I recall that, when standards in education were falling so precipitously in the second half of the nineteen seventies, the Prime Minister- Jim Callaghan- launched a ‘great national debate’ to try and get to the bottom of it.
Many blamed large class sizes, but rather perversely the statistics didn’t bear them out: with the results for children in larger classes tending to outperform the rest.
Clearly, politicians couldn’t just stand by as literacy and numeracy declined. Consequently, over the decades we imposed a national curriculum instructing teachers what and how to teach, when to teach it and, in order to ensure that they had done so, we imposed a testing regime and school league tables.
There is always the danger that the curriculum becomes a straight-jacket, and that schools ‘teach to the test’ to the detriment of a wider education. Nevertheless, results have improved very significantly. Indeed, primary schools have become one of the great success stories of recent years. This has resulted in pressure on a number of preparatory schools in the private sector which have experienced falling rolls because parents have discovered that a good education can be had at their local primary school -without parting with fees.
I have a particular concern about the other end of the age range at school and college: sixth form education; we fund post sixteen education significantly less generously per pupil, where arguably we should spend more.
When I was studying for my A levels, I had a full timetable -including classes on Saturday mornings. That was still the case when I taught A levels in the mid nineteen eighties. Currently however, we only fund post sixteen-year-olds to the tune with 15 hours per week of teacher contact time. With three, and sometimes four A levels, is that enough?
Of course, the pupils are required to spend time reading and working on assignments in addition, but I am not convinced that, without sufficient supervision, they are getting a fair deal.
I spoke to a head-teacher recently who was very concerned that so little time is available that teachers have to stick rigorously to the syllabus and exclude wider discussions.
Consider how demotivating it would be -for both the pupil and for the teacher- were the subject matter in class to spark your interest and prompt you to ask a question rather wide of the examined syllabus, only to be told “you don’t need to know about that”.
My recollection was that the best and most interesting lessons were when the teacher went off at a tangent and gave us an insight into a subject about which he or she was both knowledgeable and passionate.
I fear that the current generation are in danger of missing out.