My cousin John has been staying with me. He is an experienced teacher, and because his visits tend to coincide with national examination results, we tend to have robust debates about education that go on till the early hours.
Each year, the number of pupils who obtain good passes in GCSE and A Levels increases, while the popular perception amongst the public, employers, universities and the armed forces is that standards of education are slipping badly, to the extent that many children appear to be leaving school without even the most basic skills, and are ill-equipped to cope with the job market or the complexities of modern life.
Educators insist that the higher number of passes is down to hard work and improved methods by the teaching profession, while others suggest that exams are getting easier. There is probably some truth in both these arguments. Nobody doubts that a good British education is excellent, but an average education is possibly not good enough. People of my generation tend to believe that while in particular instances, pupils may learn things that we did not, overall, education today is less rigorous and narrower in scope than in our day. If true, how can this be?
I believe that because there is unrelenting pressure on teachers to perform better, and because that performance is measured by exam results, we have got into the unfortunate position where children are not being educated as such, but merely schooled into passing examinations, which is certainly not the same thing. Teachers are, I think, almost mesmerised by the process of adequately preparing kids to the examination standard, and see that as the ultimate goal, and by so doing, they pass on that idea, and those anxieties, to their pupils, who see the GCSE and A Level exams as some almost insurmountable mountain that has to be climbed, and thus get the whole thing out of proportion.
Much better, I suggest, was the old idea, where a teacher would tell pupils that he was going to educate them thoroughly in a subject, and when they had obtained that knowledge, they would have no problem in passing any examination, almost with their eyes closed.
Secondly, much more emphasis should be paid to practical skills than at present. As an example, In Maths, a series of procedures has to be taught, and those particular boxes ticked, e.g. compound interest and quadratic equations. I presume sufficient time is allowed for each of those items to be absorbed, and no more, but in real life, many children will never ever need to do a quadratic again, but they will all their life need to understand compound interest, because of their credit cards, mortgages, hire purchase agreements, etc. Credit card companies exist on the premise that not one in a thousand people understands just what situation they are getting into. The exploding figures on personal debt and bankruptcies bear this out; people are not sufficiently educated in handling money, so perhaps 5, 10, or even 20 times as much effort should be spent on this area of teaching. The trouble is, teachers on the whole are well paid, and are less likely to suffer from debt problems as other less well paid people, so do not see the need maybe.
Coursework is a valuable teaching component, and is highly beneficial, however I do not believe it should be any part of the examination process. I read that in some subjects, it can amount to 25% of the marks towards a GCSE. Coursework encourages children to work alone, to research, to discuss the subject out of the classroom, but it can also be written by friends, parents, or even downloaded from the Internet. How can this be of any true relevance? If, say, an essay is required, that essay should be written completely and without exception under invigilation.
Lastly, I see a modern tendency by teachers to have a personal relationship with their pupils, which I think is wrong. Teachers are not there to be liked or understood. A teacher should command respect, be a slightly remote figure, a man of mystery commanding nothing but respect, with an air of authority. I doubt even that they should know a teacher’s Christian name, let alone whether he is married, single, gay, straight, where he went on his holiday’s etc. In the workplace a good boss is not Mr. Niceguy, but someone who knows his job, inspires you, and treats you fairly. A teacher is there to impart knowledge, to inspire and enthuse you, no more, no less; he should not be a character.
I would be interested in comments from any other readers.