The destructive presence always in our midst

17th December 2010 at 00:00

Another big fat schools white paper from another government. A feast of debating fodder for the serious newspapers, the serious radio stations, and that really serious programme on BBC 2 that comes on when most teachers are heading off to bed. But do any of us who work in schools, who share classrooms and corridors with 21st-century British children and adolescents, really think that Michael Gove's plans will make a big difference? Or any difference?

Sure, we all have views on the various components of the education secretary's recipe for school improvement. I was even tempted to air my thoughts on his plans to de-modularise GCSEs a few nights ago on late-night radio. For what it's worth, I argued that sweeping away modular GCSEs, for most subjects, would be a good thing, since an end-of-course exam provides the best measure of whether or not a student has mastered the body of knowledge covered over nearly two years, and acquired the mature skills to exploit that knowledge.

And, given a fair wind, I think that the planned changes to teacher recruitment, to the make-up of school league tables and to Ofsted inspections might have a beneficial effect on the margins of our school system. Encouraging more schools to go for academy status, and allowing a handful of new free schools to emerge, is also, in my view, worth a try.

But I readily concede, of course, that many of my fellow teachers take precisely the opposite view. They see Mr Gove's plans as elitist, regressive and damaging.

My point is, though, that there is a far, far more influential factor that dwarfs and renders irrelevant all our well-crafted arguments of principle about how children learn best. I would be almost tempted to use the phrase "elephant in the room" if it hadn't become 2010's most overused metaphor.

The factor I'm referring to is the little matter of the 6 million-strong body of humanity that swills in and out of state schools for 39 weeks a year. It is the characteristics that these children and teenagers possess that, overwhelmingly, make our education system perform so much worse than Finland, Singapore, South Korea and Canada (see last week's results from the Pisa survey carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

Let's admit that in Britain, for decades, we have produced generation after generation of children, an unhealthy chunk of whom come to school with no intention of putting themselves out to learn anything. They come from backgrounds where no one is demanding that they put in a solid day's hard work every time they leave home on a weekday morning. Most damaging of all, they come from family environments where no one puts themselves out to help them acquire the habits of self-discipline, concentration and persistence that seem to come as second nature in so many of the world's countries.

We must face up to the fact that we are a country harbouring a widespread and rather poisonous anti-education mindset, which leads a good million or more children to spend much of their day wasting time, and, more harmfully, disrupting the education of those who are trying to learn. This sour and sizeable minority exists like a cancer in the school system, sapping the energy and resources of the school workforce and crippling the ability of many schools to break out of entrenched levels of very modest achievement.

It has proved itself impervious to all the well-meaning and well-argued reforms that have been applied to the school system in the decade since I first walked into a classroom, and I fear it will prove more than a match for the Gove agenda. It doesn't care how many billions of pounds are chucked at reforms, whether in programmes of one-to-one tuition, phonics strategies or modern new buildings and equipment. It remains at best indifferent to, at worst hostile to, the idea that learning is necessary to get on in life.

Has anything changed in the nature or scale of this negative and destructive presence in our schools as a result of the numerous initiatives and billions of pounds in extra funding that arrived during Labour's time in office? Nope?

So until we, as a society, can find a way of dealing with this phenomenon, we are wasting our time investing too much hope in the outcomes from these white papers.

And I think we teachers - who know the reality more than any other group of people in the country - have a duty to tell it how it is a bit louder and a bit more often.

Steve McCormack teaches part-time in a north London secondary school.

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