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The Problem with Education today? Is it a lost cause

The Problem with Education today? Is it a lost cause? By David McCarthy

The late Sir Christopher Woodhead, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools in England from 1994 to 2000 in his seminal work A Desolation of Learning – Is this The Education Our Children Deserve? lambasted the government’s educational policy at the time, and its continual quest for mediocrity.

The recent publication of the Times Education Commission has painted a very bleak picture of the state of our education in the UK, and it appears that we have learnt nothing since the Desolation of Learning was published in 2009.

Whilst the average parent may find some of these findings shocking, those who are in education have not discovered anything new. Part of the problem lies within an antiquated education system that dates back to the Victorian era, and the inability of successive governments to tackle this and move towards a 21st century model of education, where digital learning is embedded in education.

The Times Education Commission outlined the key problems facing schools and students. All the key findings are interconnected and lead to a trail of incompetence and the inability of successive governments to take education seriously. What is needed is strong leadership and the bravery to tackle an education system that is not fit for purpose in the modern age.

Here is a summary of the damming report which would have seen Sir Christopher Woodhead spinning in his grave.

1: Lack of funding

Due to the pandemic a whole generation of students have missed out on key aspects of their education. On the day that the Times Education Commission started its report last June, Sir Kevan Collins (the government’s Education Recovery Commissioner) resigned. It was he who was asked by the government to draw up a plan to help children to catch up on the lessons they had missed during the pandemic. Once he heard that the funding had been slashed from £10 billion to £1.5 billion, he felt that he had no choice but to quit.

“My greatest fear is that the legacy of the pandemic will be growing inequality across our children and our communities,” he told the Times Education Commission at an evidence session later that month. “I’m very worried that we might start thinking there’s some kind of natural recovery and I don’t think the data shows that at all.”

The lack of real spending in education across decades has led to many underfunded schools forced to reduce the numbers of teachers and teaching assistants they have in their school, whilst cutting back on learning resources. This means that teachers are now working much longer hours, whilst coping with increased class sizes – leading to fewer pupils receiving less individual attention form teachers. Which, inevitably, leads to:

2: Demoralised and overworked teachers/ Teacher retention

The shortage of qualified teachers has been an ongoing challenge. The Education Policy Institute reported that the number of Secondary school teachers in England fell by 7% from 2007 to 2019, while pupil numbers remained the same and are expected to rise as much as 10% by 2023.

A YouGov poll of teachers for the commission found that a third planned to leave within five years and 16 per cent were ready to go within twelve months. More than half of head teachers are also thinking of quitting.

Times Education Commission reported that The OECD found that full-time secondary school teachers in England reported working on average 49.3 hours a week, compared to the OECD average of 41 hours. Primary school teachers said they worked 52.1 hours a week, more than any other country except Japan. The joy of teaching has been drummed out by a blizzard of appraisals, marking and regimented lesson plans. Every week one in five teachers spends seven hours, the equivalent of a whole working day, marking students’ work.

Many schools also require teachers to fill out regular “data drops” plotting pupils’ progress so that heads can have information on hand to present to Ofsted if the inspectors suddenly turn up. The deteriorating relationship between Ofsted and Headteachers/teachers has also not helped. Which leads to…

3: Accountability /Lack of trust in OFTSED

The profession has lost confidence in the accountability system. Less than one in ten teachers thinks that Ofsted is fit for purpose, according to a survey for the commission by Oxford University Press. Dame Alison Peacock, the head of the Royal College of Teaching, said teachers felt pressure to “be like robots” to “stick to the script” in classrooms. “Ofsted, frankly it’s a reign of terror.”

The You Gov: Teachers’ awareness and perceptions of Ofsted Attitude Survey 2019 Report, cited that the overall opinion of Ofsted with teachers has fallen since last year. Agreement that Ofsted acts as a reliable and trusted arbiter has fallen from 35% in 2018 to 18% in 2019.

It is becomingly increasing obvious that the educational system needs a radical change that fits the requirements of students living in the 21st century. There has been a growing lack of trust in what is happening in schools and the curriculum it delivers. As can be seen below:

4: Lack of trust in GCSE and A ‘Level Grades – top universities looking for alternatives

With ever-increasing grade inflation, certainly not helped by the recent pandemic where students were not examined – but whose grades were based on a range of evidence, including coursework and mock exams. As a result, the proportion of students awarded grades 7, 8 and 9 at GCSE rose from 21.9% in 2019 to 27.6% in 2020 as exams regulators accepted school assessments.

It was a similar story with the A’ levels results in 2020, where the proportion of A* and A grades had risen this year by 2.4 percentage points to 27.6 per cent, the highest level in at least 13 years. The proportion of A* grades also rose, from 7.7 per cent last year to 8.9 per cent. Overall, 98.2 per cent of grades were an E or above, up from 97.5 per cent last year.

A recent survey of teachers and school leaders by the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC) found that 94 per cent of respondents believed that GCSEs needed complete or partial reform. It has now got to the stage that an ever-increasing number of the top universities have also lost faith in GCSEs and A ‘Levels. Many of the Russell Universities believe they cannot rely on them anymore and that students are poorly prepared for the rigour of a university education. As a result, they have, or are, introducing their own university admissions tests.

However, it is not just universities questioning the education received at schools, but also businesses. Times Education Commission believes that employers have lost faith in the current exam system as well.

A growing number of employers are ignoring exam results in favour of their own assessments. Indeed, the accountancy firm PwC no longer uses GCSEs or A-level grades to select trainees. Instead, it runs its own psychometric tests. Laura Hinton, its chief people officer, insisted that this was a better way of finding the most talented and diverse recruits.

