Every now and then our community goes through a witch-hunt about education standards. The critics claim school leavers can’t read. They can’t write. They can’t do their sums. Actually, most can. The international evidence is clear - our best are up to the world’s best. But unfortunately, we do have a long tail of - in the jargon term - under-achievement. There is no magic bullet, no quick fix for this problem.
For it is not just an education problem. As the gap between rich and poor widens, this rift is reflected in our schools.
Year One teachers are well aware of the huge learning gap amongst their charges. Some youngsters come from homes where curiosity has been fostered, books cherished and used, and stimulating and challenging experiences provided. Other kids are not so lucky. They arrive at school way behind in their prior learning. Teachers do their best but what happens in their classroom cannot be divorced from what is happening in the rest of the community.
That gap is likely to continue to widen if those children arrive at school hungry and/or emotionally distressed. A hungry child is not interested in learning. He or she needs food. A battered child will not be interested in learning. She or he needs assurance, comfort, love. Schools do their best but they cannot supply those things single-handed. Teachers are aware of the importance of continuity for such pupils. Many of these children constantly shift from school to school which upsets the attempts to improve their learning.
I am not parent-bashing. What I am saying is that the children of marginalised parents are at risk when it comes to learning. Marginalisation has various causes, but many stem from policy decisions made by central and local government and private enterprise.
There are other factors. Throughout their schooling, but especially in their teen years, students are subjected to intense media and peer pressure – pressure that today's decision-makers find difficult to comprehend. Until recently family, school and church were the learning sources. They worked together relatively coherently. Now learning sources are much more fragmented and competitive. At the stage in their lives as young people move from dependency to self-sufficiency they receive contradictory and conflicting messages about their self-image.
Another pressure is the increased skill level that is required. Yesterday’s grease monkeys are today’s computer technicians. I am told that what used to be Stage 2 chemistry at University is now taught at the senior school level.
Further, critics of school leavers’ skills and confidence should look at workplace practice. How supported are young people when they start? What is the employer’s educative responsibility? We, as a community, need to accept and embrace the concept of lifelong learning.
To return to the schools – they are not islands. Teachers are not miracle workers. There is poverty in our land and that affects what happens in our classroom. The best reading programme in the world is up against a colossal rival here. If the school runs a sensible health programme it has to compete with the advertiser’s hype.
Education policy cannot be developed and delivered in isolation from other policies. For example, immigration and housing policies have a great impact upon the work of schools. When successive governments changed social and economic polices in the past how often were the likely education consequences considered? Teachers are left to cope with those consequences. Under trying circumstances the great majority do their best. Knocking them will not help. So, let’s give three cheers for our teachers. Without them, where would the learning society be?
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