Amidst the financial meltdown of the United Kingdom and its political chaos – the two may well be linked – the parlous state of education in the UK may seem a lesser problem. But are we not falling behind much of the rest of the world because of the way our education system, much like the NHS, is being neglected by a ruling elite whose BUPA memberships and good private schools offer privileged protection?
Having worked in the education system for over thirty years it saddens me to see how bad things have become in that time. Secondary schools have seen so much tinkering with the curriculum and the examination system one wonders how teachers remember what they are teaching and how it will be assessed. This year, for example, the grading system for GCSE has changed from A* – G to 1-9, just like it was when I took O levels – remember them? – back in the early seventies. Now, however, grade 9 is the highest grade and suddenly my O level results read a whole lot better.
As for A levels, there have been so many changes, especially surrounding the thorny issue of coursework or no coursework. In the latest English Literature syllabus, launched in 2015, coursework is compulsory but worth only 20% of the final grade; lots of work for pupils and teachers but statistically irrelevant. Expect the next change to be announced any day soon.
From a personal point of view I can only weep at the state of FE today. Ever the poor relation of the education system, it is now the embarrassingly broke distant cousin banging on the workhouse door, struggling to survive. Since the days of Incorporation, college funding has dropped and the quality of education on offer has proportionally worsened as college managers, faced with an almost-annual round of central government-initiated funding cuts, have adopted increasingly draconian methods of balancing the books and keeping colleges open. Not all have succeeded, despite their brains for business and, in some cases, an apparent delight in reducing ‘holidays’ and implementing unworkable contracts. That many managers have little or no recent familiarity with the classroom and the demands of full-time teaching is another issue and surely not best practice. Sir Alex Ferguson knew life as a successful professional footballer before he became this country’s most successful manager. And in whose interest is it to have colleges run as businesses where neighbouring colleges spend sizeable parts of their budgets on costly marketing campaigns to attract the area’s best students, or ‘funding units’ as I believe managers refer to them? In many cases it seems as if saving money, any money from any area of education, is the end in itself. Some managers seem to look to ‘value’ with no concern for educational value and benefits, and in some instances this has resulted in experienced teachers being ‘encouraged’ to leave to make way for younger, and cheaper, replacements. I know of one highly experienced and successful teacher from another part of the country who was given a spurious poor lesson observation grade as the first move in making life so unpleasant for him and driving him out. I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse from The Don Corleone management handbook. Of course the profession needs to attract dynamic young teachers but what price experience?
In 1984 – an ominous year to move into FE? – the average size of my own A level classes tended to be 15/16 students; this year I have been met by 22/23 smiling faces. You do the Maths. Until recently my A level classes were taught for five hours a week; now it is four and a half hours a week. Another ‘saving’. It gets worse. In 1984 an FE lecturer with no departmental responsibilities taught 21 hours a week; this year there are lecturers in this country teaching 32 hours a week, albeit for only half a term or so. Is that really possible? Is the notion of ‘life/work balance’ – whatever that means – mere lip-service in some policy that is overlooked when it comes to the practice? Other lecturers have been asked to teach 3 evenings a week even though more than 2 evenings a week should happen only by mutual agreement. Once again I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse. These days, management counts every hour and yet is surprised when staff do the same. Goodwill? As Shylock says, The villainy you teach me, I will execute. Please don’t tell me this has no detrimental effect on student achievement.
Universities are no better: class sizes have increased whilst the number of lectures and seminars has decreased. My own daughter graduated this year with a first class degree but having had far less contact with her lecturers than I did when I coasted to a second in the seventies. More time is spent on research and chasing lucrative foreign students it seems. £9000 a year? Doesn’t really compare with my free tuition, good grant and hours in the company of lecturers who seemed to regard teaching the likes of me as their primary role.
I did work in a disreputable private school at the start of my career and when I wrote Knowledge Waits my intentions were to send up certain aspects of such schools and to create characters who, for the most part, were tragically pathetic and should not be in teaching. I was trying to highlight that such schools should not be allowed to operate. (Mercifully, I did discover that the one I worked in briefly at the end of the seventies was forced to close in the eighties).
But I was also very much trying to write a comedy. Some people have asked me if I am going to write a sequel to Knowledge Waits; it seems some readers want to see what happens to Gerry, Malcolm and Mike. But I don’t have the stomach for it: much state education is so poorly funded and valued that it has ceased to be a laughing matter. Another reader commented that it is ‘an angry novel’ but I fear any follow-up would be angrier still. Were I to write a sequel with any of these characters now employed in an FE college the laughs would be very thin on the ground compared with Knowledge Waits. There is still laughter in colleges but these days it is very desperate laughter. We are not quite teaching in a dystopia but we are so much closer to 1984 than we were in 1984.