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….

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.