A Long Overdue Change in Education

A Long Overdue Change in Education

A while ago I promised a group of year 10 students that they could have a debate once they’d finished some work. They did and I wrote a simple statement on the board: “We live in a capitalist democracy.” I explained what both words meant and then, underneath it, I wrote: “So why aren’t economics or politics on the curriculum?”

I was interested by their response as much as anything; I wanted to know whether they cared and what they thought the reasons might be. For the former, I can say that they did. They desperately want to know more about the world around them, whether it’s understanding interest rates, inflation, or international trade. One student confessed that she was scared of a recession despite not knowing what one was.

The reasons were equally telling. A large group saw education as an oppressive regime designed to keep the truth from them. There was talk of an omnipotent “they” who wanted to keep society in the dark so that “they” could remain in power. A lot of students talk of “them” and “they” – referencing some kind of illuminati-style group who control the world. It’s terrifying how accepted that vision is, and, despite it being a long way from the truth, we simply cannot challenge it with the current curriculum.

More recently, I starting preparing a scheme of work in which some year 9s would write an article exploring whether a second referendum could be democratically acceptable. The trouble was, it became very clear that the students would need at least a passing acquaintance with trade tariffs, electoral law, and the history of The Troubles in Ireland – none of which they had.

They were all very aware of Brexit, but, swamped by homework, social media and the whole process of being a teenager, they didn’t spend their evenings obsessively watching the news in the way that I did. As a result, there weren’t just gaps in their understanding, there was a chasm. And I couldn’t bridge that gap, bearing in mind that my focus had to be teaching them to write and not teaching them about Brexit.

The truth is that the world is changing very fast, and we are no longer capable of keeping our young people ignorant of the fact. Via social media feeds, students today are acutely aware of issues, but with nowhere to turn except YouTube they follow rabbit holes and come to all kinds of strange conclusions. They discuss their views amongst themselves, but without a foundation in understanding their rhetoric is passionate but ill-informed, and we must take responsibility for that.

And this isn’t something that can be combatted with what passes as ‘news for young people.’ News isn’t celebrity gossip, viral clips, or some kind of parred down version of Brexit that can fit into two minutes, as presented by someone who looks like they should be on Celebrity Love Island. That’s everything the news isn’t; that’s everything that’s wrong with the media today. The reality of the news, for them and us, is that it is an attempt to understand the narrative of the world we live in, in order that we can hold those in power accountable for their actions; and on almost every level, the news cannot be understood without a grounding in politics and economics.

I recognise that education can’t be expected to keep up with change in real time, but the core values of the political left and right, or the relationship between interest rates and inflation, or the importance of trade tariffs on employment can hardly be called passing fads. They’re central to modern life and will have a real and direct impact on the lives of the young people we educate.

In a democratic society, there is absolutely no reason why a young person should be expected to know all about Shakespeare, Pythagoras, cloud formations, osmosis, and the history of the Black Death, while not being able to say anything how parliament works. A fifteen-year-old in our society could be forgiven for thinking that being able to spell onomatopoeia is more important than knowing anything about institutions that govern us.

Students will be given the vote at 18. At the moment there is no requirement that they ever study politics. We live in a world that is driven by the needs of the economy, and yet there is no expectation that they understand how it works. This is simply not good enough.

So why don’t we teach it?

The truth is that schools across the country will often try to build these ideas into PSHE lessons, but there is a lot to fit in. Unless politics and economics are put on the curriculum, in a compulsory, assessed and formal manner, schools cannot justify investing time and effort into really teaching them. Nor can you cover the political spectrum in an hour a week, while also fitting in the raft of other issues that PSHE needs to address.

I understand the argument that putting politics on the curriculum is risky, given the political leaning of most teachers; would the right wing be given a fair hearing? In response to this, I’d remind you that it’s not hard to ensure impartiality when you’re managing the assessment, and these would be set by the exam boards who should be a-political; and also, remember that we’re dealing with teenagers who will more often than not respond to dogmatic teaching by rebelling against it. Teenagers are capable of making up their own minds, families will continue to lend their opinions, and as long as the assessment is unbiased the learning will only allow students to enter into the discussion.

