Are schools de-skilling our children?

Near the start of my teacher training programme I wrote a blog post expressing my discontent with the UK education system. I’ve now finished my training and find not an awful lot has changed. If anything, I am more worried and frustrated than ever about the state of education in our country.

Today the Telegraph published a piece about a study, claiming that UK school leavers ‘the worst in Europe for essential skills’. This comes as no surprise to myself, having visited a large number of schools around the UK this past 12 months, I’ve seen a lot of worrying things. My primary concern is the fact that students aren’t being taught. Literally. Students are being spoon-fed just enough information to get them through exams and coursework, to make sure schools sit comfortably on league tables. The focus has shifted from learning to data-pruning, everything is results driven. Our children are hungry to learn what they need to know in order to survive in the real world, but instead we’re shoving tubes down their throats and force-feeding them exam flavoured corn until our results are the smooth foie gras that makes the school’s menu look presentable to outsiders.

There are of course exceptions to this rule. Out of the dozens of schools I’ve spent time in over the past few months, there were three in particular that caught my attention. One of which managed to hold onto their traditional grammar school values and are actually developing pupils into learned individuals and all-round great people – rather than just numbers on a spreadsheet. The other two schools that I have been impressed by were in fact new Free Schools. One of which worked their pupils incredibly hard, with a zero-tolerance regime and the other of which had an emphasis on iteration – improving work continuously to the point of mastery. All of these schools had a strong focus on learning. Their education was the primary focus of these schools and shows. Pupils at these schools have attitudes of actually wanting to learn and that is a reflection of the headteachers and the teaching staff, who were all uniformly consistent in their approaches.

I honestly think that if parents saw what is happening in the majority of our state schools at the moment, there’d be national outrage.

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Inefficiencies in the Education System

It’s been a good few years since I updated this blog on a regular occasion, but it was always a great outlet, so I might start doing so again. For those that don’t know, I’ve moved slightly away from the tech/gaming industries and have taken a new role as a Computer Science Teacher in a secondary school. It’s great, it really is, I love the school and the kids are brilliant. They’re what make the job worthwhile, but there are so many issues with the state of Education in this country, that I just have to put some of it down in words, or I fear for my own sanity.

I mean, we all know the Education system isn’t perfect, and that’s actually one of the reasons I became a teacher. I love my subject and want to inspire the next generation to feel the same way about it as I do, but also, I am a big believer of providing solutions to problems and changing these from the inside. If you don’t like something, don’t just sit around and moan about it, actively do something about it, if you can. I’m not happy with the way our children are learning Computing, and with the new National Curriculum coming into play, this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to actually do something about it.

Criticise the government all you like, we all do, but the new National Curriculum is actually fantastic. It’s specific enough to provide guidance and broad enough to provide the freedom for schools to teach as they see fit, which is exactly how it should be. It’s the way schools are embracing it (or choosing not to) that’s the problem.

The National Curriculum itself basically states that all school children should learn programming, in some form or another. Not just to provide them with the baseline knowledge necessary for a career in Computing, but also to encourage lateral thinking, and that all important ‘problem-solving’ that has long been missing from the curriculum.

However, the majority of schools in the United Kingdom have only been teaching ICT for the past two decades or more, so while they may be fantastic at teaching kids how to use specific software packages, they have no idea how to teach children to actually develop software of their own. There’s a real shortage of Computing experts moving to teaching, and the number of Computer Science teachers is disturbingly low. That’s problem number one, we don’t have the teachers.

In schools where we do find the teachers though, we find a lack of support for the department. Computer Science is brand new, really, and schools still see Computing departments as ‘ICT’, which has always been a place to throw ‘naughty’ or challenging students. When there are children that other departments don’t necessarily know what to do with, they’ve always sent them over to ICT, to “go play on the computers”. Computer Science isn’t just playing around on computers though, as the name suggests, it’s a science and should be treated as such.

I’ve visited a number of schools up and down the country, during my training, and they’re all saying the same thing. There isn’t the support, there aren’t resources available, and when there are, there isn’t the budget to obtain them. Computing isn’t taken seriously and our children are missing out because of it. The school I’m working in has two full time qualified teachers in the department, for a school of 1,300 children. Two. Then there’s myself – a trainee – and two additional teachers who are also members of other departments. The annual ‘budget’ for the department is around one month’s wage, for a person on an average salary. What is anyone supposed to do with that? A lack of funding, that’s problem number two.

Policies. Schools are full of policies. This is the main cause of schools’ inefficiencies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of bureaucracy, I’ve seen what happens in countries with none, bureaucracy is what made Britain Great, when used correctly, it’s what makes things efficient. However, when used incorrectly, it can slow things down to a crawl. The public sector has never been great with policies, as I’m sure anyone who works for the NHS will attend to, they tend to make things more difficult than they need to be. School is no different. It’s not just a case of too many policies, either. It’s a case of no policies where there should be clear policies, and too many policies where there shouldn’t be any. As a Computer Science Teacher, for example, I cannot install any software on any of the computers in the school. I can’t open any software that hasn’t been approved by IT Support. You might think that makes sense, from a security standpoint, and for most teachers I’d agree – only limited people should have administrative access to school computers. But Computer Science teachers are certainly in that small circle of people who should have access. It just means we cannot use any resources to teach the children other than a) what’s already installed on the computers or b) what the IT Support team deem acceptable for installing. The problem here, is that a lot of the software I’d like to use, to teach our students Computer Science, are deemed ‘insecure’ by the IT Support team. Again, I can understand why most students in a school shouldn’t have access to a Hex Editor, for example, but when teaching Hexidecimal to Computer Science students, an exception should be made, surely. Whenever new tools you’d like to use are declined because “It’s against the school’s security policy” you start to get a little frustrated. For me personally, I find it extra frustrating, because I’ve asked to see our school’s security policy from numerous people on numerous occasions, and I’m still waiting. I don’t think there is one. It’s hard to plan lesson activities around a policy that doesn’t exist. So that’s problem number three, ridiculous policies that hinder the learning of our students.

