'Politicians don't seem to have any interest in helping children to actually enjoy learning'

The party manifestos may cover a range of important issues in education, but there's actually very little about children and the quality of their lives – it's all too Gradgrind, writes one educationalist

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None of the party manifestos in the 2017 general election say anything about helping children and young people enjoy their education more. There is plenty about school funding, structural change, Ofsted, teacher supply, the curriculum and careers education – all important issues, but there is very little about children and the quality of their lives.

The Liberal Democrats recognise that "England’s young people are some of the unhappiest and most anxious in the world" and the party states that "schools should be free to encourage children to participate in a truly rounded curriculum including the arts, sport and culture that broaden children’s learning and develop their passion for education". They also aim "to promote wellbeing as a statutory duty of a school, to be part of the Ofsted inspection framework".

The Green Party vows to abolish Sats, reduce class sizes, abolish Ofsted, reform the curriculum so that it is pupil-centred and start formal education at the age of seven, which will certainly make the teachers happier. But there is nothing directly about learner enjoyment.

It is unusual for politicians, who tend to take a Gradgrind approach to the education of other people’s children, to talk about children enjoying education, so it came as a considerable surprise when Charles Clarke produced a paper in 2004 on primary education entitled Excellence and Enjoyment.

'They learn to love learning'

His introduction to the paper was a welcome message to a troubled primary system and caught most people by surprise. In the current climate, it bears repeating:

I believe that what makes good primary education great is the fusion of excellence and enjoyment.

Excellent teaching gives children the life chances they deserve.

Enjoyment is the birthright of every child.

But the most powerful mix is the one that brings the two together.

Children learn better when they are excited and engaged – but what excites and engages them best is truly excellent teaching, which challenges them and shows them what they can do. When there is joy in what they are doing, they learn to love learning. Different schools go about this in different ways. There will be different sparks that make learning vivid and real for different children. I want every primary school to be able to build on their own strengths to serve the needs of their own children. To do this, they will work with parents and the whole community; they will think creatively about how they use the skills of everyone in the school.

The paper goes on to state:

As well as giving them the essential tools for learning, primary education is about children experiencing the joy of discovery, solving problems, being creative in writing, art, music, developing their self-confidence as learners and maturing socially and emotionally.

As a maths teacher in secondary schools for many years, it was always one of my main priorities that my pupils should enjoy maths.

None of their parents would ever say they had made a success of their lives in spite of being bad at English, but there were plenty who would tell their children (and me) that they hated maths at school and were no good at it.

I recall a Mathematical Association conference in Liverpool when the Lord Mayor welcomed us to the city with a speech, the gist of which was that he was no good at maths and was the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, while the rest of the people in the room had done well at maths but were not nearly as important. We didn’t warm to him.

Alas, it is respectable to dislike maths and be bad at it, out of which came my desire as a maths teacher to promote enjoyment of the subject, especially among those who found maths hard. For many years, I ran a lunchtime maths club and I tried always to bring enjoyment into maths lessons.

Turning the tables

There has been a crisis in maths for as long as I can remember – too few well-qualified maths teachers, too few children passing GCSE, too few doing A level. The latest policy wheeze from the Conservatives – a maths specialist school in every city – will not solve anything and has rightly been described as counter-productive by maths experts and school leaders.

Maths is a beautiful subject and politicians and teachers should think more about how to bring that beauty to the attention of all young people. Learning tables might seem a drudge, but emphasise the pattern in each table and it becomes a more creative and enjoyable process.

Experience the joy of numbers. One example I often used with pupils was to take any three-figure number, multiply it by 7, then by 11, then by 13. Explain why this happens. Try it!

See the beauty of pattern in mathematics. Study the golden ratio (1.61803399...) in nature and art.

But enjoyment should not be confined to mathematics. Teachers in all subjects and phases of education need to talk more about the joy of learning. Then, perhaps, politicians will follow suit and Charles Clarke will no longer be a glorious exception.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. His book, The School Leadership Journey, was published in November 2016. He tweets as @johndunford

For more Tes columns by John, visit his back-catalogue.

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