Tuesday, October 20, 2009

UK Education?

Today the BBC news wrote that truancy in UK schools was at a record high, 1.03% of school sessions being missed without permission.

"Missing school for no good reason is totally unacceptable," Schools Minister Vernon Coaker commented.

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesperson commented "The rise in unauthorised absence is not what we want to see, but as schools are cracking down on absence it's inevitable that they will be stricter about authorising it - meaning that unauthorised absence will rise,".

Who are they trying to kid? These children are absent from school because they don't like the courses which have been forced upon them! Parents too often fail to see the point of a child following a particular course.

The trouble is that those in parliament and government don't live in the real world. Their social circle does not include those of average or below average ability and by definition that makes up 50% of the population. As someone who was at the sharp end of education for 35 years I was constantly frustrated by governments who decided they knew best and would 'improve' education.

First as a chemistry teacher I was dismayed when the then government said 'We're not producing enough scientists - solution - make all children take a GCE (now GCSE) in science. Unfortunately they failed to realise that 'Scientists' are bred from the top 5-10% of the ability range and no amount of science courses will ever produce more 'scientists' from the remaining 90%. In the past most of the bottom 50% dropped science courses allowing the remaining 50% to have more time and money spent on them. That bottom 50% broke most of the equipment too!

By all means provide the lower ability groups with a science course. Give them a general awareness course which should be fun and interesting but not too demanding and not requiring pupils to learn about things totally beyond them. Let me ask Mps this:
"How many of you understand why relativity says you can't travel beyond the speed of light? How many of you understand about adenosine triphosphate's role in providing energy? Can you explain why the outer electron shell makes the chemistry of sodium similar to the chemistry of potassium?"
If you don't know the answers then you have no right to expect the majority of the population to know it either!

For years too, all pupils must follow a 'religious education' course in UK schools and each school must have a regular collective Christian worship. I always found 80% of pupils hated this as a total waste of time. Now I can see why it's still in the curriculum. Our MPs are afraid that saying they don't personally believe it has relevance in today's society will cost them votes. I found it interesting that, when MPs were recently asked if they believed in 'God', each paused awkwardly before saying 'yes'.

PHSE (Personal, Social and Health Education) This was a course introduced a few years ago. In some schools it's taught by a specialist teacher but in the majority it's taught, often poorly, by non-specialists. In schools where PSHE is taught by non-specialists on a particular day the absence rate is higher on that day. Now I can see the point of having this subject but if schools want it to be taken seriously then get a specialist teacher to teach it properly and concentrate the maths, science and other specialists on teaching the subject they know best. I would suggest merging it with the RE program too.

OFSTED - Few people know that this stands for 'Office for Standards in Education'. Its function seems to be to terrorise teachers and make them jump through hoops. Does it really do anything useful? How much does it cost?

SATs (Subject Attainment Tests) A great idea in theory - or are they? Do we really need to make our children jump through hoops several times in the course of their education? Remember the 11+ examination which regularly sent 40% of pupils to the wrong school? Do SATs allow us to tell which schools are best? Does knowing that 'information' help or does it mean that everyone tries to get into 'the best' school and the majority then arrive at a lesser school already disaffected because they didn't get into the oversubscribed school of their choice. Do the SATs results tell the teachers anything they don't already know?

So if I were the Schools Minister what would I do?

  • Scrap the SATs - a waste of time and money.

  • Scrap OFSTED - I can find a better use for £200 million and getting rid of it will reduce stress absence in schools which costs even more.

  • Forget compulsory science GCSEs. Instead introduce a science appreciation course for those who don't opt to follow sciences at GCSE level. Let's face it an average GCSE grade in science is a grade F which as far as employers are concerned is a certificate proving the person is incompetent at science. Certainly steer that top ability group towards the sciences though and concentrate the expensive resources on those with the ability to use them.

  • Merge the RE and PHSE courses. Make them non-examinable (although with the option of opting for a GCSE RE subject for those who want it) and have it taught by specialist teachers. Do away with the dictate that each school should have a compulsory Christian collective worship. Keep assemblies though.

  • See my job as being to provide schools with the funding they need to maintain and create new buildings, purchase resources, reduce class sizes and NOT to interfere.

Original cartoon Matt of the Daily Telegraph

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