Let’s make Britain World Leaders in Education

By Carina Bird, Teacher of Secondary English

“The academic demands Tory policies place on children who need to be focusing on Literacy is unacceptable.”

The most meaningful lesson I’ve had this year was on International Women’s Day, when my year 9 students promoted equality for all genders, utilising their knowledge of what generates interest on Twitter (see above).

Next year, they’ll start preparing for their English Language and Literature GCSEs and as such I’ll have to leave modern communication methods behind. Instead, I will be taking them backwards 200 years to read some good quality 19th Century non-fiction. These texts will not teach them how to successfully navigate information in the world of fake news. They will not teach them how to make their views heard in a world drowning in information. They will not teach them how to develop effective rhetoric to compete in a saturated job market.

Instead, they will teach them how to be frugal housewives. And how one could effectively deal with noise pollution in their street… two hundred years ago.

Born out of Michael Gove’s regressive vision for education, the new English GCSEs will be taken this summer by the first batch of year 11s. As a teacher of seven years, it has been without a doubt the hardest journey through GCSE I’ve ever had, despite having a set of wonderful students. It’s not just the cognitive demands placed on students who have to study four texts for closed book exams, but also the demands made by the Tory government that all students must sit both Language and Literature. This demand is made via the backhanded promise that if they sit both, their scores are doubled under the new league table measures.

“Unlike banks and corporations, a school’s products and outcomes are not profits or abstract worth. They’re students’ life opportunities.”

Why is this wrong for our students? Firstly, the academic demands this places on children who need to be focusing on literacy is unacceptable. Whilst under the last Labour government, students who came to school with poorer literacy skills could take an English Combined exam, and therefore focus their efforts on key skills which would get them into college, this new system sets them up to fail.

There is no time for them to catch up. Instead, it’s a level playing field for all in a 1-tiered paper. And the knock-on effects of this will last their lifetime. Students at the lower end are really struggling to meet the demands of Literature and so end up feeling like failures. Likewise, teachers are ploughing on, trying to motivate them, despite knowing they’d be best served learning how to use a full stop. In an employer-favoured job market, students need to be focusing on accessing further education and training, not developing their academic prowess and deep analysis of ‘The Prelude’.

Poor mental health was already on the rise. (George Monbiot says it best) Some people suggest that it isn’t: that these millennials are too weak; too mopey; they want everything done for them. Yes, there are students like that – just as there are many adults like that. So why is it on the rise? Partly because it’s, thankfully, spoken about more now. However, more than that, living through a technological revolution means we cannot possibly prepare or support young people as well as our generations were supported.

A few weeks ago, one of my A-level students told me about a YouTube star, who’s around her age and is making millions just by making videos of bad singing. That’s not even a talent. In jest, she told me it’s enough to make her want to jump out of a window. We all laughed: but there’s a sub-text there which makes me glad I’m not a teenager today. The plague of feeling there’s always something more we can be doing is too damaging. Students are too exposed now to believe in the Old Lie: work hard, go to university and you’ll be successful. Some of them are already battling living a successful life v living a happy life. At the age of fifteen. Remember kerby?

Why is this wrong for our teachers? The Tory government’s new Progress 8 measures ensure that schools are now ranked against each other. Whereas in the past good results meant a good position, a school’s results are now judged in comparison to other schools with comparable cohorts. What this means is that one school’s failure is another school’s success. You just have to beat your neighbour. Education now has at its heart the individualistic beating of corporate ‘profit’.

And perhaps there’s an argument that this is more competitive; a fairer system. Except it isn’t. Because the reality is that the schools with more money are pumping hundreds of pounds into weekend tutors for their students. Unlike banks and corporations, a school’s products and outcomes are not profits or abstract worth. They’re students’ life opportunities.

A few weeks ago there was an advertisement on TES for a prominent MAT seeking out Saturday tutors for £200 a day. I had to go into work the following Monday and teach my year 11s knowing that they’d be competing against those students: many schools, which with their declining budgets simply cannot afford the same service.

Like Abramovich at Chelsea, this prominent MAT is ruining the game. The reality is that there is no equal playing field. Children in schools with more money will have more external intervention and therefore more chance at beating everyone else.

And that’s before we even get started on the new Grammar School plans, existing grammars, and the fact that it’s working class students; students with parents who haven’t been to university or who aren’t surrounded by Received Pronunciation from birth who are more likely to be the ones who need to catch up.

The Tory government’s policies have widened the quality of provision for the rich and the poor.  They’ve based everything on a mythical level playing field which ignores the vast and beautifully differentiated cohort of children taking their GCSEs this year. Each student has their own dreams, ambitions, needs and wants. They have to make their way in a world where new-age communication will be a game changer, yet they are not in any way prepared for it.

Labour’s plans for education are so progressive that even the anti-Corbyn press can’t refute it. Zoe Williams in The Guardian calls it ‘courageous’ and ‘life-changing’ for the ‘less privileged’. For years, teachers in the UK have looked longingly toward Finland’s forward-thinking cohesive approach to education. Labour’s ‘big picture’ approach, tackling the idea that not everyone succeeds the first time and giving opportunities for life-long education, finally gives us a chance to stop being envious and start leading the way towards an education system we can be proud of.

Another five years of a Conservative Government means another five years of students and teachers being set up to fail. I feel sick when I think of the knock-on effects of this on an entire generation of young people. A vote for Tory is not a vote for our young people. It is not a vote for Britain’s economic future. It’s not a vote for Britain’s international status.

Let’s make our country world leaders in Education once more: Vote Labour on June 8th.

Carina attended The Bankfield School and started her career teaching English at Wade Deacon High School in 2009. 

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