And regardless of the objections – which aren’t insurmountable – we have to accept that this kind of change is long overdue, and that it is more important now than it has ever been before. The world is changing fast:

The rise of populist politics is a genuine threat to a democratic system that’s already reeling from multi-national corporations’ belief that they are so far removed from the society that they need not even pay tax. We’re in danger of losing democracy itself; and people from across the economic and political spectrum need to understand that educating the masses is the only way we can stem this tide.

Automation is real, jobs will be lost, and it’s not inconceivable that the whole idea of work has to be re-thought. Can we really keep the process of earning money through labour so central to a society where so many jobs are set to vanish? How will we reorganise a future where ‘what do you do?’ means something other than asking your profession?

And climate change is also very real, and it could be catastrophic. We simply cannot allow a generation to grow up believing that 16th Century verse is more important than understanding a real and present threat to the future of all life on planet earth.

We need bring about a paradigm shift in the way we are educating our young people, and we need to do it with the kind of urgency we developed during the war, when entire industries were turned on their heads within months. We did that then because we knew that the threat of the Nazis was real. But the threats I’ve listed above are also real, and rapidly approaching, and without genuine institutional change our nation – and even, possibly, our civilisation – will not survive; and for once that isn’t hyperbole.

Regardless of what happens with Brexit, it would be criminally remiss to ignore the importance of political and economic education in the world today. We need to be producing students who are more aware, more capable global citizens, and who are better equipped to dealing with the troubled times we are living in.

And the strange thing about all this is that I genuinely believe that an update to education, which would begin with the introduction of politics and economics as core subjects, would be welcomed by the public, now more than ever. Middle class parents are often genuinely bemused that nothing is different from their day, while working class parents are angry – and often use it to support disengagement from their children.

I know that the world is distracted by the very same problems I hope to help, but this is why now is exactly the moment to push it. No-one could disagree that a deeper understanding of politics or economics wouldn’t help heal the wounds our country has suffered post-Brexit; no-one could dispute that a better understanding of the role of lobbyists wouldn’t help us deal with climate change; and no-one could argue that a better understanding of economics wouldn’t help put pressure on governments to close down the kind of tax loopholes that are letting corporations become unmanageably powerful.

Regardless of your leaning, teaching politics and economics can only help empower people to deal with an insecure future. And in this respect, the only people who should be worried are the kind of people who have something to lose from creating a society of well-educated individuals who are capable of making rational decisions in the ballot box. Which means now is the time to find out whether or not those year 10s had a point after-all.

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

Despite the common complaints that it’s under-resourced, the British education system is actually one of the highest funded in the world, our teachers work some of the longest hours in the world, 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 isn’t 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 system, 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 underpin 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 can we live in a society where ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, without ever teaching them what the law actually is?

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….

On coalitions and socialism

On coalitions and socialism

At the heart of western politics is a simple divide: Left and Right. Amongst other things, the Right believe that competition will drive society forward, while the Left believe that by working together the sum total of our achievements will be greater.

The Right thrives by dividing people, and then saying ‘look, we told you that humans are inherently selfish! The Right is the only system that fairly reflects the real way that humans are. Capitalism is only natural and fair.’ This is the world we live in. And if we’re not careful, advances in technology combined with an unstable environment will make those at the top of the system powerful to the point of being totalitarian.

And yet, the left is dying at the moment.

The problem is that in the past, the Left – in Russia and China – has tried to enforce a cooperative environment. This was forever doomed because you can’t enforce equality – simply because, by definition, whoever is doing he enforcing isn’t equal to the rest. Unfortunately, a lot of the current Labour party still believe that the only way for the Left to succeed is by enforcing their beliefs rather than demonstrating them.

But the truth is that the only way the Left can succeed at the moment, and it must – we are currently threatened by the Far-Right in a way that hasn’t been seen since the ‘30s – it must lead the way by displaying the cooperative, socialist values that it holds at its heart and, before anything else, this means proving that people can work together.

The Left would have us believe that bankers can give up their bonuses for cleaners they’ve never met and have no personal connection to; they want the rich to share their wealth with the NHS, a place where smokers and non-smokers are received equally, while regular joggers and the chronically obese are treated without judgement; they want us to pay for the education of other people’s children, and put their own children into classes with them.

In a nutshell: the Left wants us all to get into bed with each other, and trust that, as a group, we will be stronger together.

