Friday, February 03, 2006
Education at the Sharp End
Education is the rock, we suspect, on which Blair’s legacy might founder later on this month. Some 40 per cent of children leave our schools without qualifications: one of the major reasons for our poor competitiveness in the globalised world. The Education Bill will produce stronger schools, better teaching and higher standards, we are told. But critics fear the re-emergence of a two tier system in which middle class kids succeed and working class ones get left in the dustbin. We also daily hear tales of how awful it is to work in a down-market comprehensive. Given all these educational themes under discussion, I was intrigued to be invited, as a teacher, to do a couple of days examination coaching of upcoming GCSE candidates drawn from state schools around the area north of Manchester. We’d had a comprehensive briefing regarding the materials prepared for us focusing on confidence building, study skills and organizing for exams.
My group of a dozen boys and girls looked disarmingly normal, just like any one might see on a trip to a shopping centre or being noisy on the bus. I introduced myself, wrote down their names and had some chat about their hopes and fears. They seemed to share the normal aspirations for kids of that age: some wanted to run their own businesses, others to become lawyers, teachers or whatever. I felt re-assured- these kids seemed to know where they were headed- and began to began to address the study materials. Instantly two of the boys- Kevin and Roddy asked to be excused as they were ‘bursting’. Off they went … for the longest pee, it transpired, in history.
I began to find some in the group were unco-operative; when I asked them to turn to a particular page some failed to do so; Peter leaned back and closed his eyes, Bernie chatted to her friend nearby, Kenny got up and walked around; Ahmed tossed sweet papers at Kevin. I began to feel I was losing it. Did they not find the materials useful? No. Did they not need help with exams? They would do OK, they were very sure. Most were confident they would go onto university and make successes of their lives. So why wasn’t Peter addressing the materials? ‘I am Sir, honest’, this while his book remained closed, ‘Why you picking on me?’ And so it went on. The dominant tone was one of arrogant, immature misanthropy. They didn’t care, they didn't need this, they could succeed without it but they were determined not to provide any evidence to prove they could. Who knows how they will handle the disappointment and failure which is assuredly waiting down the line for them I’m not usually forceful as a teacher- I seldom need to be- but I can be if needed..... or so I thought.
By upping the exhortatory level I merely seemed to encourage them further in their rubbishing of the day’s coaching they had been given the opportunity- at no little cost-of receiving. They would not stop talking while I was talking. Whilst I tried every teaching trick I knew; in response a whole panoply of techniques-unknown to me from my schooldays- were unfolded to frustrate everything I attempted. In the end, angry and a bit desperate, I played my last card. I told them that in over thirty years teaching I had never met a group so hostile to learning, so apparently oblivious to their own best future interests. Unless they agreed to buckle down after lunch I was going- my time was more valuable to me than this. They mumbled- some looked a bit sheepish and promised to keep such a contract. The infuriating thing was that about two thirds of the group were reasonably well disposed to the day- just three or four were causing the trouble. And they were not unintelligent- in fact Bernie, was the brightest of the lot.
During lunch I chatted to the organizer- sympathetic, experienced, she’d seen it all. She marched into my group after lunch and extracted the three worst subversives to be dealt with in a separate group. Bernie, I then spotted, was an ‘item’ with the worst of the recalcitrants. Things now got much better: for the rest of the afternoon we made a little progress; it was, in my view, worthwhile…almost. At the plenary feedback I was pained to realize that some groups with other tutors had done loads of really good work. I returned home chastened and scorched by a sense of failure: I had thought I could help solve a small but important part of the nation’s educational culture problem. I had failed, and miserably at that.
I was doubtful if a second day was worth the candle. The money was not so good that I would miss it and at my age I felt I did not need my nervous health testing to such a merciless degree. But I knew that if I failed to turn in I would be handing on the same problem to someone else and merely intensifying my own sense of failure. So I turned up- and was so glad I did. I was a bit cannier on the second day- introduced myself more effectively and inspired a couple of laughs to break the ice and used the materials more selectively. The school was from a different catchment area plus the mix of kids was totally different. It was the luck of the draw; with another negative group my cup of woe would have been bitter indeed. Instead of four negatives, I now had three or four positives including a wonderfully pro-learning and strong minded girl. They wanted to learn, have a good time while showing teacher enough respect and take what they could from the day. I was delighted, relieved and redeemed, at least in my own eyes. Maybe, pathetically, one of the most important things for me was that they all liked me.
What did I learn? That teachers in the toughest schools experience what I did on my first morning every day of their careers with groups three times the size. Of course they learn to cope and counteract and make some progress. But the problem, the lack of motivation (not ability in my brief experience), is there day in and day out. No wonder they say they are paid merely as childminders, that sometimes have nervous break-downs or take to drink, or fail and fail again. Teaching adults and undergraduates all my career, I’ve been protected from these grim realities. This has not prevented me, of course, from pontificating about how schools should be organised or reformed. It would be salutary indeed if every MP could do a couple of days teaching in ‘bog standard comprehensives’ just to know a little of what they speak and legislate upon. I'm wholly unsure of the answers but at least now I feel I know what the problem is.
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