We need to talk about education

21 Sep 2013

Teachers’ unions are threatening to go on strike again this October to protest about pay and workloads - and we need to listen to them. 

It seems incongruous that in a country where we have some of the world’s leading academic institutions - with six universities in the world top ten, according to QS - we have over a hundred thousand children attending schools where the majority of students are failing to achieve ‘good’ GCSEs and A Levels. Added to this is the recent warning by the Local Government Association that we could have a serious shortage of primary schools as early as 2015.


Despite this, it is important to highlight that our education system is far from dismal. A recent league table placed Britain’s educational standards at 6th in the world, whilst the introduction of SATS has produced tangible results among young students. However, the UK has a long way to go when it comes to improving respect towards teachers, and improving overall performance across all backgrounds.

Hailing the arrival of free schools as the solution to our educational travail is not the solution. Whilst free schools may, as a recent survey by Princeton’s Centre for Research on Education Outcomes suggests, improve student achievements, especially among poor students, the problems with Britain’s education system are more deeply rooted than that.

As with any attempt of its type to reform our education system, Michael Gove’s most recent bid is exceptionally misguided, and comes across as a mere patchwork repair for a system whose flaws are much more substantial. His rote-learning, ‘our island story’ approach to History is outdated and counter-productive, whilst the present government’s insistence on
measuring performance through tests and percentiles is entirely the wrong approach; treating students as numbers is not going to improve our education. In order to truly transform Britain’s education system into one which is not only internationally competitive but produces thoughtful, skilled and enthusiastic students would require the kind of overhaul which is unlikely to be embarked on by a mainstream politician.

The Finnish model, so successful in world education rankings, is often cited as the model to follow. No doubt we have much to learn from their emphasis on teacher professionalism and creativity in the classroom. More importantly, teachers in Finland are held in extremely high regard, which gives them the social esteem to become moral and didactic leaders in their respective communities. Germany’s education model, where a combination of technical colleges and sandwich courses which include hands-on work experience and apprenticeships, together with academic learning, is arguably key to their low youth unemployment levels compared to the rest of Europe.

At the centre of both systems is the issue of respect. Whilst in Germany courses in technical colleges are considered to be a perfectly respectable alternative to academic learning, in Finland the teaching profession is both very competitive and well regarded. Both systems are in stark contrast to the UK, where an academic degree is seen as essential to success, whilst a teaching career is a relatively uncompetitive and a far from attractive option for bright young graduates.

This week, Russell Hoby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), raised an important point when he spoke of growing “disrespect” towards the teaching profession, highlighting the fact that one in ten head teachers have been physically assaulted in recent years, with an even higher proportion being threatened. It is this lack of respect towards our educators which is crippling our education system.

We need to transform the teaching profession into one that is as rigorous and demanding as it is rewarding; it must be reendowed with a sense of respect and purposefulness that it has lost in recent years. Young people considering a career in teaching should feel that what they are providing is a service; and a very necessary service at that.

No doubt it is not only up to our politicians to achieve this; British society as a whole needs to open its eyes to the importance of teachers in our success as a country. Nevertheless, a political and economic mindset which emphasises the role of the individual above that of community will do little to help our education. A society which judges people by their individual performance rather than by their contribution to society in general will not foster highly competent teachers.

Teachers need to be well-paid and stimulated. We need to change the mindset which maintains that a career in education is somehow a step down, discouraging bright students from pursuing it as career. Whilst many law firms offer starting salaries of nearly £40,000, the starting salary for a teacher is closer to the £20,000 mark - yet there is no reason why teachers should be any less qualified or important than lawyers.

No doubt salaries alone will not transform the reputation of an entire occupation. The professionalism and enthusiasm encouraged by Teach First, an educational training charity which aims to recruit top students and turn them into inspiring and stimulating teachers, shows that it is more an issue of approach than one of money. The government should do much more to promote initiatives which place a greater importance on teaching as a
respectable profession.

Money spent on education is without a doubt money well spent. In a time of austerity, when the paradigm is to cut spending and public services, education is one thing we simply cannot afford to trim. Good educators make good doctors, lawyers, civil servants and - I daresay - politicians. Admittedly, the government’s decision to fund free school meals for young students is a welcome move, given the ample research suggesting that school meals help bridge performance levels between rich and poor.

Nevertheless, making sure young students are getting a decent meal is the least we can do. We need an efficient teacher training system which is both demanding and meritocratic, which attracts the best and brightest and turns them into excellent teachers. We need to make sure schools across the country are adequately funded, so that no student is ever laking. We need inspirational teachers who will stimulate students and encourage them to do
well. Crucially, we need to restore our nation’s confidence in the teaching profession - and restore it into the respectable career that it deserves to be.

Moreover, we need to have a national, cross-party debate about what role we want education to play in Britain’s future, and discuss how we want it to develop in years to come. Some may say that in times of recession such a debate is superfluous; far from it. Talking about education, and how to turn our education system into a fair, effective model is esential if we want to progress as a society.

By Max Long

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