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UK Education: A nation for the over qualified

November 25, 2013

I’ve been dithering over the prospect of free schools for some time now, mainly because I’m told it’s very Tory to support free schools. Well, it’s not often I agree with the Tories, but I’m not sure I understand how the prospect of free schools is anti-left wing; yes, the schools are outside of state control, but they are state funded. What they are offering, in effect, is the scope and variety of education offered to children who are sent to private schools, but without the expense.

If you are offered a scholarship to a private school because you are bright but cannot afford the fees, you take it. It is a great opportunity because private schools are richer with better facilities, yes, but also because they are smaller and there are fewer students per teacher who can in turn offer more of themselves to the students.

Indeed, because private schools are not obliged to hire teachers with set qualifications, you get more scope and variety of education from them as well. That said, I am not a fan of private schools; purely because, of course, it opens a massive class divide and encourages snobbery higher up the chain by people who think the education of one institution is much better than the other. The problem is, they are probably right.

My thoughts on free schools is that they are as good as the people who want to run them. There will be plenty of dynamic, educated people who will have an interest in sharing their knowledge with the next generation for small change. They don’t currently have much opportunity to do so because the few schools that do offer this to the less privileged usually require lengthily training which would sap just about anyone of any enthusiasm to come in and offer what are essentially guest lectures on a regular basis.

I see the value in qualified teachers. There will always be people who prefer them and you can definitely introduce a higher wage for the more qualified teachers so that they do not feel that their considerable training is becoming obsolete. I would have thought that, given the strain on teachers, more schools and more teachers are needed, but I wonder how many people are training to become teachers; all the strikes, all the unrest, must be telling young people that it is too much work for the amount of pay.

Plus, for me, the concept of being a teacher holds no merit at all unless I can do things my way and unless I can help people who are already at some kind of a disadvantage stand out from the crowd and excel. In short, I would be a free school teacher, but never a regular one except in special circumstances (the JET scheme, etc.). What I can teach is critical thinking, writing and reading. These are obvious skills, the first of which I fear is not taught.

We are obsessed with this idea of a national curriculum, a set standard. How good is that standard, I wonder? My teachers varied; some were very good, some very bad. Some of the very bad ones were more academics than teachers, but they had the standard qualification. It leads me to wonder how relevant our teaching qualification is, and whether or not we are assessing the wrong things. A teacher who is engaging and influential will inspire their students; a teacher who knows their stuff but has no rapport with the class or ability to change, grow or gain feedback will be a poor teacher. Perhaps al that is needed is a re-haul of teachers exams, or perhaps what is needed is choice.

Choice for parents and children about to enter secondary school is limited in the extreme. The current factors are; area, reputation, facilities and gender, since single sex state schools are common. It is an odd choice to offer, tied up in our traditional ideals, but to be honest it is one that seems to work; single sex girls schools do particularly well.

If we are going to offer that choice, it seems odd that we would not offer other choices about the subjects taught and to what level. We are told what kind of facilities the school has, but that tells you nothing; my old school had an excellent computer budget and woeful Information Technology teachers. It had a reputation for fostering musical talent, but the music department was dusty, shabby and far too small, with about a dozen practice rooms to serve over 1,000 students.

I had a choice between about four or five schools, realistically speaking. The one I went to was by far the best, but it was still pot luck. Had I a choice of 20-40 schools, my education could have been very different; maybe worse, maybe better, but provided the school was still subject to (open-minded) official inspection, I’m sure it would have been fine. It would certainly have taught differently and it is possible I would have been not only able, but actively encouraged to think hard about the subjects that might benefit me.

As it was, I had no choices; you had to study a language, even though they only offered French or German – unless you really were bad at both, in which case you could do more than one of the awful technology subjects. You had to study at least one of those. You had to do a “creative” subject – English didn’t count, because you had to do that as well, even though it taught literature, not basic literacy, which is something quite different and apparently, now a national problem. Unsurprising; one of the best English literature teachers I ever had could not spell to save her life.

