The class of 2006

This morning, my eldest left school. The occasion was marked with a graduation ceremony in a marquee, complete with lovely performances from the school choir and soloists, a round of applause for every student, and a speech by our local MP. Graduation is a term I still can’t readily associate with being 16, but the sun shone, no-one (despite the array of heels on offer) fell over on stage, refreshments were tasty, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

At the beginning of the event, the headteacher reminded us that this group of year 11 students started school in 2006, when amongst other things Tony Blair was prime minister, North Korea carried out its first nuclear test, and more locally, five women were murdered in Ipswich. He could have gone to say that in 2006, education spending totalled £87.8 billion (in real terms) – the seventh of twelve successive years of increased spending on education.

For the first four years of my son’s education, spending increased year on year. And things were looking good: education was moving up the policy agenda. Then, in 2010, Michael Gove got the job he’d been pitching for, and things took a turn for the worse. Funding has been decreasing every since, but that’s by no means the only change  our schools have been battling with over the course of just one cohort’s progress through school. Here are just some of them:

  • Out of favour went Local Authorities, academics, parent governors and communities.  In came business, Chief Executives, and branding.
  • Up went testing, the priority given to core subjects, and the link between test results and school accountability. Down went teacher morale and staff retention.
  • Up went “rigour”. Down went freedom in the classroom and creativity.
  • Down went specialist support for those with additional needs; Up went exclusions.
  • Down went access to the arts and counselling; Soaring went the numbers of young people needing support for mental health problems.
  • Up went school leaving age. Down went the number of schools able to afford to offer ‘less common’ subjects (like languages and music).
  • Here in Suffolk, Up went the number of secondary schools (but, crucially, not the numbers of people needing school places). With the paradoxical consequence, just this week, that Down goes the school bus service. The only silver lining here is that we stopped another one opening up the road and distorting what our catchment school could offer.
  • Out of fashion went education as the means by which children gain the motivation to learn for life, and the skills to do so.  In came schooling as a transactional and time-limited process.

To cap it all, the 2006 cohort have just endured what are commonly being referred to as “the toughest ever GCSEs”. Not only are they tough, but what they test seems increasingly irrelevant. Acquisition and recall of facts are prized above critical and interpretative skills, and above the interpersonal skills of the workplace. Inevitably, to prepare them for this, primary school tests have got harder too. And – just to prove the point – so have A’levels. (All despite the very obvious statistical truth that making exams harder doesn’t in itself raise exam results, no matter how many times schools ministers might say so on Women’s Hour.)

Whilst much of this chaos has been released since 2010, some of it was set in train before that, as a consequence of the rise of neo-liberalism generally, and because of our consistent failure as a society to debate what education is actually for.  In his mercifully short speech, our MP spoke this morning about changes to the world of work – the advent of automation, and the implications of this for the jobs the young people sat in front of him might be doing in a few years time. Which does rather raise the question: if we don’t know at this point what jobs people will be doing, why are they being educated now for the jobs of the last century? In a world where we may not even need to learn how to drive a car, wouldn’t an education that prioritised the understanding, appraisal and application of knowledge be rather more useful than one that is more obsessed with testing acquisition and recall of facts? And if young people are to be deprived of work in the sense that we now know it, wouldn’t it be useful to help them develop their passions, promote their wellbeing, and nurture their capacity to share in and sustain their communities?

Speaking personally, we’ve had a good ride so far. But that’s because the schools my children have attended have bucked the trend, and kept smiling against the odds. They have valued – and promoted – music, the arts, personal wellbeing, sport, access to the out-of-doors, creativity in the classroom, and sought to build rapport with the communities in which they are based. They talk of resilience, of respect, of happiness. Their primary school, in particular, has never lost sight of the value of joy.

So what beckons, for the ‘cohort of 2018’  starting school this September? Schools are facing a crisis in funding, in morale, in staff recruitment and retention, in freedom to act in the interests of the pupils that teachers go into teaching for. All things considered, my eldest has been lucky.

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