Schools are the worst working environments in our society. Whereas some 80% of ex-pupils like their job and find it interesting. A third of pupils sometimes or always hate going to school and most pupils feel that their talents are not utilised or developed. Most also feel that their teachers do not know them and lack respect for them.
This is how John Raven described 'the most important problem in education' in 1981. Are things much better 40 years later in 2021?
Sometimes we see headlines in the press saying it's remarkable that on any one day some 6% of pupils are not in school. In fact, what is remarkable is that apparently 94% of secondary students go to school more or less willingly. Given the similarity between a prison routine and that in secondary schools, it says something about the coercive nature of school attendance that we don't have school riots.
Why do students go to their secondary school? I have yet to talk to a student about this who has suggested it was the beauty of Shakespeare's prose or the incredible achievement of the periodic table of the elements – they go to school to 'get the grades' and socialise with their friends. And what do former students recall about their school experience? It's personalities, the teachers who treated them with respect and encouragement, events such as a play in which they had a part or the day the chemistry apparatus exploded (so much for the periodic table!). Unless they go on to further study, most of the formal curriculum in secondary schools is completely irrelevant for them. Most of what secondary students learn at school, they learn outside the formal curriculum.
Much has been made by politicians of the loss of 'education' during the pandemic. 'We have to get the kids back to school.' We know that the main reason we have to get the kids back to school is so that we can get the parents back to work. Much of what has been lost in terms of 'learning' will be rapidly made up, but the very real loss in terms of social development will take much longer.
What has really been brought into sharp focus by the pandemic is the way in which our world has been significantly changed by the internet. The rapid development of media and information technologies has taken place within a generation and is therefore different from societal changes in the past. It is these changes which should force us to look for radical reform in our patterns of schooling.
I have pointed out in earlier articles how little has really changed in secondary schools in the last 40 years so I was interested to see Neil McLennan's article (31 March 2021
) in which he points to a toxic culture which is 'not only destroying the very fabric of trust in Scottish politicians and institutions, but is also percolating through other aspects of Scottish civil society, including education'. He sees the enactment into Scottish law of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as a major issue which now needs to be addressed. I agree with Neil that much needs to change and that the present disturbance in schooling generated by the pandemic might provide the opportunity for action. But I am less sure about his suggestion that. 'All the ideas are there' and that all that is lacking is 'the will power, ability and improvement methodologies' to implement them.
Some years ago, I was an evaluator for a European Comenius project in Karmoy, Norway. We visited the area and were shown round the district by the director of education. I particularly remember a visit to what we might describe as a special school for young people who were unable to be integrated into the normal school system. The school offered two main options (which were not mutually exclusive), one group was involved in building a large yacht while another group was active in running a commercial catering company supplying meals to the local community. This was all pretty impressive but what was equally impressive was that the director of education knew most of the students by name and was able to tell us a little about the individual circumstances of some of the students.
The lessons from all of this? Don't assume that one form of education suits every young person. Provide alternatives to 'mainstream' which offer real possibilities for future employment based on the interests of the students. Have administrators who see their role as facilitators, not controllers, and who have a good knowledge of the actual working of the schools and the individual students. And finally, have a system which provides sufficient financial resources for the system to operate effectively.
Not much to ask is it? David, your demands are quite unrealistic. Karmoy is a small district and so it is possible for the director of education to have personal knowledge of both the teachers and the students. How could the director of children's services (or whatever newfangled title has been invented) possibly know that kind of detail in a large Scottish authority? But therein lies the problem. It's clear that we need to get away from this kind of centralisation and look to significant devolution of authority to much smaller local units. It is the wrong headed notion that, in the name of 'equality', each individual student needs to be subjected to the same school 'treatment'.
Each child is unique and may develop in any number of ways, each equally valid. Schools do not have to be clones of one another. But what we presently have is a one-size-fits-all curriculum, secondary schools grossly underfunded, with administrators who have little or no experience of actually running a school, but still persist in micromanaging them while sheltering behind an impenetrable wall of bureaucracy when things go wrong.
Is this a bit harsh? I recently helped out at a school which was short of physics teachers. The faculty head of science had about £1,500 to provide all the running costs of the three sciences. A quick calculation shows that this is less than half a penny per pupil per period. Is there a healthy dialogue about the issues we face in schools? Not if you are employed by a local authority which insists that you do not speak in public about problems as all such information has to come from the authority public relations officers. Naturally, they are the only people able to give an entirely accurate of any situation – of course, as seen by the authority! And not if you are a student. It's not yours to question – just sit down, be quiet and get on with your worksheet which you have to finish before the bell goes. And don't think of going on that climate change march when you should be in school.
This last comment might be seen as unfair to many teachers and that would be wrong. The majority of teachers in secondary schools are doing their best in the under-funded, under-staffed environment I have described. There are many impressive initiatives which show that there is already a reservoir of ideas about what might be possible in future. But these ideas are not in the corridors of power and I am not sure that, taken together, they presently form a coherent case for change. We now have a secondary system which is dysfunctional for modern society. But we have a system which, like the banks, is too big to fail. There are errors too big to admit and too many jobs at risk.
Like the super-tanker in the Suez Canal was, the good ship schooling is firmly aground on the sand and is blocking anything else from coming up the channel. However, unlike the Suez incident it is claimed there is no great urgency to refloat it, and anyway it's so deeply embedded it's going to take more than 20 tugs (even if they all pull in the same direction) to get it moving again.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University