This artistic subject stuff caused the most problems; if you couldn’t draw, act or play an instrument, you were screwed. When I say “draw”, I do mean draw, or on a good day, paint. Abstract art, modern or post-modern art – things which make sense to me and are perfectly valid forms of self-expression, varied enough to be ideal for someone with little to no hand eye co-ordination – were not taught.

I got no sense of passion out of the subject, merely a sense of the perfunctory. There really was no point. If anything, learning it in this way killed my passion for it, and I was 22 before I learned that it was a hell of a lot more varied and interesting than I once thought. What could I possibly have lost from not learning it, or learning it from a frizzy-haired, mad-hatter artist teaching at a free school?

Our issue is that we think that, while private schools will attain a set standard because people are paying for them, free schools won’t. This, to me sounds like we are condescendingly suggesting low-income families don’t know best for themselves or their kids, can’t be critical and demand more, or that they can’t make a reasoned judgement about their own education. If they are disenfranchised about the traditional education system and want out of it, that only serves to prove my point that the current system isn’t serving the public need.

Any educational experience has value and even with the problems I outlined at my own school, there is no doubt that I learned. I won’t say I learned a lot; that is difficult to ascertain I am aware that people older than me think that my generation lacks common knowledge. I have my suspicions that these older people may have an inaccurate impression of how informed they were at this age in their lives, or else that the public view of what counts as important knowledge has shifted. I don’t see the value in learning about medieval castles, but one thing which is not taught as standard is politics and current world issues, even though they are so obviously important for living in society.

Neither do we teach basic life skills, though we are keen to criticise students for their apparent idiocy on the matter. I ask: whose fault is that? You become responsible for your own education only after you leave the education system, when you realise that it’s all over now, and you must fill in the inevitable blanks that were left by those who taught you. Before that, you never assume there are blanks to fill. You trust that these trained, educated people are giving you the whole picture.

I feel like there are a lot of blanks. Know this; to criticise the internet is to criticise education, for were it not for that there would be a shocking amount of knowledge missing from my brain. I know this to be true for others. We sort of expect that learning from the internet is a tragic sign of our times, feeding us vast amounts of misinformation, but students are not given much choice. History is a subject so obviously biased towards the dangerously parochial that you have to go hunting through Tumblr of all places to discover the viewpoint of people of a different colour or nationality.

All this in mind, it seems like a good idea for employers to stop looking for particular schools, particular qualifications and signs of the standard education system. We already rank extra-curricular activities or experience living abroad high on applications. I’m only suggesting a furthering of this; to rank them higher than a C grade in science. It isn’t a useful qualification. It’s just high enough that you have to work years of your life to get it, but too low to use anywhere in life. You would also be shocked how little people with this qualification understand of the world and its ins-and-outs.

These days, it is not uncommon to be assessed for your ability to understand arithmetic and literacy as part of a standard job interview process. This is more relevant, because it tests what you remember. Working so hard to pass a test with trigonometry on it only to forget fractions and percentages by the age of 25 is utterly useless, and yet, Cameron is on about demanding everyone repeats exams until they get C grades. What he should be asking is that people refresh their knowledge of the basics regularly Our education system feels more like a means-to-an-end than an actual positive, ongoing experience; you get GCSEs to get A Levels to get a degree to get… What? Not a job. Not these days.

Our job situation is in trouble and is fundamentally badly matched to the job situation. This is a country that is actively encouraged to aim high at every opportunity and our definition of high gets narrower by the year. We are no longer encouraged to be builders or plumbers any more, even though we need these workers.

We work from a baseline of “you can do anything you want, so if you aren’t a professor or an entrepreneur by the time you’re out of education, you’ve failed in the system.” Perfectly well paid, skilled labour is considered to be a plan B for people who didn’t do so well at reading, writing and arithmetic Not only will that take a knock on your self-esteem, but it leads to people who were tailor made for overalls struggling into suits.

I’m talking about skilled labour here – not cleaning. I think no one should have to do that; it should be included on the payroll of office workers to clean up their own shit after they finish. That way, you work less hours at your qualified work and the employer must hire somebody else who has jumped through the any hoops to get the qualification. It’s more expensive for the employer, but in a big corporation it can be afforded and is a more responsible way of hiring in a society that is overqualified for just about anything.

