A few years ago I enrolled as a STEM ambassador in Cambridgeshire, England. My first task was to help a team of students from St Mary’s school explore the concept of smart metering and how it could be implemented in their school.
I must admit it was a great experience; the girls were really keen to do a good job and I was very proud of the final project they delivered at the end of the program.
But there’s a catch and it’s why the British education system left a bitter taste in my mouth. I know there are probably more qualified voices to cry wolf, but it does feel like there is a big gap forming between best- and worst-performing schools (St Mary’s falls under the former).
Let me explain. Before being involved with St Mary’s, I helped a student improve her performance in Math for GCSE. I kid you not when I say that when we started it felt like I was talking to a robot. When presented with a simple equation (if 2a + 3 = 5, what is the value of a?), the first thing she told me was that had never seen something like that before. I couldn’t understand exactly what she meant by that so the next day I went to a bookstore and bought myself one of those GCSE guides that help you prepare for the exam. Turns out every equation she had seen had either an x or a y indicating unknowns. She couldn’t understand why I had used a different letter.
I know it’s anecdotal evidence but somehow I found the pattern repeating over and over again. You could say it was the teacher’s fault. It wasn’t.
There are many things I find don’t work in worst-performing schools, but the one I can’t wrap my head around is the whole teacher-student-parent-government relationship. It seems that the status quo accepts this failure and exonerates everyone from the list above of any responsibility. Everyone except the teacher.
In an environment where teachers are expected to work 14 hours per day (and usually weekends too), schools simply prevent them from focusing on a student’s true personal development. Instead, it’s all about the faceless numbers: Has the student reached the target grade? Will she get a C this time? What can we do so he can get a B? Are we at 70% A*-C? Brace yourselves, Ofsted is coming!
Students know it too so they join in the game, becoming bitter and disillusioned in the process. Why should I bother to get a B when my target grade is a D? was something I often heard from my Math-challenged friend.
Teachers are also buried in bureaucracy; between endless marking of exercise books, lesson planning based on rigid methods and behavior management worthy of LAPD, they are left with little time to actually teach, to pass on information in a meaningful way, to bring out the best in every teenager. Essentially, to do what inspired them to become a teacher in the first place.
Students also have a habit of not doing homework or behaving horribly in and outside the classroom. I asked about consequences; apparently most schools implement schemes where students are given behavior or reward points. What happened when you rack up a few behavior points? You got a detention. A few more? The school calls your parents. A few more? Another detention.
I’m going to make a baseball analogy (sorry cricket fans, your game is simply not that exciting). Imagine you’re the pitcher; you throw the first ball and the umpire calls strike one, followed by strike two and three. But instead of stopping there, you have to keep throwing and throwing – there are no strikeouts and the batter is never out. How strikes does it take before frustration kicks in?
You see where this is going. Detentions and calling parents are fine but they don’t do much in the long term; it even turns the system into a competition where kids try to hit jackpot numbers by racking up behavior points.
I don’t know how education in the UK got to this point, but it feels like somewhere down the line good intentions mutated into bad policies. Then more good intentions were put forward to fix those mutations. But the mutation occurred again and again until the vicious circle spiraled ever downwards.
What is clear however is that a prosperous economy cannot survive on fintech and immigration. The educational system needs to wake up and make some simple changes to improve efficiency.
- Reduce bureaucracy: Do you really need teachers to mark every exercise book, every week for the entire school year? It takes an enormous amount of time and students rarely look at or learn from the feedback.
- Balance responsibility: Teachers must be held accountable but so should the students, parents and the government.
- Refocus management: Stop worrying about next year’s numbers and start caring about the quality of the students and the teaching; if you ensure both, the numbers will work themselves out.
- Address behavior issues: Schools tend to avoid expelling students because they’re afraid to show enrollment dropping. It’s a false narrative; a school that has behavior problems will attract fewer students and teachers.
The more I think about it, the better homeschooling sounds.