Before my time at the Ministry, and during its formative years, I made my living as a teacher. I worked in mainstream UK schools, then decided that seeing as I was a fully-fledged human being and not some sort of mentally subnormal pig abuser, I deserved better. So I decided that my skills would be better appreciated overseas.
I was right, too.
I went off to work for a delightful family in Hungary who paid me handsomely to home educate their two sons. It was a great little gig, sticking mostly to the path of the National Curriculum for England, but allowing me the freedom to take the odd tangent when it seemed appropriate. The situation was good, and the two boys did very well, eventually heading off to a very smart public school in the UK and leaving me out of a job.
After a spell of owning a language school, one of the heftier European Economic recessions came to give us a good firm kicking and sent my wife and I back to England to forage for the fetid acorns left on its classroom floors.
Going from complete independence and an environment of inspiration and learning to being told to fuck off every day by some little scrote with a straggly ponytail was not a great deal of fun, so the family and I, now three strong, packed our bags and set sail for Southeast Asia.
The society in this part of Southeast Asia (which I am still reluctant to name) is built around respect stemming from strong cultural and religious traditions, so the children there were as delightful as children can be. They still wittered on about nothing for hours on end and the boys still smelt of crisps (a global phenomenon yet to be explained by science), but behaviour was rarely an issue, and nobody told me to fuck off even once; well, certainly not in a language that I understood, and that was good enough for me. Their lack of aggression and any sense of entitlement was matched only by their utter lack of learning.
Try as I might to have my little wards speak English, they steadfastly refused to do it. It was clear that most of them understood the language after a period of nurture, but it was virtually impossible to get them to utter much more than a single word; and that with their hands covering their mouths and their eyes virtually glued to their desk.
This was the same nationwide, and there was much consternation over such failings among the powers that be, but no effective solution to the problem was ever reached. This policy and that policy came and went. Incentives and penalties were proffered. Experts were brought in and sent away again. Staff training was so plentiful that many teachers forgot where they lived and had to sleep in the stock cupboard. But still, nothing changed.
It was at this point that I figured out the problem, and with a complete understanding of it rooted firmly in my mind, I quit teaching and came back to England.
Was I being selfish?
No, not really, because the understanding I reached was this:
There isn’t a solution. The results that we want an education system to bring have never, and will never be achieved. They are ideals in the vein of the perpetual motion machine. It would be lovely if it worked, but it doesn’t and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Well, now that I’m out of the field, I can explain why I’ve got poo on my boots.
The simple answer is that teaching to national goals is an impossible task. It simply cannot be done, and here’s the evidence.
Every so often, and much more regularly than most of us would prefer, we are treated to a new teaching strategy. We all complain about the goalposts being moved and so on, but the constant changing of approach tells us something. It tells us that NOBODY knows what to do.
If at any point in the past, we had stumbled upon an approach that works right across the board and simply gets the job done, we’d be doing that. We wouldn’t be trying out new ways to get Johnny to learn his times tables. We would simply be doing what we knew to work.
You see we don’t have meetings to discuss what we already know to be true, we only get together to ponder the unknown.
Pick up a pencil. Hold it above the table. What will happen if you let go of it?
I don’t need to tell you. You don’t need to show me. No specialists need to be called in. Gravity will take its course, and the pencil will fall to the table.
Now with gravity being a major force in schools across the planet, you’d expect us to have more meetings about it, yes?
No you wouldn’t! Because we know what it does and there is no reason to discuss it.
If, of course, we needed all our pencils to start floating upwards, you can guarantee that there would be a meeting about it in the staffroom after school next Tuesday, and we would continue to have meetings until either pencils started floating upwards, we gave up on the idea, or the world ended.
Of course, we all care a lot more about our children than we do about floating pencils (although I will definitely be getting one if they crack it), and are a lot less keen to throw in the towel and walk away. The fact remains though, that teaching in state schools will remain a thankless task until someone in the government sees sense and allows teachers to work with the individuals that they have rather than have them struggle, and fail, to push everyone into the same mold.
When will they see sense?
Let’s have a meeting.
Minister of Stuff.