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The British Education System: A time for change? Part 2

14th July 2015

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In the first article I looked back at my time in school, what former education secretary Michael Gove changed and examples of apparent exemplary education systems in Asia and Finland.

I decided then to contact and speak to someone on the frontline, a teacher, who unlike the piles and piles of articles and statistics, lives day in and day out on the battlefield that is the British education system and thus get a more qualified, human understanding of the issues.

As a senior assistant head teacher in one of my local schools, they were more than willing to enlighten me on the effects of government reform on the school, the prospect of adopting foreign models, and their own opinion on what could be done to positively reform British education.

In our conversation one thing resonated loudly and indeed followed the trend that one finds when reading up on our schooling system. That government reforms have focused so strongly on statistics and league tables that teachers and schools have been hamstrung from any form of free thinking and initiative, due to the fear of being disciplined should they not be meeting the various targets set.

Quite interestingly they dismissed the notion of increased freedom in academies as a smoke screen towards privatisation as the academies are still subject to Ofsted inspection and all the same fear-inducing constraints that are placed on state schools. Quite potently, they claimed creativity was being crushed in favour of the perception of progress. A perception, as it has left teachers exhausted and focused so strongly on towing the line that quality, innovative teaching is no longer provided.

On adopting foreign models they were once again critical of the government's constant desire for reform taking on too much for teachers to handle. Suggesting in the case of Asian education the children are placed under too much pressure, and that a big part of their success was cultural. For example the infamous 'Tiger Mothers' and their influence on their children's education.  And in the case of Finland, while on paper it seems like a utopia, they pointed out how Finnish society in general is so well developed and stable that as a result the success in education simply falls in line.

Commenting quite passionately that the government's pressure on the education system to close the gap between the poor and the wealthy was tantamount to expecting schools to solve all the inequalities and injustices in society. That the real issues behind the disparity in the classroom is something that can only be solved by a government-wide effort to help those less fortunate than others. And putting unwarranted pressure on schools did little more than highlight the problem.

So when put to them what they would do if they could reform the education system how they pleased their answer was surprisingly simple: "Policy should be made by teachers not Etonian politicians."

Herein lies the cusp of the problems in the British educational system. They feel that politicians reform and reform, without proper experience to possibly understand the ramifications of their decisions. That decisions that affect the education of the nation's children should be made by those whose job it is to deliver said education and have the knowledge and experience to make effective decisions - for example they feel that it is increasingly difficult to discipline children. They told me how it costs £4,000 to exclude a student and as a result due to already tight budgets and pressure to meet standards more often than not trouble students are left ineffectively disciplined in class, distracting teachers from effectively teaching and thus lowering standards. Therefore this would be something they would rather have teachers decide upon to ensure the best interests of all.

It is fair to say the state of the nations educational system is far from perfect. I have long been an admirer of the Finnish system of education and critical of our government's hasty reforms and clinical focus on statistics. However one of the most important things I learnt in my conversation with someone who spends their days in one of the nation's many schools is that too much is expected of them and too little is given to them. 

There is no simple copy and paste solution to educational reform, and the problem with academic inequality is something that cannot simply be solved in the classroom. Perhaps then it is unreasonable to offer suggestions on what to change, what to teach children and how to teach them. Perhaps we should stop holding every school accountable to the one above it on a league table and allow the staff who know the individual circumstances of a particular school best to make informed decisions.

When reflecting on the years before Michael Gove's reforms, the teacher I spoke to said how teaching used to be fun and intimate - whereas now they feel that children are being robbed and teaching has become cold. One thing is for sure: this government has many problems to deal with, and education is most definitely one of them.

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