Mis-selling the future

13th July 2012 at 01:00

It is not unusual to walk into the English office and find my colleagues in tears. Anything and everything makes them cry: thoughtful cards, Shakespeare's tragedies, changes to the AQA controlled assessment bank and moist lemon drizzle cake all reduce them to floods. Without a doubt, English teachers are the most emotionally incontinent people I know. I'm not sure whether they were born that way or whether their immune systems just can't handle all those end-of-term screenings of Goodnight, Mister Tom. The only people with a greater propensity for blubbing are Oscar-winning actors and toddlers who want chips.

Last Monday, I interrupted a particularly sodden congress of sorrow. My colleagues were in a huddle, communing in some abstract universal sadness. I scanned the room for the obvious culprits but there were no warm cupcakes, no gift bags and no well-meaning cards. However, there was a sheet of coursework.

It was a sixth-former's version of A Letter To ... - the weekly newspaper column where Guardian readers address someone important in their lives: an absent father, an estranged sister, or the fetus they dropped in a bucket back in 1992. This is the one element of A-level language coursework I hate. A Letter To ... prompts Guardian readers to engage in a quivering, cathartic orgy of regret before they sign up for a durable free-standing awning to protect their summer barbecue at the knock-down reader offer price of #163;119.95; and it produces some dire responses from our students, this being no exception. Without a hint of irony they address their emetic eulogies to dead hamsters, removed appendixes, favourite teachers from junior school (never, please note, secondary school) and - in the case of the gifted and talented - their prematurely abandoned dreams.

But the main reason I dislike this task is because I can't see where it leads. It is not as though the economy is suffering from a lack of obituary writers or is in desperate need of people who can pen a panegyric on the passing of the family pet. The Local Government Association has already criticised us for grooming armies of media professionals, personal trainers and hairdressers for jobs that don't exist, so it seems morally indefensible to teach students writing skills that have no real place in the world.

Like the financial sector, we are guilty of professional misconduct. We all have our eye on the quarterly profits and no one gives a fuck about the long-term plan. Banks are reprehensible because they have been mis-selling special insurance to thousands of small businesses, but are we really any better? We mis-sell specialist careers - in forensics, photography and film studies - to thousands of naive kids. And the poor practices identified in the banking sector could easily relate to the way we present curriculum choices to our students: do they really understand the risk? Is the product presented clearly enough? And is our advice based on the student's actual needs or skewed to drive home targets?

There is a profligacy of opportunity at the heart of education that bears little relation to the grim British reality lurking outside the school gates. If, as Arthur Miller points out, "the only thing you got in this world is what you can sell" then we need to sell the right products to the right people. Because flogging dead-end careers to children is enough to make me weep.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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