Other than the odd minor tweak, our education system has sat broadly unchanged since the Victorian era. Yes, there was that experiment with middle schools in the seventies and eighties, some of which continue today.
Certainly, the leaving age has steadily crept up as Governments battle to find ways to lower the unemployment figures. Is anybody really clear about the options for 16-year olds today, unless they actually work in further education?
While some seventeen-year olds are still facing the daily belittlement of sitting quietly and saying, ‘Yes Sir,’ at afternoon registration, plenty of their peers are down the pub enjoying an illicit pint with their workmates while completing an apprenticeship.
But for all that, we might cynically say that nothing much is changed – kids start school when they are too young and leave when they can no longer be kept off the unemployment lists. If we take our school system as, broadly, breaking down into Nursery or Pre-School, Primary, Secondary and Further or Higher Education, we can look at each section and judge its effectiveness.
Michael Wilshaw, the former OFSTED chief (no, please, don’t immediately stop reading) argues that toddlers should be in some form of Nursery provision by the age of two, all the better to prepare them for the move to ‘proper’ school.
As a source of safe and reliable childcare, nurseries do a great job. We were lucky with our two; they came along quite close together and my wife was able to take a career break for about eight years until both were firmly ensconced into their primary schools. For all that, we made use of the local play group, which both girls enjoyed. It was not easy, however, with just one of us working, and my wife found it doubly hard, ceasing to be herself and becoming identified just as our daughters’ mum.
I include that mini anecdote to make the point that nursery education is handy, but whether it makes a difference to a child’s outcomes is a far more moot point.
Young children in Britain start school earlier than most of their peers around the world. Four-year olds in Australia can expect to be in school, like the majority of four-year olds in the UK, but look at the rest of Europe and more typically the starting age is six or seven.
Included in that group are some of the nations, such as Finland and Germany, where the education system is generally considered better than ours. We expect too much of our youngsters too young and reduce their opportunity to grow through play. I pity poor Reception class teachers who try to give their young charges that kind of opportunity, only to find themselves berated by school governors and parents, simply because, when they were at school, they could chant their twelve times table and read the Lord of the Rings trilogy by the time they were five (in their somewhat selective memories.)
But I feel that primary schools get it wrong at both ends. Not only are four-year olds too young to be put under the strict structures of a school day, but eleven-year olds can no longer be properly stimulated by seeing the same face all day, every day. We can learn from the Independent sector in that most proper Prep Schools, that is, the ones which go on to thirteen, tend to begin subject-specialist teaching around Year 4 or Year 5. The chances are, the best schools will still see their nine-year olds taught for two or three subjects, including a core one, by their form teacher, but they also have the challenge and stimulation of experiencing different teaching styles during the day.
I was, and am, a big fan of 9-13 middle schools. I attended Bective Middle myself, then spent much of my career either leading one or teaching in the 9-13 department of a Prep School. For most pupils, such a set up works well. The nine-year olds are given the support of seeing the same teacher for maybe a third of their day plus the excitement of meeting other staff.
By thirteen, the pupils are taught in a secondary style, but the pastoral issues which often emerge in Year 8 can be dealt with in what are usually much smaller environments than a secondary school. Who has not seen a 1st year eleven-year-old, waiting at the bus stop in a uniform three sizes too big, carrying a bag as large as themselves, and uttered a small empathetic murmur? That doesn’t happen in a middle school.
By the time most of our youngsters have entered Year 9, and begun their GCSE programmes (and what, can I ask, is that all about? They’ll be choosing their options in reception before long and specializing from Year One) many will already be on the road to failure.
The system will have caught them. Those destined to do well will do so whatever; those pre-determined to do badly will have seen their educational futures neatly laid out for them. And, as we know, the most common factors in deciding that route will be social class, economic status, race, ethnicity and gender.
Further and Higher Education
I don’t have a lot to offer about this final aspect of our education system. I know little about it, other than through my own experiences of many years ago, and that of my children as they enter this phase of their learning.
It seems obvious, though, that it is right that not every 16-year-old is forced to endure an academic future; and that we must stop babying our young adults and start treating them as important members of society. Giving them the vote would be a start.
Having said that, University was great, and I am glad to have enjoyed that experience. Did I learn a lot? Well, I became good at pool, and enjoyed some trips to study the Romantics in the Lake District.
If It’s Already Broken, Why Fix It?
Our education system is broken and is urgent need of repair. That is not the fault of teachers; it is a problem determined and sustained by governments who will neither take the political risk of changing it (imagine the Daily Mail’s reaction is school starting was raised to six!) nor put the money in required to make improvements.
It fails to recognize that every student is different and is more concerned with blind faith in structures than individuals. For most youngsters, formal school begins too soon; class teachers continue too long and movement to secondary school is too early.
But will it change? It is 150 years since the Elementary Education Act of 1870 paved the way for compulsory education. Changes since then have been few and far between.
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