Let teachers get on with teaching
Politicians need to understand that the sole role of a school ought to be to transmit knowledge to the young.
Last autumn the Lib-Con coalition government revealed its plans for UK education in the white paper, The Importance of Teaching. Since then, there has been no shortage of speculation about the consequences of the government’s proposals. But before looking at these, it is perhaps more important to examine two key assumptions underpinning the government’s view of education.
Firstly, the white paper assumes ‘that no education system can be better than the quality of its teachers’. And secondly, it assumes a connection between education and social mobility: ‘Our schools should be engines of social mobility, helping children to overcome the accidents of birth and background to achieve much more than they may ever have imagined.’
These assumptions are widely held today. In fact, a lot of time, money and effort has been spent on research and initiatives based upon them. If you question either the centrality of teacher quality or the relationship between education and social mobility, you risk being regarded as soft on incompetent teachers and/or as being against social justice. But are these assumptions correct?
Let’s start with the idea that no education system is better than the quality of individual teachers. I am certain that the quality of the education I received was better than that provided by most state schools today – and that includes any that may have been deemed ‘outstanding’ by the state’s school inspection body, Ofsted. This is not because teachers today are more lazy, soft or incompetent. And it is not even entirely due to the structural and organisational changes that have created a bureaucratic nightmare for anyone working in primary, secondary or higher education. Rather, it has to do with the denigration of the idea of knowledge as an end in itself.
When I was at school, academic knowledge was more valued than it is today; there was a far stronger belief in the value of education for its own sake. This was the principal central organising principle for educationalists, and it brought parents, teachers and educational elites together in a common endeavour.
In this climate, teachers could actually get on with teaching their specific subjects. There was undoubtedly a wide disparity in the amount of enthusiasm, talent, skill and success with which any individual teacher went about his or her work. And, like most people, I can remember teachers who were inspirational and others who were deathly dull. But the net effect was that school felt like a collective effort where pupils and teachers pursued a common goal. The sum was greater than its parts. So the education system was, and can still be, better than ‘the quality of its individual teachers’.
To look upon teachers as being solely responsible for the quality of education is both incorrect and unhelpful. There are several related cultural trends that have undermined both the content of, and belief in, education, but perhaps the most disastrous has been the loss of faith in the pursuit of Truth, without which education starts to lack a point. Now, a bewildering array of extra-educational aims have stepped in to fill the breach and teachers are meant to be responsible for everything from ensuring that pupils recycle, eat well and value diversity to making pupils feel good about themselves.
But would it not be better if an English teacher, for example, was responsible solely for introducing pupils to the wealth of knowledge, experiences and emotions expressed in literature? Would it not be better if a physics teacher was responsible only for introducing pupils to a range of methods for understanding the principles and laws of the universe?
The government white paper does, in places, assert the importance of a subject-based education for everyone, but this requires that teachers are freed from all the socialisation exercises they are burdened with today. In order fully to grasp a complex subject, pupils will have to grapple with abstract and unfamiliar language, procedures and content. Such knowledge cannot be acquired through group activities contrived to eliminate the key role of the teacher: didactic teaching will be required.
We do need to accept that not all pupils will understand all subjects at school. While the government’s aim to help children ‘achieve much more than they may ever have imagined’ is laudable, this outlook is often mixed up with the idea that every child should achieve the same results. The idea that education should somehow create wider social equality is erroneous. Social equality is a complex political issue that can only be solved in adult society, not in schools.
The idea that education determines all later life chances is now widespread. Within the education system it has encouraged a focus on the assessment of common skills in order to allow for the most superficial kind of equality of outcomes.
However sincere the wish, education cannot, and should not, be thought of as ‘an engine for social mobility’. Past attempts to burden education with this task have failed and it has led to a degraded view of the value of knowledge, the consequences of which the Lib-Con coalition seems to underestimate.
Having a good education does not guarantee a comfortable adult life, with a nice house and an interesting, well-paid job. Social and material inequalities are neither entirely created, nor remediable, in the sphere of education. In fact, the paradox of education is that it is likely to be of greatest benefit when we afford it the greatest autonomy and insulation from the concerns of wider society.
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.