Are standards getting worse in our schools? What is education for?

11 March 2010

It depends what you mean by standards. Exam pass rates have gone up, but does that mean standards are higher? I argued on Newsnight that teachers like me are now like foreman in factories; supervising, cajoling, bribing, lecturering children to pass exams. The net result is that children are getting better at passing exams, but when they are not spoon-fed the relevant information they come to pieces. Ed Balls defended the government’s record and squabbled interminably with Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, about the issues. I was sitting in an august panel which included Michael Morpurgo, Sir William Atkinson (head of Phoenix school in Hammersmith and star of the Unteachables), a chap from the Apprentice, and a parent who is trying to set up her own school. Before the filming began, Balls tried to ingratiate himself with her by saying that he was now looking at her plans for setting up the school. She seemed sceptical about this.

Gove came across most poorly, rarely coming up with an argument that defended his contradictory policies adequately. Michael Morpurgo was incensed that Gove was insisting upon upper class degrees because he himself has a Third and is obviously a marvellous teacher. I pointed out that Gove’s own maths’ adviser has a third class degree! His own maths adviser wouldn’t be allowed to teach under his schema. Gove’s defence of taxpayer-funded, private schools didn’t stand scrutiny: he mentioned Knowledge is Power schools as being his model, but seemed clueless about replying to my riposte that these schools clearly doctor their figures, having huge teacher and pupil drop-out rates to boost their stats.

The bad-tempered debate moved on to talk about the function of education with Balls and the Apprentice person arguing for schools to prepare children for the workforce. Morpurgo was more poetic, arguing for education to create a sense of wonder in children. I argued that education should be about “problem-solving”; it should enable pupils to solve dilemmas, to pose questions, to combat exploitation, rather than filling them up with facts to make them compliant workers.

Jeremy Paxman called me a “great teacher” which was unexpected, but possibly could be written on my gravestone.

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