Educational opportunities owed to social status rather than talent and industry, teachers wanting early retirement and school places in short supply — is this what our great education system can offer?

 

With teachers leaving the profession and with the number of vacancies rising quicker than staff are trained to fill them, are we heading towards a crisis? This was the issue facing one of the panel debates at this year’s Conservative Party Conference.

It is clear that the current state of British education is dire and the Government’s fixation on grammar schools seems to suggest they are looking to the past, while lacking fresh ideas and perspectives.

Yesterday we attended the NUT and ATLs forum on the current state of education and it all sounds just a tad desperate. Quoting a recent statistic from a survey done on school governors, only 12 per cent were happy with the way the Government is handling school funding and structuring, with their main concern being money.

This is no surprise for a sector which is receiving 8-12 per cent in cuts and is one of the most confusing in existence. To quote Dr. Mary Bousted, the ATL Union General Secretary speaking from the panel: ‘local authorities are in charge of providing education to the community, but can’t build schools’. It is a catch-22 scenario. Councils are unable to build, while schools are being oversubscribed as a result of the local authorities’ inability to build new ones.

On top of this, 11 per cent of teaching staff take retirement early due to stress since teaching is one of the professions that relies on staff working overtime while unpaid. The amount of paperwork often required by management means that teachers frequently need to work overtime to cover workloads, but they aren’t compensated for these extra hours because of funding shortages. This leads to teachers, at times, working as much as 70-80 hour weeks!

The debate then took an absurd twist. An audience member asked: ‘since now we spend roughly five times more on education than in the 1950s, why hasn’t education gotten five times better?’, disregarding the fact that the pound (like most currencies) has depreciated over time. Another panellist did mention that in the ’50s most of the money only went to teaching staff and towards infrastructure, with little checks and balances taking place. In today’s world, Ofsted provides checks and balances to ensure teaching is kept to a high standard — one of the many new duties taken up by the Department of Education in recent times. This has, naturally, meant that the department spends more.

The issue of grammar schools was also raised. As mentioned, grammar schools seem to be the Tories answer to the growing issue of talented kids being left behind or unchallenged. Dr. Bousted suggests that the primary issue with grammar schools and selection in general is that often it is a test of a parent’s commitment and wealth, rather than a child’s brilliance and intellect.

She justifies this by stating that often before sitting the 11-plus exams which judge if a child is fit to go to a grammar school, parents that can, will often employ a tutor to help them succeed. Indeed, it is statistically proven that children getting a high pass at their 11-plus is mostly owed to them having a tutor, as opposed to having any unique brilliance or skill. Naturally, poorer children will be unlikely to afford the extra help, placing them at a disadvantage when applying to these schools and increasing the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. This seemed a sentiment that most in the room agreed with as Ed Dorrell, chair of the debate and Deputy Editor of the Times Educational Supplement, did a flash poll of the room showing that most disagreed with selective education and hence, grammar schools.

The debate ended on an oddly positive note with the chair asking all on the panel what they would like the Department of Education to cut. This revealed all on the panel to agree that the Department needs to finally streamline what they are doing and begin focusing on what is important. The goal should be ensuring that we don’t hit a crisis whereby we can no longer provide quality education to the next generation because we have forced all the best teachers out of the profession — a consequence of the lack of funding and stress. We have given more money for security, renewed Trident … so surely we should be able to spare a little more on teaching the very people we insist we are trying to protect.

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