On The State of the British Education System
It is 14:20 on a dreary December afternoon and Ryan, a tubby fifteen-year-old with a speech impediment, has just told me — a thirty-five-year-old man — to “fuck off.” The superficial reason for this rather impertinent outburst was that I have just asked Ryan to remove his coat. The “real” reason, I am instructed to bear in mind later, is that Ryan has “had a bad day.” I must reflect on this in my planning for the next lesson and, looking at Ryan’s Pastoral Support Plan, be mindful of strategies which can engage Ryan in the learning process more efficiently during tomorrow’s hour together. Earlier in the day, Jermaine, a full year older than Ryan but shorter and filled with more malice, was sent to Time Out for an hour for calling a colleague a “fucking cunt. A fat fucking cunt.” The colleague was visited by the Deputy Head afterwards who informed her that Jermaine’s outburst was due to the lack of clear boundaries in her classroom. In short, it was her fault. The same colleague, a teacher of some twenty years’ experience, was visited by the same Senior Leader and asked to take her coat off. In front of a class of students. Midway through a lesson.
Teaching has always been viewed by some as a ‘default profession’. Ten years prior I might have argued with them. Today I will agree with them. Many teachers are in the profession because they would not cut it elsewhere. The ones that thrive certainly are. I have met some very sound people during my career, people who live lives of vitality and intrigue. ‘Mavericks’ as former OFSTED chief Michael Wilshaw once described them. It is no coincidence that every one of these interesting people are no longer teachers.
The profession is in the process of being stratified thus:
Firstly, the self-consciously cool, young teachers who are filled with a passion for mawkish ephemera like climate justice and equity. This person is possibly Teach First and will likely stay in the profession for three years at most, before having an ideological crisis after realising that the kids they came to pluck from Ignorance and Want have no interest in being rescued.
Then, the desolately bland ‘Twitter teacher’, who has all their meaningless credentials proudly on display in their bio in exactly this format: “Deputy CPD Lead (Maternity Cover) Mount Pleasant Community High School | Teaching and Learning mentor (pending) | Northwest Social Mobility Engine member 2016 | Pub quiz and tea enthusiast,” as if any of this means anything and as if anyone other than a sickeningly incestuous band of people who use the #edutwitter hashtag cares. Usually between late 20s to late 30s, this stratum of teacher is in it for the long haul, and despite their protestations can never or will never leave the job, any more than a snail can live outside its shell.
Thirdly, there are the teachers that are caught in time. Sad relics of a recent but unheimlich past. A world where going to the pub on Friday lunchtime was not only acceptable but encouraged — and certainly not considered a safeguarding incident and an instant disciplinary. These people entered a profession popularised and reflected by Channel 4 cult comedy Teachers and have since seen their job morph into some sort of evangelical social worker for austere and joyless humanism, forced to recognise the divinity of Keeping Children Safe in Education and The Human Rights Act and little else. These teachers are frozen like a mosquito in amber. Everything about them is out of place: their attitudes, their training, their methods. The kids either love or loathe them. The Senior Management just loathes them. One colleague, a history teacher, is counting down seven years until his mortgage is paid off. He’s at the top of his pay scale, and easily competent enough to avoid being put on ‘competency’ proceedings, so his professional life is one of inertia. The management views him with a mix of utter disdain and obvious incomprehension, but he only views them as obstacles to be avoided for seven more Septembers.
I don’t blame the kids. They can be a bright spot in an otherwise unremittingly bleak job. They can also be hothouse shits whose lack of parental interaction or boundaries at home means they are unable to take even simple direction at school. Many of them are normal and unremarkable children who will grow up to live normal, unremarkable lives of quiet dignity, I am sure. A large percentage of them, and sadly my own experiences tell me this percentage is getting larger yearly, are feral and non-adjusted bastards who have no regard for human or animal dignity and are incapable of accessing even the most basic of information. I was once asked whether the Queen was “the Queen of Birmingham, or the Queen of the whole world?” Another child enquired in complete earnest “Why did they call it World War II if there was no World War I?” – in the same lesson one of his colleagues expressed shock when informed that World War II, and indeed everything they had learned in History since Primary school, was real.
It’s not always their fault; they live in an atomised society where anyone outside of the immediate family unit who expresses concern is suspected of being a nonce. Good parents still exist, parents who hold their child to account for their behaviour and instill ideas of right and wrong. However, these parents too sadly are swamped by those who try and be their child’s ‘mates’ and take them clubbing on a Thursday night aged fifteen and then lie about why they’re not in school on Friday morning. One parent of twin boys thinks that the best way to raise her lads along the path to adulthood is to take out credit card loans to buy them whatever they want. A £1000 limousine on their eleventh birthday to pick them up from school and take them to their box at Villa Park. She seems less concerned that their reading age is six and they are functionally illiterate and innumerate. She seems less concerned still that they have been arrested more times before their sixteenth birthdays than most people will be arrested in their lifetimes.
