“Education, education, education.”
These were the words that Tony Blair triumphantly exclaimed in a speech he made in 1996 where he outlined Labour’s priorities for the upcoming 1997 general election. This, in addition to a slick election campaign, clearly struck a chord with the British populace as Labour won a historic landslide victory and gained power from the conservatives.
In hindsight there were several other words or phrases that Mr Blair could have chanted. A few spring to mind: “Illegal wars, illegal wars, illegal wars”, “Private Finance Initiative (x 3)”, “Subservience to the USA (x 3)”. The list could go on.
But I digress; was Tony lying when he said that Labour were going to focus on education? Well, technically they did a fair amount. Between 1997 and 2007 (in England) per pupil funding nearly doubled, there were 35,000 more teachers and 172,000 more teaching assistants- good job guys!
Or was it? I had the wonderful privilege of attending a prestigious and selective bog-standard West London comprehensive, starting year 7 (age 11) way back in 2004, back in the days where global warming was still at the “it’s plausible to prevent this” phase and where the global war on terror (otherwise known as the “get everyone in the Middle East to hate us campaign”) was just starting to heat up.
So did I experience the promised wonders of “Education, education, education!”? Not particularly, is the short answer.
The main problem is that Labour made no radical changes at all. The two main goals of the system remained. These were (and still are):
- To create students that are obedient to authority
- To get these obedient students to pass standardised tests, which typically require very little thinking but lots of mindless regurgitation of memorised mark-schemes
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that these are rather lousy aims for an education system, not least because getting teenagers to memorise a load of random facts for exams or essays is utterly pointless. Where’s the emphasis on critical thinking and independent thought? Where’s the fostering of creativity? For me and millions of other British secondary/6th-form students, bar a few exceptional teachers who did their best to do real teaching, it was nowhere to be found.
Even though these two listed ‘goals’ are unarguably stupid, they’re not that actually that easy to achieve. Elthorne Park High School, along with most state comprehensives, found it incredibly hard to enforce the two goals. Funnily enough, when you put thousands of adolescents through a school system that tries to install blind obedience and memorised mark-schemes, many of these hormonal and restless teenagers will try and resist this futile exercise. Resistance manifests itself in different ways; mostly in students putting virtually no effort into their classes but often also in bad behaviour and constant challenges to the teachers (“Why are we actually learning this?”, for example).
And so, the majority of my memories of Elthorne consist of students messing around in class, fights in the playground (not including me mind!), the awful school food, some more messing around and endless hours of us trying to bypass the internet security system to find online-games websites that weren’t blocked. Oh and of course there were the music classes with those magical electronic keyboards- “DJ, DJ DJ DJDDJDJDJDJ! Cooome on, *hughrrhghh*, Dic-dic-dic-dic-dic-dictionary”.
So yes, the current system is pretty poor. Although I’m sure that most of the teachers at Elthorne were genuinely trying their best, they had the impossible role of forcing hundreds of teenagers through an old-fashioned and quasi-authoritarian education system. Something that was destined to fail!
Just in case the Education secretary is reading this I will briefly summarise my main suggestions.
- Have way more options for vocational qualifications (plumbing, electronics, etc); most kids just don’t want to be badly taught Maths, English, Geography and the like. Why force them to learn stuff against their will? From an early age (14? I’m not sure actually) students should have the option to opt out of the traditional subjects to do more hands-on stuff
- Get rid of as many standardised tests as possible, they’re a waste of everyone’s time
- Try and foster independent and critical thinking in students; they need to be critical of the world around them
- Teach students how to teach themselves; how to use the internet for learning effectively- i.e. when to be suspicious of websites/sources etc
Bonus that will never happen
- In depth teaching about US and Western imperialism, neoliberalism and how the world is now controlled by rapacious multi-national corporations
- Teach the kids how to overthrow corporate-capitalism
Anyway, I’m at 700 words already and so I’m sure most people have stopped reading before this point. If not, thanks for reading this far- you must be really bored!