Dame Sharon White, chairwoman of the John Lewis Partnership, said her company was increasingly relying on online assessment, because it had lost faith in state-run exams. “The system has become even more narrow, limited and box-ticking,” she explained. “We try as far as possible to set to one side people’s qualifications.” This leads to…

5: An outdated curriculum

School seems irrelevant to many pupils, who cannot see a route from education to employment. Boris Johnson has described his government’s plans for training and skills as “rocket fuel” for levelling up the nation, but in England the national curriculum has been explicitly designed to “introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said” rather than to prepare them for work.

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said it was depressing how little had changed since he left the Department for Education as chief economist in 2004. “Our system sets an awful lot of children up to fail. We know that the quarter or so of children who leave primary school not reaching the expected level will not reach the expected level at GCSE and we have no alternative for them. We continue to have a system which works quite well for those children who want to go on to university through the A-level route, but which remains inadequate and hopelessly complex for those who want to go on through vocational and skills education.” This leads to…

6: Lack of social mobility - Third of children written off

Despite all the educational initiatives and policies over the last two decades, social mobility has remained static. Sir Chrsitopher Woodhead complained in 2009 that a third of students were written off and left school with hardly any meaningful qualifications.

This is still the case today. The education system is failing many young people. The Times Education Commission reported that “the existence of the “forgotten third” of students who do not pass English and maths GCSE is baked into the system as a consequence of the grade boundaries, which are set to ensure that a fixed proportion of pupils achieve each mark every year. ..Geoff Barton, the head of the Association of School and College Leaders and a member of the commission, recalled a conversation with a student in a further education college. “He said to me, ‘So I now understand that for the two thirds to be deemed a success I have to be deemed a failure.’” Barton, a former head teacher, said: “Our education system works well for about 70 per cent of children. The trouble is if you’re one of the 30 per cent it’s a national scandal.”

The Times Education Commission believes that many of these education problems are systemic and start right from the start. Whilst it portrays a glowing picture of the Scandinavian Early Years education system (the building bricks of any education), it is much more critical of our Early Years provision – which it sees as a mess. The report goes on to report that:

It is no wonder then… “In this country early years provision is treated as a babysitting service. Working parents of three and four-years-olds are eligible for 30 hours of free childcare, if they have a household income of up £200,000, but unemployed parents can have only 15 hours. Some of the most vulnerable children are therefore not getting the support they need. Instead of being a driver of social mobility, the policy is reinforcing inequality.”

However, what is of a major concern is the mental wellbeing of our students in the UK – which is at all all-time low. Whilst Covid has not helped the situation, this trend was growing in the years before Covid. What cannot be denied is that there is definitely a mental health crisis in our schools. This has also been highlighted in the Times Education Commission:

“When one in six young people suffers from a probable mental health disorder, and more than half of adult mental health problems emerge before the age of 15, this cannot be ignored.”

British children are among the unhappiest in the world. The OECD found that pupils in the UK suffered the steepest decline in life satisfaction between 2015 and 2018 and ranked 34th out of 35 countries for fear of failure.

The Guardian reported that more than eight out of 10 teachers say mental health among pupils in England has deteriorated in the past two years – with rising reports of anxiety, self-harm and even cases of suicide – against a backdrop of inadequate support in schools.

The Report goes on to say that: “In a survey of 8,600 school leaders, teachers and support workers, 83% said they had witnessed an increase in the number of children in their care with poor mental health, rising to 90% among students in colleges.” Covid has only exacerbated the situation, although this was on the increase before Covid struck.”

The truth of matter is that British pupils are among the unhappiest in the world. I do not think this is surprising considering what students have to put up in education: a lack of social mobility, an education system that favours the rich, outdated curriculums, lack of faith in their qualifications from both universities and businesses, the breakdown in relationships between schools and inspecting bodies, demoralised teachers, lack of qualified teachers in the schools and a major lack of funding in schools. OECD analysis puts UK public spending on education at 3.9% of GDP in 2018. This ranked us 19th out of the 37 OECD members with data on this measure, and below the OECD average of 4.1%.

On top of this, wherever students look today, there appears to be a lack of heroes or adults they can look up or who can inspire them. As I write this, I am saddened to hear that a young Manchester United player (I am a Manchester United fan), who many young people look up to, has been arrested on suspicion of rape and assault.

They have a media that relishes reporting on ‘divisions’ and stoking the fires of discontent. All students see today are political and religious divisions splashed across the news. This has certainly come to light with the Brexit referendum in 2016 and with the election of President Trump in 2017. 

It is almost as if humanity has lost the ability to listen to opinions that are different from their own. Tribalism has engulfed the planet. More and more university students are also beginning to question why they were sold the story of the importance of a university education. As Julie Lynn states: “Two decades into the twenty first century, it’s becoming clear that a generation of young people have been conned into taking degrees that lead them into £50,000 worth of debt and into jobs for which they don’t need a degree anyway…This is what happens when you lose sight of what something is actually for: what education is for, what university is for. It is to learn to think for oneself.’’

It is very hard to predict what the future holds in store for us, or whether humanity is to learn from its previous mistakes. Despite the huge flaws in the educational system, I do believe something good will come out of the covid pandemic (I am the eternal optimist). I am beginning to see a seismic change in the younger generation, who are beginning to have a voice and challenge the ‘old ways’; who are willing to be brave enough to challenge governments around the world and force change – whether that be in education, saving the planet, or basic human rights. Haven spoke to countless students, there must be a change. We simply can not be here a decade from now still lamenting the ‘desolation of learning’. What changes we need in education is an immensely complex question. However, it is something I am going to try to attempt to answer in my next essay.

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