideas. Everywhere you look politicians are dusting off tired ideas like renationalising the railways or introducing proportional representation. There is no radicalism or originality and no political courage in seeing through new ideas. As it happens I really like the idea of free schools but I think they will need time to establish and will have to fail a few times in order to learn from their mistakes and innovate.

The problem, as ever, is that those working within the system have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Politicians and authorities cannot resist meddling and the idea that education would be out of state control is anathema to them. And so both sides of the debate dust off their tired old canards and we never see any real improvements.

To get the best education system possible we are going to have to free it of state control and we are going to have to slaughter a few sacred cows. We are also going to have to change the culture where parents are held to account for their lack of input. Schools are only as good as the parental involvement and far too many think that just throwing money at the problem will fix it. That doesn't work. All we get is more waste while we end up overpaying bad teachers who should be drummed out of the profession.

Ultimately I think social mobility should be a main concern. There are too many glass ceilings where your potential is governed more by your class than your ability. We are wasting a vast natural resource in letting talented people slip through the net and condemning them to mediocre lives just because they didn't go to the right school.

I think on balance that if we return to grammar schools we'll just promote middle class ghettos which through sharp elbowed parents will get the lions share of the resources which will be yet another middle class subsidy. Ordinary schools will suffer and we will be engineering an underclass that will ultimately lead to a resurgence of inner city slums where crime is rife.

You can try and persuade me to the contrary as I am open minded about this but it strikes me that grammar schools is just an obsolete sticking plaster idea when what we actually need is a bold revolution in education with some completely fresh thinking.

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