When I’m writing, paradoxically, I feel as if I am sitting on my hands. As the days I pass I become more militant, enraged by what I see going on around me. I know I should be blogging about writing; but it seems so unimportant compared to what is happening in the wider world, and particularly in education.
I have a day job, I’m a headteacher of a primary school, and the recent publication of the Pisa rankings, and our leaders’ reactions to it, got me so roused I decided I needed to shout about it. Read this in a loud voice, please.
The Pisa rankings are the results of tests taken by groups of fifteen year olds across sixty-five countries. Wales performed worse of the four UK home countries, slipping into the lower half of the league table. Poland, Estonia, Belgium all score better than us. As one of the richest countries in the world, the UK’s education system is an embarrassment. As writers, we should be concerned if only out of self-interest: the country is creating fewer and fewer competent readers.
Leighton Andrews, the Assembly’s education minister said of the results, “There can be no alibis and no excuses. If we are to secure a successful educational future for Wales, we cannot tolerate complacency in the classroom.”
I write to Mr Andrews, now again, and I get the impression he’s a decent chap, piloting the rudderless barge of Wales’ education policy towards the rapids. He didn’t make the barge, or snap the rudder, but he’s doing nothing about repairing it. And blaming teachers is outrageous.
The Assembly has long complained that funding from Westminster is poor, and it is. I lead a school that is so starved of funds it cannot meet its statutory obligations: this in itself is quite absurd.
I have visited schools across the border, and seen the resources they have that we don’t: the buildings, the level of staffing, the computer suites and so on, and they funding is much, much better in England. However, I also notice that this does not necessarily translate into better standards. Money is an important factor, but I don’t think it explains why we are doing so badly.
More significantly, schools in Wales are not just starved of funds, we are also battered by new initiatives. I won’t list all these here, but you must take my word for it, I am so overwhelmed by paperwork that I am spending more time, and more money, on producing, for example, banks of evidence for the cockeyed inspection regime, that I get no time to do what I should be doing: improving standards in the classroom. The Assembly scrapped SATs a few years ago, and since then it has been chasing around like a rabid dog trying to find ways of determining whether a school’s own assessments are valid. They snap at the heels of Local Education Authorities, they howl at schools, they bark and whine at the Moon, and poo all over everything.
Schools have been turned into statistics offices. This is not an exaggeration. It’s what we do now. Ask any head, any teacher. We don’t teach, we assess, we create banks of evidence. We measure, and measure, and measure. And what we’re measuring is evidently not getting any better. But instead of looking at the root of the matter, the Assembly government expects systems of measurement. The root of the matter is that schools have long lost the drive to be places of education, where enthused adults passionately awaken the young minds before them. Schools have become arid and starved of the richness and beauty of things. We are being pressurised into arid systems and half-wit processes that may be good for the production of sausages, but are not so good at stimulating imaginations.
When Mr Andrew’s says that he “cannot tolerate complacency in the classroom”, we should respond that we, as educators, parents, or even students, cannot tolerate the imbecility of central government diktat. I would love to invite you to my school to see how ridiculous it is: when I get the chance to explain in detail to a concerned parent, or an interested governor, the sort of bizarre things I am asked to do, their eyes pop out, and steam comes out of their ears – they think I’m making it up. It’s almost surreal. No, it is surreal. It would be funny, if it weren’t for the damage that is being done.
For example, time after time the Assembly introduces a statutory policy, tells us how much it will cost, and then doesn’t give us the money. This has happened so many often it is now normality. Because no new money is available, it has to come from elsewhere, and this usually means teaching is compromised.
Schools don’t need vast amounts of money, but we do need to be given a little more freedom, and a little less constant scrutiny. If this doesn’t happen soon the system will collapse on itself.
And then we will not only have far fewer readers, but far fewer visionaries, artists, scientists, mathematicians, doctors and healthy, rounded, creative, confident and optimistic human beings.