Thinking the unthinkable – schools

Michael Gove SoS for Education

Michael Gove
SoS for Education

There was a fascinating debate on @BBCr4 recently. It involved Michael Gove and the usual education “experts” debating school policy. What was disappointing was their concentration on the curriculum to the exclusion of the potential for more substantial reform.

The debate was about prescription versus freedom; about the pressure to add to content; about the radicals’ desire to theme history rather than stress chronology and the ever-present desire to denigrate British history in favour of the multi-cultural. While Gove came out well and stoutly defended the importance of our historical heritage, I was disappointed that no-one looked at the bigger picture. The nearest they approached it was a throwaway remark that history was taught in state school for 90 minutes per fortnight.

If this is true, we should be looking at how to make more time in the school day not argue relative curricular priorities.

Let’s start with teachers’ working hours. State schools start around 9:00 am and stop in the middle of the afternoon. Most parents are at work well before 9:00 am and don’t stop until 5:00 pm or much later. Many parents struggle to find child care that matches their working hours and fills the gaps before and after school times. It might not work for younger children but shouldn’t and couldn’t older children manage a school day that started at 8:00 am and ran on until 5:00 pm? That would substantially increase learning time before we even questioned the necessity for and the value of the enormous summer vacation. Now I can hear the teacher unions harrumphing at such wicked questioning of their members’ terms and conditions and that, of course, is their job. Their primary concern is to safeguard the quality of their members’ lifestyles and not to improve the life chances of the children their members teach. Someone else needs to worry about those children and their ability to compete in a global economy where skills, aptitude, industry and enthusiasm are at a premium.

Of course, teachers can talk about the need to prepare lessons and to mark homework and I would not deny that teaching, done well, can be demanding, draining and tiring. That suggests to me that we need to think more broadly about how teachers teach. I suspect teaching is stuck in a time warp. Although many teachers use modern technology, I am not sure the underlying process has been thought about. Let me take an analogy with industry.  If you had visited the Rover factory in Oxford fifty years ago, you would have seen a production line with a large work force with a relatively low skills basis carrying out highly repetitive tasks at monotonously regular intervals. If you went to the Oxford Mini factory today, on the old Rover site, you would see an utterly different approach. A quarter of the size of the Rover workforce but highly skilled and aided by clever robotic technology.

Ah, you might say, “children are all different; they are not like cars on a production line” and I would agree. The problem in our schools is that we continue to treat our children like the old Rover cars. They all get 90 minutes of history per fortnight and they rush along the education production line from one point to another but little of the knowledge imparted at each point sticks. In the Oxford Mini plant, each car is different, made to order to reflect the express wishes of its putative owner and the highly skilled technicians have great pride in shaping the product to the customer’s needs.

I think the state school system has failed to bring teaching and teachers into an era of higher skills and greater personalisation of teaching. Teachers and children are on a treadmill from which there is no escape until they fall off exhausted. How do they gain the skills of personalisation, offer more time for learning and improve the life chances of their children?

I am sure the secondary school day has to be longer. I think the teacher has to be seen as a manager of resources and not just someone who stands in front of a class for so many hours per day. Teachers need to use support staff and technology more effectively. They need to grow a culture where learning is a must for every child, a privilege and a joy. Look at China, India or Africa where learning and teaching are on a pedestal.

This brings me to my next sacred cow: class size. I think a good teacher can teach 60 children as effectively as 30 children.  This won’t work for all subjects or for all children.  Chemistry needs every child to have access to a bench, Bunsen and chemicals.  Some children dislike school intensely and will disrupt their class whenever they can. It is no good allowing them to do this, particularly in a large class.  They need a personalised route that works for them and gives a good grounding in the three Rs if not much else.

What are the blockages to this strategy? Apart from the teacher unions?  Well, I think the biggest block is school buildings. To work in larger classes would require knocking down walls to make larger class rooms. The opposite is true in primary schools.  There was a fad in the 60s for open plan and it is not unusual for four primary classes to share a floor with every appearance of chaotic bedlam. I have never understood how teachers could concentrate in such an atmosphere. In my primary years, we sat in a room in rows with a teacher in front of us and we learned intensively.  It did me no harm and I think it developed my work ethic.

I suspect Michael Gove hopes his free schools and academies will develop experimental change of the kind I favour but he recognises the  huge resistance to change in the teacher unions and in the DfE. Until there is more radical change in our schools, I fear our children will continue to under-perform in an increasingly global market place for skills and enterprise.

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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