When I joined the school in September, the biggest surprise to me was the way Computing lessons were taught. Students were literally copying from textbooks, into their exercise books and then doing the test questions at the end of each chapter. What?! How is this learning? This is not a reflection directly on the teaching or the teachers. They were doing what they could, with the resources available to them. When a department doesn’t get support, internally or externally, this is what happens. When I came in full of excitement, enthusiasm and fresh ideas of how we can and should be teaching Computing, then those ideas are constantly being shot down, it’s easy to understand why the status-quo is how it is.

On the subject of resources, the computers in most of the schools I’ve visited aren’t fit for purpose. This is one area I will criticise the government, rather than the schools themselves. It’s all good saying “okay, now you need to start teaching Computing properly”, but then not provide any additional financial support. There should be additional funding available for schools to update their incredibly outdated computer systems. The PCs in our school make me want to pull my afro out, on a daily basis. They’re certainly not helping inspire our students to spend more time on them, that’s for sure.

Then we get to grading. This is an interesting one. The government has removed the need to grade children at most stages of their school life, now. There’s no official grading of KS3 at all. No SATs, nothing. But it’s up to schools to decide how they’re going to monitor progress – as that still needs to be done, and rightly so. The problem here, is that the majority of schools are continuing to use the 5a-3c grading system. Why is this a problem? There’s no standardisation. There are no grade requirements on the National Curriculum, so schools are essential making them up. “Meeting this requirement is a 5c, meeting this one is a 5a” it’s completely arbitrary and pointless. It doesn’t monitor progress, and it’s actually more harmful to the students than good. When students start comparing themselves to each other and thinking of themselves in terms of “I’m only a level 3” that’s counter-productive to their education. The truth is, attainment isn’t linear and children are continuously developing, there is no such thing as a “level 3” child, and we should be rapidly moving away from that terminology. I much prefer the Early Years system of “have achieved expectations”, “have succeeded expectations” and “have yet to achieve”, as you can provide direct feedback of what’s needed to achieve the expectations, and what the students needs to work on next. They’re always working towards something, and they’re not consider to be at a static level. So problem 4 for me, is the completely arbitrary pigeon holes we put children in.

End-of-school qualifications such as GCSEs and A-Levels should of course be graded, to a national (or even international) standardisation, otherwise employers don’t have a baseline to compare applicants. There are a few problems with the qualifications themselves though. They’re outdated. I have no idea how bodies such as OCR and AQA work out the content and resulting pass-requirements for their courses, but they don’t seem in-line with industry expectations. There should be much more of a consultation between exam bodies and industry, because isn’t that the point of these qualifications? To ready students for their prospective careers.

The larger issue with qualifications though, is that they’re directly hindering the education of our students. Students aren’t learning. They’re not learning the subject matter, they’re not learning about the subject and we’re certainly not motivating them or inspiring them to love Computing. What they’re actually learning is exactly what’s required to pass their qualifications. Nothing more, nothing less. This is the biggest de-motivator of my new career choice, and it frankly makes me sick. I love my subject, I want to inspire a new generation to feel the way I feel about Computing. I don’t want to hand-hold them through a GCSE to make a department or school look good on a league table that I have no interest in. Problems 5 and 6 are that qualifications are out of date and actually detrimental to young people leaving school. How can we solve this?…

Industry. Schools need more direct communication with industries. The relationships between schools and industry should be tighter than anything. We’re shaping these children for careers in industries that we currently have no relationships with, it makes no sense. It’s the blind leading the blind.

This is one of the benefits of School Direct, Teach First and other similar schemes, because we’re bringing industry professionals into schools. I have massive respect for teachers who went into education the traditional route, but for the most part, they’ve spent their whole lives in education. They’ve never been a part of the wider world of industry and therefore don’t have the knowledge of the private sector that’s going to be important to most of these students when they leave school. We should be bringing in industry professionals for consultations, meetings, designing syllabuses and qualifications. They should be a part of every step of the education system, in some form or another. Otherwise, frankly, we’re wasting our time. I know that if I ever went back into industry, I would absolutely never hire anyone based on their qualifications alone. That’s not standard practise anyway, but I’m even more against the idea now that I know how our children are being taught, and that these qualifications actually mean absolutely nothing. Well, they mean something, they mean that the student can sit an exam or complete a piece of coursework in line with requirements. It doesn’t mean that they know their subject, sadly. There’s problem 7 for you, industry has no voice in education, and it actually has the largest role to play.

After my first term as a teacher, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed it immensely, but it has also been the most frustrating time of my life. I see inefficiencies everywhere, and I want to change them all. I’ve come into this role completely naive, and I don’t mind saying a little arrogant. I want to make changes everywhere, to everything. It would be great to start in a new school, from scratch, where your opinion has an affect and you’re not forced to work around ancient traditions and practices.

The real reason I’m writing this blog post though, is because I’m procrastinating. I’m avoiding assigning arbitrary grade numbers to a million pieces of work, that don’t monitor any form of progress and in fact serve no purpose other than to place virtual constraints on and damage the self-esteem of a bunch of 12/13 year olds, while providing a department with a set of numbers to pass on to the higher-ups, who will then do the same. Sigh.

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