If you were an alien (and many of you reading this blog must be), and came to visit schools in Scandinavia, you would rapidly come to some conclusions, whilst feeling slightly chillier than when you had left your home planet.
The main one would be that most school leaders and teachers in the country you had ended up in felt trusted and appreciated by their government and that public education was well funded and that teachers were well thought of – esteemed, even. There would be a recognition that these teachers and leaders knew that they were responsible for the future of their country and that their political leaders knew the school system well because they had actually been through it and prospered. As an alien, you would be welcomed in many parts because these are countries that have a long and honourable history of welcoming the stranger and assimilating them into your country. You would find exceptions of course, but you would be allowed off your craft and not stuck in a detention centre with other aliens on a small island in Papua New Guinea. Your children, if you had them, would be asked to attend classes at your local school to learn Norwegian or Swedish but then, once competent, they would join their peers and invited to climb trees at breaktime. It would feel like education was a public service, publicly funded and wanted, and that there was a degree of local control – if you wanted things to change, you didn’t have to go very far to seek that change. Above all, whilst you would see economic pressures (you are in Europe, after all) you would appreciate that the government regarded education of its young as a civic duty, the quality of which being something by which the government would be happy to be judged on. One of the countries you go to did have a flirtation with something called free schools, but the outcomes from these are mixed and the consensus is that most schools in that country are much better run by civic municipalities with some measure of local democratic control. Another country you visit has decided, between both main political parties, that the amount of the GDP that will be spent on education will be fixed at a very high level – not to be debated!
Then you get on a ferry and arrive in England. Here, you quickly find, hardly any of the members of the government have used the nation’s schools, which seems just weird to you, weirder even than some other things you will encounter in this new country. The government do not “get it” that these schools are a public service. Rather, many of them were educated at places where their parents either paid for them to go, or used a selection test of a limited range of ability to get in. They are all well educated, these leaders, but very soon, when with them, you see that schools are something to be criticised and judged, and not organisations the quality of which can be used to evaluate political leaders. The idea that government can be judged by the quality of its schools is not in common parlance. Rather, the press of this new country seem to be full of vitriol about anyone in authority, and that includes teachers, who are regarded as rather lazy and uneducated. You investigate further and do indeed find that the government of this country has such a low opinion of these “common” schools that they cannot find the money to train teachers properly. They even have a special organisation just to judge schools, demonstrating straight away their distrust of these “common” schools. Compared with your experience in Northern Europe, the teachers are indeed pretty undereducated, and in fact education is not seen as requiring an intellectual background at all. In fact, there have been recent efforts made to discourage the nation’s many good universities from training teachers, because they are not practical enough. A recent minister for education has even said that experts on a subject are not to be trusted, and you wonder and reflect back on your 3 year degree on your home planet – how good would I be at this space travel thing if I didn’t have experts in interplanetary travel teaching me? You recall that in one of your Scandinavian schools, teachers had to go through a four year vocational training. In a school in England you struggle to find a teacher who has not simply done a one year course attached to a “teaching” school. And still the government says it cannot supply enough teachers. You find out from the local trainer of teachers, a pleasant woman with a willingness to answer questions from an alien, that last year her teaching school was allowed to train 35 students, but this year has been allowed only to train 25, and you wonder where the sense of that is. You remember another Scandinavian school, filled with teachers with Masters’ Degrees in Education, and are overcome with awe that the English teachers you know, actually manage to achieve so much with such little training.
Here seems to be a country that only values money – the only explicit purpose of going to school seems to be to get a job when you finish. The only purpose of getting people a job is to raise taxes for the government. What the government does with the taxes is a mystery. The country has a large and well-funded health service (your guide for aliens that you read on the trip here says it is the largest organisation in Europe), yet the people do not seem to be any healthier than those in Scandinavia. The country seems quite bellicose, and you have heard that they are buying new weapons to hide on special underwater ships – that sounds expensive: maybe that’s where the money goes. They seem to have a lot of banks which keep all the money, yet many of those banks have been receiving money from the government, so economically, you are one confused alien.But you are getting some clues about the status of schools here.
Unfortunately, and this makes you sad, after your experience in Scandinavia, the government here seems to have no vision for what its nation could be, and you cannot see clearly why it is educating its populace at all. Yet the people seem straightforward and kind, hospitable and warm, and you wonder what miracles these teachers do with so little training and so little commitment from their government, which clearly despises them.
It’s warmer here, you think. There is more sunshine and plenty of openness from the children you meet, and perhaps you would like to stay.
This is slightly rose-tinted, I know, but in the light of the current funding crisis for schools and the lack of any sort of plan for making enough new teachers, I am left with not much faith that the UK government loves and honours its publicly-funded schools enough to meet their needs and to take responsibility for them.
If you are a government, there are certain responsibilities you need to accept, and one of them is to educate your children well, to provide and take responsibility for finding and training good teachers to do that, and provide adequate and safe buildings for them to learn in. Once you have done that, you can start talking about curriculum accountability, assessment and variable governance structures, but not before. As long as we do not have enough teachers or enough money to fund schools effectively, and to repair those that have fallen into dangerous disrepair, our political masters have no business talking about assessment, inspection, academies, free schools or grammar schools. Find the money, train the teachers effectively (and PGCEs don’t really count as effective) and then, only then, ask for some value for money. Because, you guys in Sanctuary Buildings, right now, whether you know it or not, with the teachers you have, the training you have given them, and the amount you pay to schools, you are getting better value for money than you have ever had. It is you who owe us, not the other way around.