But at the moment Labour party isn’t even prepared to get into bed with the Greens, a party who have repeatedly shown more of the kind of Left wing values that many people traditionally voted Labour to support! And they won’t countenance cooperation with the Liberal Democrats after they betrayed everyone by working within (arguably taming) the Tories during 2010-2015 coalition. And don’t mention the SNP…

I’m not disputing that some Green party members are fanatical (perhaps with good cause,) or that Tim Farron’s views on Homosexuality were retrograde, or that working with the SNP would lead to all kinds of challenges in Scotland, but learning how to work with other people – despite their flaws – is exactly the challenge that Socialism must overcome if it is to ever prove that its most basic philosophical belief is even possible.

If the Labour Party can’t learn to work with other political parties then they’re really just proving that Socialism itself doesn’t work.

In their defence, behind all this is a party who are hell bent on dividing us. The Tories will divide parliament and then use a weak opposition, combined with a First Part the Post electoral system (that is designed to only work with an effective opposition,) to tighten their grip on power. They will divide us all and then introduce oppression to maintain social order in a society they divided.

If there is a future for us all it relies on society learning to be social, and if the Labour Party can’t learn to work with those with whom it shares its house then they can’t display the kind of values that we need, and, what’s more, they have no right to call themselves socialists.

You can’t enforce cooperation. You can’t enforce respect for other people. But you can display it, and, have faith, others will follow…

The problem’s the matter, not the method

The problem’s the matter, not the method

Two years ago I left a successful career as a copywriter to become an English teacher, and now I feel like I’ve entered Room 101. It wouldn’t be so bad except that I’m expected to teach 1984 while standing in the middle of it…

Not long ago I saw a grown woman break down in tears because she’d spent the afternoon desperately trying to teach Macbeth to a group of year tens who couldn’t care less about the Bard. In the end I comforted her in the only way I knew how and made it clear that it didn’t really matter, none of them would have any use for Shakespeare anyway. Through the tears she asked me why we even bothered, and I struggled to answer that.

Six months before I’d been asked to teach Midsummer Night’s Dream to a kid who’d not long moved here from Eastern Europe. He couldn’t speak modern English, but I was supposed to teach him the Elizabethan variant. He was just getting to grips with grammar, and I was turning it on its head.

I knew a teacher in London who claimed she could get a student a C in literature even if they couldn’t speak English. I’ve been reassured since then that she wouldn’t get away with that anymore because of the terminal examination system, though that doesn’t change the question of why we teach Shakespeare, with his topsy-turvy syntax and out-dated vocabulary, to kids who can’t master the modern language and will only find their lexicons expanded to include halberds, codpieces and perfectest reports.

Not long ago I put a range of people on the whiteboard and asked which one of them was most likely to vote for the Tory Party – we were doing an exercise in characterisation. The year tens sat in silence for a minute or two, until one asked who the Tory Party were. Another barked that it was obvious – they were something to do with the government… weren’t they? I smiled and reminded them that they’d have the vote in three years. They all agreed that they didn’t care, and, to my shame, I hoped it would stay that way. If they didn’t even know who the parties were, how could they be expected to make an educated choice on the subtleties of policy? Democracy’s great, but only if anyone’s being taught how to use it!

I put the matter to my then head of department who made it clear that educating them about the world wasn’t our job. Our job, he said, was to get them through their GCSEs. He offered to lead the class for a starter a week later, and made it clear to the kids that they’d be using what he taught them for the rest of their lives – right up to university, if any of them decided to go. In that moment I understood the depth of education’s aspirations: their job is to get them through as many exams as possible, and it ends after the final one. The world stops at the school gates. Teachers teach what they were taught, and if there are problems, they lie with the government, the parents or – worse still – with the kids themselves.

The idea that the problems with teaching lie with the kids reminds me of an old David Cronenberg horror called Dead Ringers in which a radical gynaecologist realises that his problems are because women are built in the wrong way. The simple truth is that the learning must service the kids, and although it’s possible for a dynamic teacher to keep a class enraptured with a well written shopping list, it’s not the most efficient way to work. In most cases kids aren’t engaging with what’s being taught, despite our best efforts, and the reason for this, I believe, is the matter, not the method.

