Ofqual overhauls GCSEs, but to what effect?

Ofqual has overhauled the GCSEs with a new scoring system. I am obviously not a product of the British educational system, so I don’t have any anecdotes as to its effectiveness. And while I think it’s important to occasionally revisit curriculum and britishclassroomtesting, I think that we in the West often gloss over-or ignore entirely-the underlying issues with underperforming schools

I went to high school in southeastern Kentucky, and at the end of my senior year, I had plans to become an English teacher. My own teachers, however, talked me out of pursuing this dream. All of them sang a chorus of three complaints, all of which are rarely (if ever) addressed:

  1. Lack of resources. We can’t expect schools to succeed unless they’re provided the tools they need to do so. Cuts to local government are  indirect cuts to local schools, and the government commitment to building 180 new free schools redistributes desperately needed funding away from schools already in existence and which, with the proper support, could well succeed. I saw firsthand what a lack of funding can do in my own Appalachian high school, where arts programmes were non-existent, resources were exhausted early in the year, and for many young people, sport was the only thing keeping them in school and off the streets. Even that’s gone, now. Students can’t study and teachers can’t teach unless the schools are properly funded, and it’s simply not happening.
  2. Teachers aren’t teaching. My physical science teacher would sit at his computer looking alternatively at internet sport sites or my female classmates’ breasts, doling out assignments from the book but never actually teaching. I learnt more from Iain Stewart than I did from him. And he wasn’t the only one. It’s blasphemy amongst teachers’ unions to suggest that teachers are lazy, incompetent or both. And it’s true that teachers are some of the most unfairly vilified professionals, and the last thing I want to do is paint with a broad brush here. But the fact remains that many teachers simply aren’t teaching, or they aren’t teaching effectively. The answer to this problem, much like Santa Claus, is found in Finland. Oft cited as the epitome of Western education, the Fins have done a few things right. For one, they have some of the most rigorous teacher training in the world. They also treat their teachers as the professionals they are, affording the field a high level of respect and dignity which isn’t seen in the UK or the US. Part of that respect is  paying teachers equitably, as the professionals they are. Teaching is an economically equitable professional in Finland, unlike in the US or the UK. Because of this, Finnish schools are able to recruit the best and brightest graduates, who then become the best and brightest teachers, which can produce the best and brightest students. And Britain deserves the best and brightest.
  3. Cultural attitudes towards education must change. Folks can blame the government for the cuts or the teachers for their failings, but nobody ever wants to look in the mirror. I remember one of my high school teachers, almost on the verge of tears, explaining to me her exasperation. People didn’t care, she said. Students didn’t care. Parents didn’t care. The adolescent refrain of “when am I going to use this?” grated on their nerves, sure, but more so they were concerned about the cultural attitudes towards education. We have to make school cool. Parents have to get over their own insecurities and push their kids to do better than they themselves did. Too often parents, often subtly and inadvertently, discourage educational pursuits because they themselves cannot relate. “You’ll grow up to be just like your dad” needs to be replaced with “you’ll grow up to strive for more than we’ve got.” Parents need to actively engage in their children’s education, taking an interest in schoolwork and realising that, at the end of the day, the onus of their children’s success falls on their shoulders. Likewise, we need to take a long, hard look at the systemic issues disempowering the lower classes, including ensuring that poor kids aren’t going hungry, that they’re not having to drop out to help support their families, or that they’re not worried about crime, neglect and abuse. After all, it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you’ve got no boots to start with.

I appreciate that the changes to the GCSE come with good intentions, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers. Throwing out three talking points is much easier than coming up with substantive policy alternatives. But until we start funding schools properly, attracting quality teachers, and empowering and encouraging students, we’re never going to fix our schools-int he US or the UK.

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