Wednesday, 19 March 2014

In Defence of State Education

Earlier this week, the town I grew up in was in the news.  A large and well-known building – soon to close but still very much in use – opened its doors to members of the public so they could have a last look around before the demolition men move in.

It was a thoughtful gesture and no doubt meant that some of those employed in that building would have a much longer working day than usual.

The invitation was keenly received.  Visitors of all ages arrived in high numbers.

But shortly afterwards, the Fire Service was called.  The Police were called too.  All the visitors were told to leave and the doors were hurriedly closed again.

The building had been vandalised.  A small group of ‘out of control’ adults ‘in their 40s or 50s’ had scrawled graffiti on the walls.  They’d damaged artwork.  They’d wandered the corridors carrying cans of Special Brew.  And then they’d gathered in the toilets to spark up fags.  No one is sure if this is what caused the fire alarms to go off or if they were set off deliberately.  Either way, the event was ruined.  A lot of people’s time was wasted.  A lot of money was too.

So what was this building that inspired such disrespect?

It was a school.

The school I went to for seven years.  The school where I had some good experiences and some bad ones and which finally waved me on my way with four A Levels to my name.

At a guess, it’s probably also the school of the children of those middle-aged ex-students who’d come back with their defiant fags and cans of beer.

Now I wasn’t there that night the school opened up its doors.  What I know I’ve learned solely from the local and national news.  But the reaction to the story speaks for itself.  Scrolling down to the online comments, I can see that opinion is divided.  Lots of people – like me – are astonished.  Lots of others think it’s funny.

And there lies the problem that faces teachers and their students. 

State education isn’t given enough respect.

I’ve been a teacher for seventeen years.  When I was full-time, I seemed to do nothing other than work.  I got up.  I had breakfast.  I went to work.  I often got no lunch break.  I went home again.  I ate something.  I did more work and then I went to bed.

I’m part-time now.  But frequently, my teaching workload pushes out all other commitments.  Friends of mine who are full-time still work around the clock.  I honestly don’t know how they keep doing it.

And yet, like all teachers I’ve heard the quips.  That we finish at half-three.  That we have way too much holiday.  That we couldn’t think of anything better to do.  And most annoying of all - that we’re ‘sounding like a school teacher.’

Then there’s the value of our professional qualifications.  Are they worth having?  It would seem not.  A professional teaching qualification is no longer a necessity.  Apparently you can walk straight into a classroom and discover the secrets of effective classroom management, differentiation and planning stimulating lessons without any need to bother with anything as pointless as a PGCE.  Admittedly, the PGCE was only ever a crash course.  But it’s far better to crash and burn and change your mind during the safety of that training year than after you’ve been assigned a whole load of kids who are relying on you to stick with them for the entirety of their exam course.

The Government wants to see good grades.

Parents want to see good grades.

Teachers want to see them too.  But they understand that grades are an end product.  In order to get them, students have to fulfil their learning potential.  And teachers use their knowledge and experience to help facilitate this. 

Sometimes, it gets difficult because grade As don’t always happen.  However hard we all try.  That’s just how reality works.

But school should not be seen as the enemy.  There’s so much talk about ‘failing schools’ these days that those two words are almost becoming locked together in people’s heads.  How can we expect pupils to do well and be proud of their achievements if we send out constant messages that everyone should be working ever more hard and that nothing is ever quite good enough? 

Those grown adults of my home town who damaged display work and swigged beer in front of the students and teachers who’d given up their time to show them around forgot something very important that evening.  They forgot that it was state education which has enabled them to read.

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