So what if we changed it…

What if poetry was swapped for song lyrics, leaving Shelly, Byron and Keats shelved for Lennon, Dylan and Eminem? Because is it really ok to teach To His Coy Mistress or The Laboratory, but claim that rap is immoral? I’ve taught Cleaning Out My Closet and had the classroom in raptures – opening up and sharing their inner selves in a way that I’ve never managed with any of the Romantics. And I’m not saying it’s impossible to access a class with poetry from ages past, but it’s harder to emotionally engage a teenager when they’re completely divorced from the themes of the verse in front of them. In the same way, it’s possible to climb Everest with a ball and chain around your feet, but why would you bother? What are we trying to achieve by teaching them straight poetry when there is more fantastic, lyrical verse being produced today than at any other time in human history? Again, I’m not having a go at the classics but I’ve had more success sharing ideas about depression using Elbow’s Some Riot than I ever have with Keats’ Ode To Melancholy.

And what if plays were replaced with film? What if, rather than studying the language of the stage, students learnt how to read narrative and character using one of the biggest and most influential industries in the modern world? And I don’t say this because I don’t like theatre, but I did once know a 15 year old who thought that the robots in Transformers were real, and I had to explain to a whole class how Avatar was really about the damage that we’re doing the rain forests. “Sir,” one said. “They’re nine foot tall and blue. It’s not even about this planet. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”

And what if we replaced an emphasis on reading fiction – which is vastly overrated in education – for an understanding of press bias, the role of advertising, and the language of PR managers and lobbyists? It’s shambolic that most kids leave school knowing what onomatopoeia is but have no idea how a well-worded press release can make someone doubt human involvement in global warming, despite all evidence to the contrary. I once heard a stroppy, smart year 10 complaining about To Kill a Mockingbird saying: “So racism’s bad, tell me something I don’t know!” Given the fact that he was Indian, liberal, well educated and absolutely lovely I did rather think it was a case of preaching to the converted. Alongside the rest of the class, though, he came alive when I did a ten-minute plenary and explained who the Anonymous group were. Suddenly they all had challenging opinions, and as they left one asked me what actually happened in the financial crash. It broke my heart to know that I’d never have the time to explain it.

And it’s not that I’m putting down any of the classic art forms, I just feel very strongly that in order to genuinely prepare our children for the world they’re entering into we should, at least sometimes, refer to the world that they’re entering into. I recently taught Frankenstein to a set of year 7s and although they embraced the philosophical question of what makes something truly alive, the class didn’t really come alive itself until someone started surreptitiously passing round a copy of Blade Runner, and I’d shown them HAL’s death scene in Kubrick’s 2001. In the end I had to apologise for the fact we needed to return to the two hundred year old novel that many of them would have loved to study at degree level, but didn’t want to read at the time.

I find it astonishing that we teach centuries old texts, when the world is drowning in intelligent, relevant, mind blowing, world changing art, and science is taking steps that are both profoundly dangerous and awe inspiring in their scope. But the kids don’t know any of this. Most of them don’t even know who the Tory Party are, and some think Transformers are real.

I am aware that a lot of this was covered while Gove was making his changes a while ago, but my experiences in teaching have led me to believe that Gove was really only giving the educational establishment what they secretly want. The reality is that while pay, pensions and working conditions made headlines during Gove’s push the idea of dropping Shakespeare, poetry and an emphasis on Victorian literature didn’t. At its heart this is because the teaching establishment still connects the classics with rising standards when this simply isn’t the case.

The truth is that English teachers like poetry, Shakespeare, Dickens and Tennessee Williams. They like them because they were taught them, and they became teachers because they liked school. It’s a self-preserving model, and it’s tough to break down. Teachers don’t want to embrace change anymore than the government does, but someone needs to push this through because at the moment the world is changing fast, and the kids we’re sending into it aren’t even remotely ready.

The solution has to be, as Gove rightly put it, to return to basics: what do we want to teach these children, and how do we best do that?

If I’m honest, I have no interest in teaching them Shakespeare – he’s dated to the point of only ever being relevant in the broadest sense. I hated Shakespeare at school and still think British education has done something unique in overrating the greatest writer to ever have lived. I want to teach them to read and write though. I want to help them become worldly, open-minded members of a progressive society that is ready to take its role in a globalised economy. I just don’t see how they can do that when the majority of what they’ll need to know to do that is going to have to be self-taught.

Education as I see it is a self-serving, self-preserving form of social conditioning that’s been (accidentally) designed to create the illusion of education while keeping anything of any real value away from the people who need it most. And I wouldn’t feel so bad about this if I didn’t think that teachers were as complicit as the government in preserving it.