01 June 2008

Failing Our Children, Failing Society

I have a near and dear relative who is the Head of a Mathematics Department in a secondary school in the UK. I had a lengthy discussion with her today about the state of education in England, in particular, her current school which I would like to share with you.

It might help to put my views into context if I tell you a little bit about the environment I was raised in. My parents were not rich, worked hard in back-breaking manual jobs and tried to turn 2 pence into 10 in order to feed and clothe the children born in the UK and those left abroad with their grand-parents (that topic alone warrants a whole blog on its own). My father, in particular, a typical Caribbean patriarch terrified his girls away from boyfriends towards books and studying. He saw education as the only way forward for his children. On arriving home from school there was no plonking down in front of the television - it was: uniform off, have a family meal together, homework and maybe if you had a spare 20 minutes you could watch the box but by then all the 'good' programmes had finished and it was time for bed. Reading became a natural, normal part of my life,as a result.

I spent extended periods in the library and was often the last person thrown out, even on cold wintery evenings when my friends and peers were watching soaps and cartoons.

I hate to use the word 'lucky' to describe the quality teachers I had throughout all of my school years, but that describes it in a nutshell. They were people who cared about the children placed in their charge for 8 hours or so each day.

Throughout the Primary/Junior, Middle and Upper schools I attended there were teachers who had a positive, major impact on me and how I saw the world. If I showed an interest in poetry they nurtured it; they discovered I was receiving piano lessons (aged 8 and onwards) and so a teacher at my middle school would use the rain as an excuse for me not to play out and spend the 15 minutes break times playing duets with her on the piano in her classroom; another teacher nurtured my creative skills by nominating my bottle-opener (made from metal and wood) for an award at an exhibition showcasing the talents of school children in the county; another teacher organised a surprise trip to the local art shop with two other teachers to spend money buying sable brushes, acrylic and oil paints, charcoal, canvas and other artistic paraphernalia. I could go on as there are many other examples of teachers showing just how much they cared about their pupils, their profession and they were doing it out of sheer love for what they did.

My conversation earlier today was disheartening. This particular school has over 1000 pupils and decided to remove the school library as it was not deemed important. Instead this particular school used the old library space for money-making ventures.

Now just pause and consider what the outcomes might be if you send your child to a school that does not have a library and even worse where there was one and it had been removed, closed down and the space utilised for activities which have no positive impact on your child's education.A cash-cow for the school.

I suppose this was made worse by the fact that I 'googled' the school the other day and realised that most of the children appeared completely illiterate. A further search on You Tube reinforced this conclusion. The accompanying, rather inane videos posted by the children seemed to be in a language that was purporting to be English but wasn't, almost text slang but with strong clues as to the educational attainment levels of the children posting them on the internet.

My relative confirmed everything and more. She has a truly gifted young man in her class who has been told that he should only hope to attain the middle grades and not any more. The school fails to do anything about thefts by the pupils against other pupils and teachers. It is like a caged fortress with security guards and CCTV cameras at every turn. The other teachers are either burnt out or are just there collecting their monthly salary.

Try to encourage the children in a positive way? No point. Check that they have completed their assignments and homework to a high standard and in a timely manner? No point, if they don't want to learn, what can we do?

The culture of failure permeates throughout the school. The bottom line of it is: these kids are poor. They attend a school the government promotes as a 'beacon of education' yet are failing and failing badly.

My relative loves teaching, is extremely passionate about her vocation and stimulates these young minds as best she can. Her hours of work are shocking and her whole life seems to revolve around preparing for lessons to make them more stimulating and interesting, yet the very teachers this school needs, and others like it, will be losing a good teacher to another school where the teacher s and pupils are encouraged and supported.

It boils down to money and who your parent is. The majority of the children at her school have parents who feel marginalised, disenfranchised by a system that is leaving them behind. The gap between the haves and have nots is widening.

Middle-class parents almost half kill themselves to use whatever means, legal and illegal, to ensure their children are accepted into the best schools. Some even move halfway across the country buying houses they can ill afford just to be in the right catchment area. At the same time the less-financially-fortunate children trying to crawl their way out of the barrel are pushed further and further down. Their parents may be too tired and stressed out from the pressures of life to give them the attention and care that they need. And all the while as the poor children grow up in an environment of despair, communities become more closed off.

Most of the public play areas were sold off under Thatcher's reign. Land where children could play sports, socialise with each other, play on the swings and just enjoy some fresh air was gobbled up long ago by the highest bidders, most particularly in London. Local children who crave open public space have to go further and further away from their homes to meet other children and have fun. This usually doesn't happen as the media have done a fabulous job in scaring parents into thinking every stranger person is a paedophile.

Now the young people are drinking heavier than the previous generation and from a younger age, more (reported) knife crimes, depression and anxiety problems. Read any trashy tabloid and the problem they scream is 'kids don't have any respect for their elders anymore'. So that's it then. No analysis of a sick society raising sick children who then become sick adults.

As our conversation came to an end I asked my relative: 'Where will the scientists, the thinkers, entrepreneurs, doctors, architects, town planners, etc. come from?'

Her answer was: 'Not from my school. They are too poor and no one cares enough to really make a difference. Certainly not the government and not the Headteacher. Standards are going down, literacy rates are going down but they are covering it up. No one cares enough to make a real difference.'


Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Wow... and I thought the states where bad. It seems that the school is less about education than about keeping the kids of the street with just enough education being done by the establishment to justify the situation.

This is conflict theory made concrete- their are limit resources so those at the bottom get none.

Seriously though- removing the library?! I mean I now kids these days don't like reading, but there are always reports, school work, assigned books, random books that look interesting... what do these people use now? The net?

Zee Harrison said...

Samuel Skinner,
Thank you for your comment.

It is easy to believe that education is great somewhere else.
The UK has major problems. The social divide is great and widening each day.

The children use the internet instead of reading books. The local library is too far away and there are no organised trips to the library so many children have never visited.

Unbelieveably my relative informed me that the school has been given a target of ensuring that 30% of the students pass 5 GCSE's - if they achieve that then the school will be deemed to be a 'success'. 30%? It makes one wonder about the 70% who don't achieve this.
Awful and sad.


Cassy said...

Zee- Thanks for the comment. I reciprocate by reading your post on education in the UK. I guess we can't escape the fact that in many places, we are lying to ourselves and to our children. Its as if current movements toward "improving" things have been put in place to force failure in certain groups of people. As a Hispanic teacher in the US and advocate for immigrant and poor children, I struggle with what I see as a subtle effort to keep certain groups in their place, with the hope for only a very mediocre future.