How our children are being let down by our politicians - not by our teachers
There's a saying that goes: 'Those who can't do, teach.' The last week has proved that this saying needs updating to reflect the changing times.
Last Thursday, education secretary Michael Gove decreed that school holidays are too long and school days too short, and that more time in the classroom would better equip our children to succeed. The following day, Ofsted's chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw started outlining his plans for an overhaul of early education, which could see failing nurseries and childminders closed down. In the last 48 hours, news has emerged that some schools are 'tricking' Ofsted inspectors by sending problem pupils home on inspection days to improve their schools' results.
What do these three stories tell us?
Some might say that they paint a picture of lazy, poor quality teaching by an establishment that is complacent, immoral and unfit for purpose. That is certainly the impression Mr Gove would like you to have. In his eyes, the blame is firmly with the teachers. The reality is very different.
I am not a teacher, but I've been into schools with my books and I know lots of teachers - all of them bright, honest, hard-working people. Their school day is anything but short; they are frequently still up at midnight, marking papers and planning lessons. The childminders I know are caring and diligent, often putting in long hours for very little pay. No teacher would want to fail a child. I'm sure it is true that schools are 'tricking' inspectors by sending under-performing pupils home, but the question for me is why? How did we get to a point where schools are so keen to be seen succeeding that they are failing those most in need?
The answer is Ofsted inspections. Successive governments have instilled a culture of fear in our teachers by putting them under constant scrutiny and using 'penalty' tactics (special measures, academy status, threat of closure) instead of rewards. Every teacher knows that the carrot works better than the stick, but government seems to have forgotten this pedagogical learning.
It came as no surprise to me when less than a month ago, the National Union of Teachers talked of barring school inspectors from classrooms as part of a major boycott of Ofsted. What these school inspections achieve is to make schools good at passing Ofsted inspections. They do not reward schools or teachers who offer a genuinely valuable, rounded education for our children. In fact, too often they do the opposite - for example, the teacher who was told to abandon the after-school maths lessons she was giving her Year 11 pupils in the run-up to their GCSEs in order to prepare for a possible Ofsted inspection in her class.
Most teachers would agree that lessons which tick all the boxes in an Ofsted inspection (clear presentation, collaborative work, individual work, etc.) are not necessarily the lessons that meet the children's requirements at the time. Ticking boxes does not equate to good education.
The big question is what we really mean by 'good education', and this is where we all start to disagree. For me, an education is a means of equipping young people to go and succeed in the world - academically or otherwise. This means teaching a range of skills from algebra to linguistics, but also instilling less quantifiable attributes like teamwork and confidence and offering an environment for personalities to develop and grow. I took an unusual path through life, studying sciences, qualifying in engineering, going into finance and then finally realising a career as a novelist. I would never have taken this path without that rounded education I was allowed to enjoy - and I know for sure that a lot of what I picked up in school wasn't anything that could be ticked off on an inspection report.
Shorter school holidays and longer school days will mean less time for children to play, discover and experience new things. Stricter inspections and harsher penalties will mean more stress for teachers, more tick-box teaching and more cheating the system so we end up failing our neediest kids.
Whenever Michael Gove stands up and announces his latest ill-thought-through initiative, I cringe, pitying teachers everywhere. But most of all, I pity the pupils.
If we shortened politicians' summer break, assessed their performance against rigid, unachievable goals and closed down failing constituencies, would our nation be in better shape?
Polly Courtney's latest novel, Feral Youth, is out June 26th.