This article was written by Janet Lawley in January 2002. She writes; “Those who care about young people and are searching for a better way, a way which unlocks potential and welcomes children into a community of learners, wonder from time to time if we are exaggerating the crisis we perceive and wonder, too, if we are alone or in so small a minority that we could never make a difference. A glance through the cuttings I have accumulated over the last months of 2001 has been both depressing and reassuring. Depressing because set of figures after set of figures and almost every day’s news confirms that there is indeed a problem despite constant reform and the best efforts of schools. Reassuring because almost every day brings an article from someone who believes, as those who work with the 21st Century Learning Initiative do, that there is a better way. For the sake of the children and to encourage those determined to respond to what we now know about how and where children learn, I have put together some of the things that have been written recently, some of the latest statistics and some of the questions most frequently asked.”

“Education, education, education”. If just one thing is remembered from the British Government’s first election campaign in 1997, I suspect it will be Tony Blair’s oft repeated mantra. Yet the century has turned and wherever you go there remains dissatisfaction with and within education. Employers call for young people with creativity and imagination as well as basic skills. Parents complain of the stress of constant testing and contribute to that stress by devouring league tables and expectations of academic success. Teachers feel under siege; they have neither the confidence nor energy to lift their heads above the narrow basic targets they are driven to achieve. For children, learning is too rarely fun or relevant, as they struggle to discover who they are in a world that doesn’t seem to have the time to listen or to answer their questions. Meanwhile the government chases short term goals in an obsession with statistics rather than individual children.

A sort out of cuttings and articles from the last few months of 2001 brought the crisis in education home to me forcibly. Yesterday (Jan 17th), the British Secretary of State for Education and Skills conceded that the government is unlikely to meet its targets for recruiting teachers. 45% of today’s teachers are between 45 and 60 and will be leaving the profession over the next 15 years. She said “we need to recruit 10% of the nations graduates – and 40% of maths graduates, year on year.” Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University wrote recently- “The root cause of the recruitment problem is that the job is no longer seen by many young people as the kind of career they seek. —– It is the abuse, scape-goating, vilification and the complete lack of trust that has spawned endless bureaucracy, detailed prescription and formulaic Inspection.” (Times Educational Supplement) To solve the problem by importing teachers from countries where there is already a shortage of well qualified teachers is not only “short-termism” but seems to me to be immoral.

It is not just a crisis in recruitment. According to the chief inspector of schools for England, “four out of ten teachers leave the profession within three years of entering it and a remarkable 40% of those who start teacher training never complete the course to become teachers.” (Guardian). In a letter to the Guardian, a science teacher of 4 years, said, “The problem of teachers leaving the profession after 3 or 4 years says more about the shortfalls of our education system than it does about pay, workloads or paperwork. —– The current model of education causes many staff, parents and students to feel disempowered. This has serious implications for staff morale and causes many students to feel disengaged from the learning process. To improve teacher retention we need to unlock the enormous and under-utilised potential of staff. All professionals appreciate being trusted to make appropriate decisions –teachers are no different.” Wendy Berliner wrote “the unattractiveness of the teaching profession is often put down to low pay —-but it has more to do with low morale.” (Guardian)

No one who works with education officers and headteachers and their staff can doubt that morale is low. Those in education are exhausted by the pressure to achieve higher and higher targets. Many feel undervalued and have forgotten the joy of an exciting digression or an innovative interpretation of the curriculum. Sadly some have never known that joy. There is fear and timidity, lethargy and suspicion where once an audience of teachers was forward looking, creative and challenging. So what about the “the enormous potential”? I believe it is there and can be unlocked. The key is very simple. It is children. When young people are at the centre of the agenda and it is children’s learning that it is about rather than the achievements of targets; when it is the individual whose progress matters rather than a set of statistics, teachers are invigorated and become imaginative, enthusiastic, risk-taking professionals. Their ability and care and willingness to give time and energy are not in doubt. But to restore the attraction of the profession to the brightest graduates, and fulfillment to those now working in schools, will mean to restore professional pride. “Teachers are so hemmed in by diktats relating to the curriculum, league tables, inspections and so on, that they have lost any sense of autonomy – the sine qua non of professional pride.” (New Statesman) “— if people are deprived of autonomy, put under a microscope, expected to do more with the reward of more criticism, the inevitable result is disgust.” (Guardian)

There is no longer room for deliberation on the ends and purposes of teaching and the values those purposes embody. “There is no consensus within society on what is to count as an educated person. The link between social and economic need, on the one hand, and individual need, on the other, is complex and varied; the struggle to make sense and to find value in life will not be uniform”. Professor Pring from the University of Oxford points out in his article in Political Quarterly. Yet – “The teacher delivers someone else’s curriculum with its precisely defined product and there is little room for that transaction in which the teacher responds to the needs of the learner. ——– When the product is measurable targets through which performance is audited, then little significance is attached to the struggle to make sense or to the deviant and creative response.”

Professional judgement today is increasingly limited to deciding the most efficient means of achieving those targets. No wonder the headteacher of a confident, oversubscribed primary school wrote that he had “had enough”, despite his lively children and positive teachers. He wrote in the Times Educational Supplement in August “The ever-more complex, ever-more demanding operational world we exist within is inevitable but the system has added an over-arching structure that is based on the presumption of failure. National test results are used despite their obvious link to a raft of socio-economic factors. To police them we have a double bind of Ofsted and League tables, each based on the proposition that no one can be trusted and deviations from an artificial standardised norm must presume the worst.”

And what do the statistics and cuttings from the last few months tell us of our young people and the priorities of the world they live in?

  • Education spending is at its lowest since Harold Macmillan was primeminister. (Independent)
  • The British ratio between the richest 5,000 and the poor is, today, 500 to one. (Observer)
  • Europeans spend 11B$ per year on ice-cream. That is 2B$ more than it would take to provide clean water and safe sewers for the entire world’s population. (Washington Post)
  • 500 million people live on less than 1$ a day. (Economist)
  • Children in the UK watch an average of 5 hours a day of television compared with a European average of 2 hours. (Radio Times)
  • 36% of British children under 4 have a TV in their bedroom. (Daily Mail)
  • 25% of 11-16 year olds admit to at least one criminal offence. (Daily Mail)
  • 27% of 13-15 year olds from A/B social categories admit to an act of vandalism during the last year compared with 24% from categories C1 and C2. It is not a class issue. (Observer)
  • 7% of the population attends church in the UK compared with 40% in the USA. (Guardian)
  • 60% of people questioned did not know where “To be or not to be-” came from. (Lloyds/TSB)
  • 66% of British secondary school pupils don’t know when or where the First World War was fought. (Sunday Telegraph)
  • 18% did not know that Churchill was Britain’s leader during World War Two. (Sunday Telegraph)
  • 25% of Sixth Formers believe that Cromwell was involved in the Battle of Hastings.(Daily Mail)
  • 36% of boys never read for pleasure. (Guardian)
  • One in seven in the USA are functionally illiterate. (Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America)