You've got a huge mess to sort out

16th March 2001 at 00:00
New Zealander Derek Neal is going home a disappointed man.

If the British education system were human, it would be attached to a life-support machine awaiting surgery. In my 33 years of teaching, I have never experienced such low morale as I found when I arrived here from New Zealand a year ago.

For 12 months I have listened to politicians, spin doctors and their ilk waffle on about improvements, extra funding, more equitable distribution of resources and so on. None of these "bandage" remedies comes close to what is required.

While the talk continues, schools move to four-day weeks, teachers leave and agencies roam the world seeking teachers to fill the gaps. As a New Zealander I resent the attitude that it is perfectly acceptable to take the teachers from other countries to meet the UK's need. Surely, as a once-great nation, the UK should be able to train enough of its own?

The concepts of healthy criticism and open discussion seem to be foreign over here. Dare to voice a dissenting opinion and colleagues disappear faster than you can say "don't rock the boat".

As a foreign teacher, I had to retrain to teach here. One particularly irksome requirement was the numeracy test - an exercise so simple as to be insulting. I make no apology to British colleagues who struggle with it; if you can't cope with these basic calculations, you should not be teaching.

And the much-vaunted salary threshold is a joke. Its administration could not have been managed in a worse way: even if I had been allowed to apply, I still would be waiting for the money. Cynically, I think it will finally flow just before the general election. Do politicians really believe teachers are that stupid? I have yet to see if those of my inefficient colleagues who applied to cross will make it. It is an even bet they will, thus creating a further idiocy.

The national curriculum is easy to subvert. It seems far too many schools simply take the line of least resistance ad, rather than use it as a starting point, treat it as an end in itself. It leaves a dead hand over individual teacher initiative and enthusiasm, and the classroom process. The system over-assesses, over-ranks and over-examines. It most certainly does not provide for the less academically able. It also has a nonsense called league tables, which are seen as having a sort of magical power. Parents are bombarded with an insane amount of letters and statistics.

I have heard almost all these criticisms made by other people. So why is so little done to remedy the clearly identified areas of serious malaise? It is difficult to understand how a country that has successfully exported so many fine theories, ideas, institutions and systems could be making such a monumental hash of it all.

To the outsider the problems are clear: initial and postgraduate degrees which are too easy; inadequate postgraduate training for teachers; poor conditions and salaries; unclear and unwieldy promotion paths; huge bureaucracy; difficult students; a confused curriculum; badly designed schools; poor teaching resources; inadequate provision for special needs; and poor school discipline. To name a few. There are also clear and lingering vestiges of the class system as well as a deep well of racism.

One immediate action could be to have every aspect of curriculum and assessment scrutinised by people with the sensitivity and good sense to figure out what is best for the students. Perhaps British educators - and the public in general - prefer the devil they know.

My diagnosis is not a cheery one. At the end of 1999 I arrived expecting to find excellence and initiative, not dross and despair. Students here deserve so much better than they are getting from government, local authorities, school administrators, school management and some class teachers.

Derek Neal teaches English and media studies at a comprehensive in Leicestershire. He returns to New Zealand in May

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