Like Macbeth, I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun. I have been in education for ten years and now my every waking moment is consumed with how to escape it. Yes, I will miss the holidays. I will miss some of the interactions with the kids and I will miss fewer staff. I will not miss the complete disregard for intellectual curiosity that the British education system fosters. I will not miss the ‘British Values’ stickers on our lanyards that include phrases like ‘Individual Liberty’ and ‘Freedom of Speech’ and then being asked to put a student in isolation for three days because they said “I don’t think being gay is normal” whilst wearing one. I will not miss asking thirty kids to write a newspaper article in the style of… and then having thirty hands go up saying they have never even seen a newspaper. I will not miss the stultifying boredom that comes with trying to teach kids who know they are guaranteed a job with their dad regardless of that summer’s exam results.
I have no shame in saying I don’t know what all this means for the British Education system. I have no answers, only concerns. I fear things may have gone too far to be rectified in any meaningful sense. Teachers have always been ‘a bit leftie’ but the new breed are so culturally paralysed that they will take no risk. A quick glance at ‘edutwitter’ will show you discussions by teachers – smiling, deodorised people with narrow, tedious outlooks – who want to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, taking out mainstays like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men because it features liberal use of the ‘n word’ and Curley’s Wife is called a “tart.” That Crooks, the black character, and Curley’s Wife are actually the only characters in the novella that are treated with sympathy by Steinbeck matters not at all. Naughty words have been used, outdated attitudes demonstrated and there are books by authors with exotic names and sexual proclivities to teach instead. I still see ex-students, now firmly in their mid-twenties who beam to me that Of Mice and Men is the only book they have ever enjoyed. For most it’s the last book they will ever read. As the saying goes, when America sneezes, the UK catches a cold. The “TikTok Lib nutter” teachers of the USA don’t have a transatlantic counterpart just yet. British teachers are much less openly political on social media and much less overtly in favour of huge sweeping reform agendas but scratch the surface and it is there.
Outside of the classroom, the management of schools suffers from a claustrophobic imitation of the corporate zeal so common in many other aspects of British public life. Parents no longer exist; only ‘key stakeholders’. Governors are now ‘trustees’. Academisation and free schools, once the exciting face of the coalition government’s modernisation push, have resulted in absolutely minimal modernisation and even less excitement. Notionally, schools in England and Wales are now free to set their own holidays, teach their own curriculum and hire non-qualified teachers from specialist backgrounds. As they are generally run by midwit conformists, very few schools or Multi Academy Trusts have done anything close to innovate. Teachers in Academies find life is very similar to when they were run by the local authority, only there is a different name on the payslip. A soft facsimile of the anarcho-tyranny that runs through the justice system can be found in the contemporary education system. In many ways it could be considered a dress rehearsal. Consequences for the very worst behaviour can range from being sent to isolation for an hour to the dreaded Fixed-term Exclusion – which sounds scary but usually means two days at home playing Xbox whilst all your mates are at school. Because schools are rebuked by OFSTED, the government watchdog, for permanent exclusions (PX) these are now very rare. Instead, local headteachers will meet up once a half-term and discuss ‘managed moves’ which is where ne’er-do-wells and recalcitrants are offered to other schools in return for taking on some of theirs in return. They rarely work, often breaking down due to the issue not being with the previous school or the teachers after all, but the child themselves. To many of my colleagues, this is a surprise. Two years ago, our then-headteacher opened a staff training session by asking us to meditate on a passage from Rousseau. Naturally, most staff had never heard of him.
Ryan was back in the lesson today. I am the third member of the department whose class he has been moved into, as it seems he has a problem with women – and all my colleagues are women. So my classroom is the end of the line. No one has stopped to ask why a child like Ryan, who will undoubtedly make a first-class bouncer or scaffolder, is being dragged through English Literature despite refusing to engage, being generally objectionable and ruining the experience for the few who are interested. The educational romanticist will point to building his ‘cultural capital’ in the hope that down the line Ryan will one day find himself outside the National Gallery and of his own volition go inside and have his eyes opened to a world of high art. In reality, on Wednesday to Sunday, he will drink at the Rose & Crown like everyone else in his postcode and will be selling underweight packets of cocaine in the toilets. I wouldn’t say the British school system is broken, it does exactly what it is supposed to: gets the kids out of the house for seven hours a day so their parents can fill in Excel spreadsheets.