As the EU referendum result continues to hold public attention, it has been all too easy to forget about the drastic changes planned for education. The academies agenda is still there, lingering over schools like a Victorian stench. We still need to be aware that we face an unnecessary and costly restructuring of our schools system that parents, experts and teachers simply do not want.
So why has it come to this? Why is education secretary Nicky Morgan convinced that standards would be drastically improved by a further push to a schools system that churns out workers that – she hopes – will one day be able to access the top levels of the job market?
The truth is that this position is based on a single premise, one that has been central to the broken promises of many policymakers. This is the idea that education is a silver bullet that will transform the prospects of those in society who are traditionally forgotten.
If we use this system correctly, the theory goes, it will allow the less fortunate to pull themselves up by their metaphorical bootstraps and create a wealthier and healthier country with far fewer social issues.
The problem is that this premise is a myth. The myth helps to foster the idea that education’s job is to make students employable – to enable young people to get good qualifications that will prove they have the skills for the job market.
The CBI often complains that schools aren’t doing this – implicitly suggesting that it is a school’s job to create a conveyer belt of work-ready employees. Policymakers often talk about achievement and the workforce interchangeably. Advocates of tackling educational disadvantage suggest that if we improve educational outcomes, then we will be able to provide access to the best jobs for all.
Let’s put aside that this myth is based on an assumption that a highly socially mobile society is the ultimate goal; many would reject this outright – and with good reason. In any case, we need to be clear that schools are incapable of providing the skills or resources necessary to train young people for employment. This always was and always should be the role of employers. We are not here to subsidise their staff development programmes, nor can we. If we continue to try to build perfect workers we will fail time and time again.
Initially, this situation may feel disheartening for those who commit their lives to helping young people but it should be celebrated. Our job isn’t – and shouldn’t be – to create worker ants. Our job is to mould citizens, to provide access to the works of Shakespeare, philosophical ideas, music, maths and science. Our job should be to instil a love of learning, to create inquisitive, questioning and creative minds. It is not for the corporate world that we do what we do, but for our students.
When we have done this successfully, it has provided a plethora of intangible benefits to employers, but they are not based on the premise that this is our final goal. Instead, they are based on the idea that everyone has the right to access as much as they are capable of from this wonderful planet that we all live on. This is no less ambitious an aim. It would take the full and unfettered dedication of teachers – something we all know the profession is very capable of – and the radical overhaul of the Department for Education, which would be a monumental effort.
While misguided attempts to improve employability that suffocate children’s learning are bad enough, the more troubling aspect of this myth is its relationship with policy. Governments have relinquished their responsibility for tackling inequality and continue to delegate the task to schools. Housing, social services, cheap and accessible public transport, and community cohesion are repeatedly brushed aside while a promise of education reform is mooted as the solution to all society’s ills.
This is a sinister view of improving people’s lives and keeps far too many people ill-educated, poor and fearful. The late Labour MP Tony Benn once pointed out that it also makes those people easier to govern.
Our vision for education should not be about this. If we say it is, then we are, quite frankly, wasting our time. If we start to change our thinking from the bottom to the top, then we can realise the potential for a truly amazing education system.
Joseph Bispham teaches at Forest Gate Community School in London, and starred in Educating the East End He tweets @MrBispham