I enjoy visiting schools and talking to students but I’m so glad I’m not a teacher any more. All the teachers I know have complained about frequent changes of government policy, masses of paperwork, and SATs testing (Standard Attainment Tests), which have reduced young children to gibbering wrecks with the stress.
I’m glad I’m not the parent of a school-age child either. There’s been a lot of talk about parental choice, but from what I’ve read, your choices have been limited. If you’re not religious, for example, and all the local schools have a religious ethos, you can either do what many parents do, and pretend to be religious to get your child into the best school, judged by its exam results and Ofsted reports, or what? Find the money to transport your child to a school that’s free from religion? It’s become so complicated that pushy parents are having to devote a lot of time to researching their options.
The Labour party introduced academies (many run by religious organisations) and specialist schools. I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. Specialist schools can “specialise” in a number of subjects: arts, business and enterprise, engineering, humanities, languages, mathematics and computing, music, science, sports, technology, and applied learning. What’s “applied learning” anyway? Around here, I’ve come across schools calling themselves “technology colleges” and “science schools”. Apparently, the idea is that specialist schools can attract private sponsorship, which could mean lots more computers, for example. A University of Buckingham report last year questioned the value of specialisation, saying that specialist schools had names that “did not mean very much”. The main advantage of becoming a specialist schools appears to be attracting extra money from business sources. But why specialise? Surely secondary schools should offer a good general education, with opportunities for students to develop their strengths as they grow older. How does a child whose aptitude is for music or art fit into a specialist science school?
Until recently, local authorities were mainly responsible for schools. Now, any wealthy business person or powerful organisation, including religious organisations, can open a school and call it an “academy”. This has resulted in some flashy new buildings (some without playing fields, so they’re obviously not sports academies), while local authority school buildings disintegrate from lack of investment, no matter how positive the schools’ ethos or high their standards.
The latest fad is “free schools”. Toby Young was one of the first to enthuse about this idea. Rumour has it that his group had its inaugural meeting in a wine bar. Even if it’s not true, you kind of feel it ought to be. Michael Gove’s been busy dismantling the education system over the last few weeks, and is pushing the free schools idea, to the dismay of teaching unions and others. The evidence suggests that Swedish free schools may have only short-term positive effects, and that their system is different from ours, so there was hardly any alternative to non-selective state schools when they were introduced. If groups of parents start free schools here, what happens when their kids move on? And what if you’re not part of the in-crowd? There’s ample scope for tyrannical parent-power; who’d want to teach in one of their schools? Yes, I have heard that groups of teachers want to set up free schools too. It’s turning into a potential free-for-all, resulting into a fragmented system.
In all this confusion, there’ll be ample scope for religious opportunists to grab a slice of the cake and impose their ideologies on young minds. Gives me the shivers.
If I had school age children, I think I might research what other countries offer, pick the best, and move. If you can’t afford to do that, perhaps it’s safer not to have children.
Photo (c) M Nelson 2007