If you don't know, ask

8th November 2013 at 00:00

What is the point of school?

There's a staggering amount of information on any subject freely available on the internet, so it's not surprising this question is asked. Of course, school is much more than a place for acquiring knowledge. It's also where young people learn to relate and interact with each other; where they acquire social skills, a sense of society and behaviour that will eventually help them to become useful, caring and thriving citizens.

Most importantly, school should teach us that considering the views of other people and valuing what they have to say is an essential part of democracy and civility. Which is why I get very hot under the collar when I listen to educational pundits, journalists, school inspectors and politicians making pronouncements that have no basis in reality or haven't been thought through.

Recently, I was listening to a current affairs debate that included some questions about education. When asked whether performance-related pay for teachers was a good thing, a young MP said he felt it was essential. "It is absolutely right," he said, "that hard-working teachers whose children constantly achieve high exam results should be properly rewarded." A member of the audience then raised her hand. "I'm a special educational needs teacher," she said. "I work exceptionally hard, but I call it a success if I can actually get some of them to school. How are you going to measure my performance?" The MP was caught off guard. He'd probably never encountered a child with SEN. "Well, I'm firmly on the side of the pupils," he said lamely, "and we need to be driving up teaching standards for them."

In the same week, a former head of England's schools inspectorate Ofsted related his views about the current state of education in a national newspaper. He noted that more than 200 academics and writers had signed a document expressing concern about national policies on curriculum and assessment, but merely dismissed them as lumpen theorists who "think young children should spend their lives playing in a sandpit". In saying this, he revealed his gross ignorance of the experiences very small children need. But then, of course, he has never taught them.

Teachers these days are regularly dictated to and have little chance to be innovative. There is a prescribed method for delivering a lesson that will be acceptable to inspectors, and if teachers deviate from it they are likely to receive a "notice to improve". Senior managers waste an awful lot of time monitoring lessons, simply to make sure they are inspection-proof. And school leaders today are constantly encouraged to be dictatorial, brooking no dissension in the constant battle to "drive up standards".

For me, this goes strongly against everything education stands for. My own primary school always achieved excellent results, but in a culture where I valued everybody's opinion and listened carefully before I made a decision. Which is why I'm certain the very best learning only takes place in an atmosphere of harmony and purposeful agreement.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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