I’ve been teaching 24 years and at the age of 48 this much I know about my 1970s education.
The Gove/Clegg plans for the English Baccalaureate are so obviously wrong. There are many education professionals who have already expressed their grave misgivings about what Gove has declared will happen from 2015; I feel disorientated. The only response I can make at this moment is to reflect upon what I went through when I was at school, because it feels like we are returning to the 1970s.
At our school in 1977 the least able – or the Remedial Group as they were offically dubbed (it’s true!) – ended up in the Environmental Studies hut down the end of the playing field. Mr H ran the whole Environmental Studies thing; he was warm-hearted and happy whiling away his time, and his students’ time, pottering around the greenhouse. Once he took us from rural Sussex to London in the Third Year for a Save the Seals march and lost us. We had to find our own way home on the train. The neglect in schools in the 1970s is unimaginable now, but I fear there will be children leaving school six years hence who will have been academically neglected. As it says in today’s Guardian, under Gove’s proposals there is the very real chance that a sizeable proportion of students would leave school with no qualifications.
History GCSE in 2012 demands a range of skills which need to be artfully synthesised to attain a decent grade. Students have to interpret evidence, make connections between different sources, recall knowledge, make judgements and articulate reasoned conclusions. Over two years in the late 1970s I sat for 150 hours in History O level lessons with Mrs B and copied her writing off the board. I learnt her board work by rote and got a grade B in the end. I learnt nothing more than factual recall. It’s wholly irrelevant to me that Blind Jack came from Knaresborough.
In Third Year French I fell off my seat backwards and Mr P. made me lie on the floor for the rest of the lesson.
I got decent grades at O level mainly because of my memory skills and my membership of the literacy club as Geoff Barton calls it. Getting the bus back from Brighton in 1979 I saw our English teacher, Mr W., on the bus. I told him I’d just seen his car in town – a green left-hand drive Peugeot, registration GWV937V, a detail I recalled with ease (and still can). Impossible according to Mr W., because his car was in a garage in Lewes. Turned out the mechanics were using his car as a run around.
The recent OFSTED report on mathematics, Made to Measure, is a great document. It claims that mathematics teaching in the best schools is characterised by students collaborating extensively with each other, challenging them to think for themselves and devise their own methods for solving problems. This sounds like a long way from 1978 and the triple X lessons which characterised my mathematics experience: eXplain, eXample, eXercise. Do 50 questions; get 50 more and another batch for homework. Surely we cannot go back to those dark days?
I learnt more about English Literature when I began teaching than I ever did in 16 years of formal education. Teaching others is such a great learning process. I don’t think we ever got out of our seats in the 70s; working in groups was unheard of and teaching each other was beyond our imagination. Zoe Elder’s great new book, Full On Learning’s strapline is from the Chinese proverb, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” We have to hang on to what we know is great practice, especially when the assessment regime encourages teacher-led lessons which will inevitably become attritional in nature and breed disengagement.
My Year 7 son is imaginative and funny, great with numbers, a decent reader but less good at writing. His memory could be better. He likes baking and making. He uses a laptop adeptly. He’s a water baby and loves to swim, but finds it hard to maintain his place in the football team – when I ask him if he wants to go to Old Trafford he gently tells me that he doesn’t really like football. He was gentle and patient with the Year 1s when he was a Year 6 monitor. He’s loving and still gets on his mum’s lap subconsciously. He’d make a brilliant Primary School teacher, but as an E-Bacc guinea pig I genuinely don’t know if he’ll get the qualifications. Born in 2000, he’s a twenty-first century boy heading for a 1970s nightmare.
This is a bit more than just an indulgent sentimental glance at my 70s schooling. It’s actually quite terrible to think how badly I was taught. I had a discussion with our Drama Subject Leader last week and she was insisting that the Year 7 Drama scheme must be securely focused upon making the students’ learning and progress explicit. She was brimming with academic rigour. I reckon my whole First Year of Drama in 1975-6 was taken up with an improvisation of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Anyone who says education is getting worse has a short memory – schools in the 70s were pretty shocking and we must do all we can to prevent the politicians dragging us back to those drab Magnolia days.