Education in the UK

I have been in and out of education for several decades since my first teaching job, both delivering it and receiving more of it. In that time, I have taught or presented to almost every age group between 7 and 70. It has left me still passionate about the transformative power of good education for others and a great lover of learning myself.

During these past decades the intrinsic value of acquiring knowledge has gone down a little, though the thrill of being around people who really know what they are talking about has not changed. A good education in the widest sense helps you think and communicate more clearly and, however far you go with it, it can help you ask better questions. It can help us become more employable, and more humble, accountable and responsible. Christianity has ploughed a huge amount into education in the past, and it still does.

At worst, some who shine like stars while in the educational system conspicuously fail to do so in the wider world. A good educational background can become yet another reason to look down on others. Those who do not prosper from their education can feel ruined rather than set up for life, and the transferable skills that education imparts can be used for some seriously wrong ends.

I have become convinced that many who are interested in UK education fail to rate sufficiently the role of parents in the process. If a school does well or badly on national measures of attainment, all too little attention is given to the role of the parents in that. I suggest, therefore, that a key to raising educational standards is to ask what can practicably be done better to harness the support of the parents, for example in helping them to provide a reliable location at home for their children to do homework. Early interventions and involvement are needed with some parents, before their child even reaches primary school age, if these parents’ negative attitudes to education are not to be passed on to yet another generation.

Where the primary role of parents in their child’s education is ignored, as in the Welsh and Scottish Government’s expressed intentions to outlaw smacking, many parents will be led to abdicate all the more from their own role and, instead, will in time burden the state yet more with responsibility for the shortcomings of their child’s upbringing.

The 100 most deprived districts in the country are a key to – or a continuing liability – to the future of the nation. The schools in these districts are fundamentally important as places of change. While they already qualify for extra funding on some measures, there is no extra funding in place for instance for a school that is vandalised on a nightly basis. The ‘low tide’ in this nation can be that bad.

The cycle of deprivation in the highly deprived districts is deeply complicated and it is all too easy to give useless help to a school. However, that does not negate the value of MPs, County Councillors and civil servants talking at some length to the headteachers and governors of schools in these districts to identify their unique needs and some possible specific extra areas of support. That could result in some specific provision for a breakfast club (half-starved children don’t learn much) or money to buy a team kit so that a sports team could go and take part in matches. One capable fundraiser appointed per city for these schools could enable governors and other volunteers to enlist help well beyond statutory sources.

Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) is a key area of the curriculum because of the relational fault lines in British society, resulting in an estimated 6 million British people not knowing the names of any of their neighbours (Aviva survey, 2017), as many as 7.7m people living alone (according to the Office for National Statistics), and loneliness being a major problem in British society. The attention that should have been given to this very important area of weakness has been recently dissipated on transgender issues that seem set to promote yet more relational confusion and emphasis on difference. I have written more about transgender issues in my previous blog on ‘Health and the NHS’.

Meanwhile, Ofsted has widened its role from being an inspectorate and upholder of educational standards to being an instrument of coercion. A team typically arrives with almost no notice, however inconvenient that may be to those visited, and can then go on to make or break the future of a school and the careers of individual teachers in the process. One or more of the Ofsted team may have no relevant teaching experience in the scale or other special nature of the school being inspected (e.g. most notably in some Jewish schools, resulting in some serious unprofessional clumsiness occurring in the interviewing of children), and giving clear evidence that the inspectors responsible were operating out of their professional depth. The potential to appeal successfully against any judgments made as a result of an Ofsted inspection – not just the mere facts observed – are largely absent.

Under the circumstances of little notice being given before an inspection, schools feel obliged to prepare for Ofsted expectations. Certain phrases are known to please them while others can bring them down ‘all over you’.

Given that Ofsted comes across as robustly resistant to external criticism, the Department for Education and Skills needs to reform how Ofsted operates so that wider respect for its methods and ratings can be restored. I will write about ‘British values’ in my next blog.

School-based state education could reasonably be seen as a higher priority in the country than it is. If it was so now, there would be a stronger clamour for more funding, as is heard almost daily about the NHS. School budgets are under great pressure everywhere. The minimum qualifications needed for teacher registration could also be raised, as a reflection of the perceived importance of the teachers’ role. Of course, in the end, the best teachers are not necessarily those with the best qualifications.

Our most highly ranked universities are very well regarded internationally, though there is a less praiseworthy tail at the other end of the university rankings with levels of financial risk and retention rates that seem unresolved. UK universities generally have recently received a bad press on such issues as vice-chancellors’ pay, contact hours with students, free speech, and lecturing staff pensions. Inaction, or just plain slowness over the past years, on some of these matters is surely the reason why the Government has created the Office for Students. Despite the complexity of UK laws and practice, it is almost shocking that our politicians should be championing the concept of free speech more loudly than our universities.

There is another threat occurring to the exercise of free speech, which is the indisciplined and demeaning rudeness towards others that has been seen from a minority of academics and politicians. Those who show it are carelessly inviting audiences to conclude that the time has come for more controls on what is now allowed as part of free speech.

It is paramount that Universities UK finds a more pro-active and authoritative common voice, without resistance from some Vice-Chancellors on the basis of university autonomy.

Since the UK is among the market leaders of Education both in universities and in private education too – if judged by who and how many come to the UK to study – some fresh steps can be taken to preserve that position, rather than it being taken at all for granted.