AS someone who has spent 36 years teaching in state and independent schools, there are two reasons why I am concerned about the future of education in the UK as the latest exam results are published.
The first is a loss of faith in a system which gives politicians – one politician – too much control over the details.
The second is a deep despair about the current values driving the way we teach our children.
Secretaries of state for education might or might not be interested in education. After all, they might become secretary of state for transport, or for the environment, in the next reshuffle. They might, secretly or not, aspire to one of the great offices of state. They might fancy becoming prime minister, like Margaret Thatcher when she was in charge of schools in the Heath government. Education is often a means to another end.
So while Michael Gove, energetic and opinionated, hardworking and hard bitten, is keen to make a difference while he is Education Secretary, he will be keeping one eye on the greasy pole of promotion. He will want to introduce policies which play not just to the populace, but to the Tory heartlands.
And guess what? The previous secretary of state – like the previous 24 who held this responsibility for the country’s future for an average since 1965, never staying in post longer than 18 months on average – and the next one will be exactly the same.
Education policy lurches from one bright idea to another, dancing awkwardly to one tune after another, while the opposition parties energetically denigrate the innovations of government. Not the best way to run such a crucial part of national strategy. Not the way we would encourage our students to develop their ideas and skills, when collaboration and teamwork yield better results. And not, I suggest, the way to improve the educational opportunities of the UK.
Driven by the deadline of a 2015 election and the possible vacancy at the top of the Conservative party, Michael Gove’s determination to make real changes to education is not, therefore, only aimed at improving the lot of children.
Partly because of the way we organise education at the moment, we have undercut the most important thing about it. Driven by a wish to hold teachers to account, and to be able to make judgments about the effectiveness of schools, we have devised ways to measure education.
It’s part of the current zeitgeist of targets and efficiency measures, and we can see why we’ve ended up here – along with hospitals, immigration, benefits and the retail prices index: we want to know how well things are working and to see if we can do better.
How do we measure education? Apparently, through exam results. But education is actually about friendship and values, character and adventure, dealing with emotions and coping with change. It’s about relationships and risk. It’s the business of imagination and creativity.
Yes, we need a literate and numerate community; we need qualifications and the measurement of skills. But at the moment, in the name of transparency and targeted improvement, we’re reducing students to a number of grades and defining schools by a pretty narrow understanding of what it means to be human.
And remember, the organisations responsible for doing that measuring – the exam boards – are not fit for purpose. They can’t reliably add up. Or check their own systems. Or write exam questions without errors.
Would you want to work in such a flawed setup? Do you want your children’s futures decided in such an arbitrary way? And do you really want a single person, the secretary of state – to determine whether a student’s achievement this year is worth more or less than last year?
What about reducing the number of exams to make more room for real learning and real development (and to enable the system to cope)?
What about the Secretary of State doing something really radical and giving education some autonomy from politicians?
It’s considered good enough in the economic sphere where the Bank of England has considerable independent power over interest rates. Why not an ‘Education Bank of England’ too?
*Jonathan Taylor is headmaster of Bootham School York.