Back to school
The new term brings out every insecurity about how we socialise our kids.
The new school year remains one of those things that you can rely on always coming around again, with its comforting shop displays of protractors and blazers, and the shift from the page-filling fluff of the holiday news commentary to discussions of the more serious business of education/politics/real life.
But something has changed. Whereas the new school year once represented continuity and development – the children one year older, the teachers one year wiser, the politicians one step further down whatever education policy they were pursuing – these days September is a time of turmoil. Far from being just another stage in our children’s education and maturation, it becomes a time for frantic speculation about all aspects of schooling, parenting and policymaking.
Every single worry about how we socialise children is laid open to question, until one wonders if society has lost faith in our ability to socialise children at all.
What, after all, is the point of education? The new term comes hot on the heels of August’s exam results – which have become an annual exercise in false flattery and self-flagellation. On one moronic level, the fact that the number of A-level passes has risen consecutively for over two decades is used by some as all the proof you need that exams are dumbing down, while others take it as proof that teaching is improving, and students are working harder (1).
On an equally moronic level, the slight fall of the GCSE pass rate (2) is used by the anti-dumbing down lobby to show how things might not be so bad after all, while it is bemoaned by politicians desperate to meet a social inclusion target of 100 percent pass rate.
This obsession with exam results, and bickering over the pass rate, evades the real problem: namely, the uncertainty about what, exactly, education is for. The New Labour government’s attachment to keeping children in school for longer, assessing them more often, and increasing the proportion of passes and top grades that they receive, gives a clear indication of its top priority for education: to ensure that children do better at their exams, and feel better about themselves.
Others, of course, have a different view of what education should be about. Witness the university admissions tutors bemoaning new students’ inability to do basic maths or their lack of knowledge about key historical dates: education, surely, should be about teaching young people about the world, not simply about getting them through exams. Unfortunately, three decades of intellectual relativism and a decade of political pragmatism have undermined the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
When the importance of reading Shakespeare is contested in relation to having a critical understanding of English literature, or when dates become dispensable to a history curriculum geared around empathy, traditional educational justifications for education are less easy to promote. So education comes to be seen as a means to an end: whether that be getting a job, boosting self-esteem, or going on to more education (which is a means to the end of a slightly better job and higher self-esteem). Trouble is, when education is so instrumental, what does that mean for teachers and schools?
Once upon a time, parents would have thought little of handing their kids over to the capable hands of their teachers, who would teach them some knowledge and take care of their welfare within the school gates. Nowadays, teachers and parents are all but schooled to view each other with rivalry and distrust. From helping with everyday homework to prepping for the cycle of constant tests, today’s parents are expected to take so active a role in their children’s education that they could be forgiven for feeling expected to do teachers’ jobs for them: hardly a relationship guaranteed to build confidence in the teacher’s role.
Teachers, meanwhile, are understandably confused about their own role. Are they teachers, managers, social workers or skivvies? In an attempt to show how much it prizes teachers above any other oik that might work in a school, the government has vigorously promoted the role of classroom assistants to do much of the grunt work (like helping with children’s tuition in class), and has now issued a bewildering list of menial tasks that teachers can or cannot be expected to undertake routinely in the course of their work – an initiative that is already causing all manner of tensions within schools. (3)
What was once one job – teaching – is being fragmented into several tasks, from managing and delegating to planning and assessing. When the purpose of education is already so confused, who knows what the role of the educator should be?
Relations between parents and teachers are not helped by comments such as those made by David Bell, head of the schools watchdog Ofsted, at the weekend. (4) Bell claimed that the behavioural and verbal skills of children starting school were at an all-time low, with many unable to settle and not ready to learn. No doubt this was an attempt to show sympathy and support for the apparently difficult task facing primary teachers, but it was angrily received as a blithe attack on parents with problems of their own.
The parent-teacher relationship is made still worse by the obsession with child abuse. While parents worry about whether teachers have been sufficiently well vetted to ensure that they are not playground paedophiles, teachers are encouraged to scrutinise parents and children for signs of hidden abuse. With the publication of the government’s green paper on child protection next week, this process of inter-agency scrutiny, gossip and note-swapping is likely to become more formal and intense.
Which leads us to perhaps the biggest back-to-school quandary of all: how we engage children with the basic process of socialisation. Even if kids went to school to learn nothing of any academic value, even if education was entirely instrumental, one could at least expect schools to provide the positive experience of fostering relationships between children, other adults and other children. Even this process, however, is made increasingly fraught by the current climate. Forget the potential abuse by parents and/or teachers: relationships with other children are now perceived as toxic, too.
You cannot talk about kids hanging out with other kids without having the catchword ‘bullying’ thrown into the conversation. On 3 September, it was reported that ‘specialist consultants’ are being brought into English primary and secondary schools, in order to help tackle bad behaviour and bullying.
Education minister Ivan Lewis gave a few choice justifications for the initiative, saying that ‘it is … central to reducing the anti-social behaviour which is damaging people’s quality of life in too many communities’, arguing for ‘a new zero tolerance approach to bullying in our schools’, and regaling the press with sob-stories about how he was bullied as a child. ‘It was a very lonely experience, it was a very painful experience,’ he said. ‘Every day I believed that an adult would bring this to an end. It didn’t happen.’ (5)
Nobody enjoys being bullied – or even teased and called names, which these days has been redefined as verbal bullying. But we have to ask, what impact will this constant stream of anti-bullying initiatives have on children’s views of each other? It might stop the odd classroom thug from going too far, but it will also encourage all children to treat each other as bullies and enemies, rather than potential friends; and encourage them to see themselves as hyper-sensitive wallflowers who cannot stand up for themselves in playground games or conversations.
That’s, of course, if they ever get to school in the first place. So uptight has our society become about the basics of children’s growing up that parents, anxious about paedophiles and road accidents, are loath to let them walk to school; and the government, paranoid about child obesity and exhaust fumes, has set in motion a ‘crackdown’ on the school run. (6)
When it gets to the stage where official agencies start fiddling with the contents of children’s lunch boxes, the government ends up offending teachers and everybody else by basing its teacher recruitment adverts on images of headless workers dressed as chickens, and schools start operating three-day weeks because they claim not to have enough money to teach the kids, one can only wonder where it will all end.
What is education for? It should be to teach children something about the world and help foster their relationships with each other. Instead, we seem to be heading for a situation in which there is assessment with no education, in schools without teachers, where government agencies act as dinner lady to kids they fear to be potential blimps and anorexics in an obedient playground where nobody calls names.
(1) See Exam failures, by Jennie Bristow
(2) A tale of midsummer madness, Mike Baker , BBC News, 22 August 2003
(3) Teachers freed from humdrum tasks, BBC News, 1 September 2003; Strife looms over school workload, BBC News, 3 September 2003
(4) Parents ‘not preparing children for school’, BBC News, 31 August 2003
(5) Experts to tackle unruly pupils, BBC News, 3 September 2003
(6) School-run parents face crackdown at rush hour , Observer, 31 August 2003
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