“Education, education, education”
This was the mantra with which Tony Blair began his first term as Prime Minister, as Labour campaigned to bring classroom excellence to the top of their political agenda.
Over the next few months, Gordon Brown and Ed Balls will start blitzing the public with endless rhetoric about how education still remains this government’s number one priority. What’s that? A general election on the horizon you say? How fortunate.
But have Labour succeeded since election and three successive terms? There’s no doubting the level of money invested (doubling spending from £29bn in 1997, to £63bn in 2007) but moreover, have funds been spent wisely? Core “per pupil” funding has risen by 55%, while there are now in excess of 35,000 more teachers than ten years ago.
Initially, in the few years after Labour’s election in 1997, exam results soared, ministers patted each other on the back, and Cool Britannia seemed to be talking the talk, at least. But then a major flaw reared its head. The reason for the rise in exam performance was that teachers were now teaching students to the test. After this initial flourish producing better results, the marks fell into a lull. No more could be done to improve results, as teachers were still working from a rigid structure that was performance based.
Now teachers feel helpless when they face classes made up of a whole array of different abilities. There is no flexibility, and the national plan dictates that the teachers move on with the lesson, no matter how many children are left behind. I remember in my own school, a despairing teacher saying he’d love to discuss abstract concepts and literature, only to concede “it’s not on the syllabus”, and continue handing out past papers. Children are no longer being taught subjects. They are being taught to pass an exam. Cramming information into the brain during revision and then regurgitating it onto paper, without little idea of context or any real relevance. How can we hope to impassion young people about the arts and humanities, when the very nature of the education system is so sterile?
Labour have turned what should be a bottom-up system into a top-down structure. We need to start nurturing children at the earliest age possible, not throw them into a world of bureaucracy and exam neurosis. By the time so called “problem children” reach secondary school, it’s often too late for teachers to help them. By starting the process of encouraging free and unrestrained learning earlier, we can reduce the chances of encountering stumbling blocks later in life.
Despite all this, of late the focus has not been on primary and secondary education, but higher education.
Labour set the bar high, with a target of getting 50% of young people into higher education by 2010. They’ve come extremely close, with recent figures showing 47% of people aged 18-25 are in higher education. But has it really reaped rewards? The government line is that getting more people into university is more important than ever to secure the country’s future and the health of the economy.
But the failings lie in projecting such an exact figure for getting young people into higher education. University applications have gone up dramatically, but that doesn’t mean they’ve produced more industrious and independent graduates. Having an undergraduate degree has now become the bare minimum for most job applications. By proxy, anyone wishing to pursue their dream career must attend university. Furthermore, people who shouldn’t be at university are being encouraged to apply, so determined are Labour to reach that magical 50%. These are not students being equipped for the world of work. These are students attending university because they’re told they have to. All the hyperbole built up around “the best years of your life” has resulted in the myth that university is a must-have, to add to the list of things you do before you die. But it’s a lose lose situation. Opt out of applying, and you risk encountering prejudice and snobbery whenever you file a job application. Apply, and you enter a market over saturated with graduates, all with the added gift of thousands of pounds of debt.
Labour cannot be accused of under-spending on education. But a mismanagement of finance and an absurdly rigid targets-based organisation can be laid at their feet as a gross failure. Throughout the system, from primary through to higher education, staff are encouraged to always meet the goals set, no matter what. This doesn’t take into account individual cases, “difficult” year groups, and other arbitrary factors. All it results in is a disillusioned workforce and a student population who don’t really know what they want to do, or how to get there. Whichever party wins at the next election, they must think long and hard about how to tackle education, and learn from the shortcomings of this government.
This article originally appears in the February 2010 issue of Chartist Magazine