If we want everyone to be better educated, we had better start providing for them, and if that means we have to be a bit more socialist about distribution of cheerless labour, so be it. Other countries have kids cleaning up the whole school themselves after a long day learning, and they seem to get on with it all right.

Our problem is that when we work hard to become qualified for a particular role, we get precious about it, and we think our time is so important that we can’t stand the idea of doing that peasant stuff. Once we get to a certain income bracket, we don’t even clean our own houses any more; we think other people should be grateful to do it, in all their infinite disadvantage.

You see a large class divides everywhere you look; snobbery becomes more prevalent, and worse, people have snobbery against themselves, thinking that they can do better than a perfectly decent job they are qualified to do. It seems odd that the same people who are claiming that there are too many benefit claimants are also complaining about immigrants taking all the jobs; has it occurred to no one that the benefit claimers, the “scroungers” are not working because we have told them that they can feel free to consider standard jobs to be beneath them, and that immigrants are merely filling in the gaps we have purposefully left? If they didn’t come, we might still have as many people on benefits, but also failing companies, where they can’t get enough workers because British people don’t want the work.

It used to be that schools were divided into grammars and secondary moderns. If you went to the latter, it was expected that you would be given what we would now call “a shit job”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m convinced we don’t pay people enough for the work we ask them to do, considering the expense of living here (one reason immigrants consider the wage to be more acceptable is because it is more than they could expect to receive in their poor economy and is thus worth a lot more when they send it back home to their families) and I would not wish to go back to a system where we lazily pigeon-holed people in accordance with a flawed and restricted curriculum – the IQ test is a drastically inadequate way of assessing someone’s intelligence, as it doesn’t test knowledge, originality, critical thinking or the ability to make interesting and unpredictable connections.

Yet, at least in those days, you were placed around people who had the same expectations as you, not violently shoved into trying to attain high despite your natural abilities. I have no problem with pushing people – if it were not for the strong encouragement of my teachers and parents, I would never have crossed from being a struggling, average student to being a good one. I needed time and patience and I got it, in a way that I wouldn’t have in the old system.

It is simply that we are almost so far the opposite direction that we set our youth up for a fall; if everyone has a degree, what is the value of it? £27,000 to be taught something which may have nothing to do with your eventual job, taught to a level which was once considered completely unnecessary The result is that getting a degree doesn’t guarantee you a job the way it once did. It guarantees you debt.

When David Cameron stands up and talks about how everyone must either be in work or education, it’s like he doesn’t understand that our obsession with factory-standard education may be partially causing the problem with jobs. In turn, the situation with education versus work will cause a problem with the economy; no one gets anything out of people attending school for longer.

Sure, those out of school aren’t competing with 16 year olds any more, but let’s face it, those 16 year olds couldn’t compete in the first place. So many people applying for jobs means that employers can be selective and they will, of course, pick a graduate over a non-graduate. This feeds into the notion that you “need” a degree and it is one we should strongly challenge because it is not helping. Putting people in education for longer is just delaying a problem, putting stress on the state for something which your average young person is ambivalent about.

We are so anti-benefits, we don’t realise that if we instigated them in a plan similar to that of student loans, we might save a lot of money. Interest on student loans is low and in our current climate there’s no guarantee that graduates will ever be in a high enough income bracket to start paying back their loans.

The result of this is that student fees will do harm to the economy. It isn’t worth it for a bunch of people who are so uncertain about their future that they might drop out of university of switch course midway through, at great expense to the state and to themselves. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met whose hearts were simply not in their degree.

We do them because we are chivvied into them; there are no jobs, you are penalised for voluntary work by the benefits system and to be idle is currently considered the worst crime of mankind. So, off we all go to university at the tender age of 18, as mere children who can’t cook or clean or handle money.

You could save £26,000 per person if you instigated a scheme of adult living practice and self-exploration scheme of about two years, whereby kids who get out of high school and aren’t sure what they want to do get a bit of funded time to explore their options and get all their immaturity out of the way. If they had funded travel, they might find that they love another country so much that they leave Britain for good, which could only help ease the rising pressure of providing jobs to the masses.

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