Please, let's get back down to business

25th June 2010 at 01:00
Love of learning and academic rigour - schools' real nitty gritty - have lost their way in a tangle of red tape

With all the administration that goes with teaching these days, it's important that we don't forget the joy, challenge and enthusiasm of our subject." These were the words of a teacher who attended last year's Prince's Teaching Institute (PTI) summer school. They will strike a chord with thousands of others.

One speaker at that event was Michael Gove, then shadow schools secretary. In the plenary discussion, he offered us his definition of "the real business of schools": "To open the eyes of children to experiences that would otherwise have been alien to them and to trust the professionalism of teachers who are motivated by love of subject and the desire to communicate it."

Many teachers who attend our courses tell us they already struggle to retain their "joy, challenge and enthusiasm". They may also be forgiven for believing that, in a never-ending stream of political initiatives, "the real business of schools" has got lost.

Earlier this year, we held a seminar for more than 100 heads, from a cross-section of secondaries, to look at "what works in schools". Joining them were employers and academics. We encouraged them to consider accessibility to academic rigour; the place of subjects; the national curriculum; policymaking; leadership; and competition and collaboration.

One of the main conclusions was that education had got caught up in a conflict of ideologies. For 20 years, the heads felt, there had been too much encroachment of politics into education, with schools being asked, in their words, to "mop up all kinds of social problems" instead of being places to learn. There was a tension between heads' aspirations to provide a challenging academic curriculum and the government-driven imperative to work within a culture of accountability and compliance.

There was also a feeling that policies were being driven by kneejerk reactions to social problems rather than guided by a strong education philosophy. One head remarked that of the 25 aims of Every Child Matters (the last government's programme "to improve outcomes for all children and young people"), only two dealt with academic subjects.

Of particular interest to the PTI was the strong feeling that the dissemination of subject knowledge was being diluted. As a result of pressure from performance tables, traditional academic subjects - perceived as "hard" - were being pushed aside. Children were leaving school knowing less, and were insufficiently prepared for the intellectual demands of the world of work and higher education.

The fact that these are the views of professional heads is a depressing state of affairs for the committed, passionate teacher who believes that his or her job is about stimulating children by widening their horizons and developing their intellect and imagination, whatever their background. It is also dispiriting for universities and worrying for employers.

We need to remember what schools are for. The PTI believes they are for educating children; to teach them things they don't know. We must also remind ourselves of the role of teachers. Michael Palin told us at a recent summer school for geography teachers that "the ability of teachers to absorb and, more importantly, to pass on knowledge with energy and enthusiasm is a priceless gift to the next generation". He said that his own love of geography could be traced back to two good teachers.

Simon Schama, another regular contributor, describes history teachers as "an heroic, embattled community, struggling with brutally imposed requirements, truncated time for classes, and arbitrarily disconnected 'modules' that make a coherent approach to a vital subject all but impossible".

The excessive bureaucracy, and the emphasis of policy on a social rather than an education agenda, can make teachers forget why they wanted to enter the classroom in the first place. The reasons why they loved their subjects and wanted to pass on their enthusiasm to the next generation have faded, to be replaced by the need to focus on exam specifications and satisfy the other 23 aims in Every Child Matters.

But it's not just communicating the wonder and delight of a subject that makes teaching matter; it's the importance of academic rigour in the acquisition of knowledge. I would argue that it is every child's entitlement to have the chance to embrace challenge. How can you discuss how to protect the environment without rigorous study of geography and science? How can you take a stance on nuclear power if you don't understand the science behind it? How can you fully enjoy literature if you haven't studied language?

We believe, on the testimony of many teachers who have attended our courses, that academic rigour and challenge are important, and that these are nurtured most successfully in the context of subject disciplines. And that the modes of education that make a genuine difference to the lives of disadvantaged pupils are those whose ethos and content allow all pupils access to the same cultural and scientific knowledge. That is why our summer schools focus on reinvigorating teachers, providing them with an inspirational forum to rediscover a love of their subject.

At the request of the heads who attended the seminar, we have sent the report of their conclusions to the new Education Secretary. We hope their views on a wide range of important issues will give him reasons to reflect on "the real business of schools".

Bernice McCabe, Headmistress of North London Collegiate School, co-director of The Prince's Teaching Institute and course director of its annual summer schools.

See for details of the next PTI summer school at Homerton College, Cambridge, June 28-30.

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