“All schools should be art schools”, say these posters. Perhaps that would help broaden the highly restricted curriculum which many schools now offer.
I looked with interest at the proposals by the Labour Party to add VAT on to the school fees at private schools and use the money raised to fund free school meals for all at schools in the state sector up to the age of 11. The way they would do this is seriously flawed and shows as usual that they are simply unable to add up (or subtract for that matter!) It is based on the assumption that after adding on the VAT everyone would continue the school fees at the increased level. I think that is highly unlikely. I suspect that the addition would push many over the edge and bring pupils back into the state sector. That may be a good objective but it would need paying for and would eat into much of the gains from VAT impositions.
But the principle is right. Children cannot concentrate if they are hungry. Too many children do not get an adequate breakfast (or indeed any breakfast) and too many do not get a decent meal at lunch time. That is why the Lib Dems were right in Government to ensure that all up to the age of seven get a decent midday meal.
Not only is this good for educational reasons but also good for health reasons. Too many of the children who take in packed lunches take in sugar and salt laden rubbish. It is a major cause of the childhood obesity problem and having at least one balanced salt and sugar minimised meal a day is a good way of dealing with this problem.
Of course lack of money is not the only reason children do not get fed properly in the morning. As I sit in my window in the morning I can always tell what time it is in the pre – 09.00 school rush by watching who goes past at what time! It’s always the same parents throwing themselves up the road 10 seconds before the school door closes! Being prepared and thinking through the needs of their children for proper nourishment just does not seem to happen in some families.
But thoughts about food and education have led me increasingly to ask a basic question. What is education for? It seems to me that we have a major problem in our society with too much of the school curriculum geared not for education but exam passing. Indeed some of our schools seem to have become soulless exam factories rather than academies, in the widest sense of the term, for learning.
My youngest Rachel was the only one of my children which went through her entire school career being tested hard at the end of every year. She did well on it and went through University and came out with a good degree. But many fall by the wayside because of the exam based approach that is taken. Of course we do need exams and we do need testing. Every teacher tests every child every day in the real world. They note progress or lack of it and adjust teaching for each child where possible within the needs of the class to ensure that progress is maintained.
But so much of what the teacher has to do seems to me to be the antithesis of teaching. Their job is to get the kid through the exams and this get the school up the league tables.
If I were the Secretary of State for Education I would do five things:
- Massively reduce the role of Ofsted to be an organisation which does big overview stuff and not detailed nit picking.
- Explicitly increase the role of the local authority to be the strategic body for the education up to 18 of all children no matter who is the provider of the school.
- Reduce the number of tests and exams which children need to take ensuring that they are taken are the right time and in the right.
- Strip away much of the National Curriculum to leave a basis in which children are taught core competences.
- Let teachers get on with the job of teaching by freeing them from the strictures of the National Curriculum. Of course there must be a core of activity which leads to literacy and numeracy. Of course knowledge about our history and the world around us must be acquired. But this can best be done by teachers who understand the kids and the environment in which they live and help those kids use that environment for learning purposes.
There are only two big questions that we should ask of any learning establishment and that includes Universities and Colleges:
- Do the pupils or students within it want to learn? Are they interested in what’s happening and are they thirsting for knowledge?
- Are the staff capable of responding to that thirst with energy and initiative?
Frankly I meet too many teachers and lecturers who at the moment cannot fulfil the second of these. I don’t believe that in the vast majority of cases it’s their fault. They are doing their best within a harsh and restrictive system to encourage the first of these. To do so they often have to ‘fight’ not only the system but also often parents and OFSTED.
The results of these are obvious. People are leaving our systems at 16, 18, 21 or older who are ill-equipped for work or for life generally. Increasingly employers are looking beyond the exams, once a basic competency has been established, to see what the young person has been done. Can they debate; do they want to learn; can they present themselves well; are they fit and healthy; do they exhibit an interest in the community around them and the world around the community?
That’s what school and education used to be about but far too little of these are applied today. It was summed up for me recently when I went in to the home of a young constituent who I knew was a graduate. I asked him where he kept his books because there were none on display. I thought the answer would be that he gets them on kindle or some other device. His answer actually chilled me. “I haven’t read a book since I got my degree”, he told me. “I’m done with all that sort of thing!”
Done with learning? I hope I will learn things until the day I die. 16 years in the education system and we have destroyed this young man’s wish to learn and develop. What an indictment of successive governments and the schools and University he went to. He is not alone and this MUST change.