How to fix education on the cheap (and why no-one’s talking about it)

The British education system is currently the third highest funded in the world, our teachers work the longest hours in Europe, and yet we’re still lagging behind on the Pisa rankings. On the back of this data, it would be reasonable to assume that the problem has nothing to do with funding, or the effort put in behind the scenes.

The truth is that the problem with British education has nothing to do with how we’re teaching our children at all, but it has everything to do with what we’re teaching them.

The best summary of what I’m saying here would be to recount two stories from kids I’ve taught over the past few years:

I once asked a top set Year 11 boy, from an Outstanding school in Richmond, how well he thought his education had prepared him for his life. He said, “You know what, sir, it’s a disaster. I reckon I could calculate the velocity of a ball dropped from a tall building on a windy day, but I couldn’t tell you how to work out the APR on a credit card.”

More recently, I’ve worked at a struggling school in Brighton where a Year 10 girl said she was scared of a recession, “and I don’t even know what one is!”

The brutal truth is that the biggest blocker to students’ learning is disengagement from what they’re being taught. Teachers work tirelessly to bring their subjects to life, but that effort could be completely re-directed if we worked with a system that taught them anything that they were actually interested in. It is insane that we go to them with a curriculum that doesn’t include the basic skills or knowledge that they’ll need to function in a modern world.

The truth is that teenagers are very interested in anything that they can see the point in, but they can’t see the point in 99% of what they’re being taught at the moment. And this is leading to a disengagement that is immeasurably damaging their educations, our schools’ results, and wider society.

Normally, when I raise the idea of a useful-skills based education, people begin talking about working class kids doing plastering courses, but I want to be very clear that this is NOT what I mean. It’s not just the struggling students who are suffering; and in many ways it’s the brightest who are being let down the most.

There is no reason why we teach them language analysis by using Shakespeare, with his strange 16th Century syntax and obscure Greco-Roman references, instead of teaching them to interrogate the subtle spin of the modern media, an understanding of which will stand behind how they understand the world they live in. It seems ludicrous to prioritise teaching them how to calculate the internal angles of a triangle, while ignoring GDP or APR or inflation. It is insane that we don’t ever teach them the core values of the political Left and Right and then complain when they don’t seem interested in politics. And how we can live in a society where ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, without ever teaching them what the law actually is goes some way beyond my comprehension.

The list goes on (and there a complete version of it here), but I do not believe you can overstate just how much of a game changer this would be.

So why isn’t this higher on the political agenda? Well, as far as I can tell, there are two main reasons…

Firstly, the teachers. I’m in the unusual position of being someone who became a teacher despite loathing my own education. Most teachers enter the profession because they loved their schooling and this fact makes change difficult for the industry: teachers will naturally try to preserve and protect what they loved. Opposition from the teaching unions blocks the Labour Party from any involvement in the debate, and stops schools making a fuss about it themselves.

And alongside that, what’s blocking the Tories, is the ruling elite’s desire to create a population who are intelligent enough to perform a task, but not educated enough to question why they’re doing it.

If our education began producing young people who were smart enough to interrogate the modern world, who were able to ask questions of those in power, who were given a stable enough foundation to actually begin affecting the world around, them then the ruling elite’s days would be numbered.

So there we have it: an education system drifting into irrelevance, that’s drowning children in mundanity while failing to prepare them for the world they’re entering in; but one that’s that’s perpetuated by the teachers and the policy makers.

But the real tragedy is that the students want change – ask any of them – and they’d work a hell of a lot harder, and achieve a hell of a lot more, if they could see the point in what they were being taught….