I don’t often write about my work on here. I had always intend to share some of what I do but there never really seems to be the right thing to write about and I always feel under qualified to be writing about it. But there have been some things on my mind recently and just feel the need to send these thoughts out into the void.
To give you a bit of context, I work as an HLTA (English specialist), and more recently Whole School Literacy Coordinator, in a large, comprehensive secondary school, in the suburbs of Manchester, where we have a very diverse student body. I started the HLTA role just before all the curriculum changes came into effect, so have seen the the tail end of the last specification and the process of moving across to the new. My role is interesting and varied and, in some ways, quite unique to our school. I have worked mainly with KS4 students, supporting them with their GCSE studies, and in KS3 I’ve worked mainly with year 7 students in their first term. Nearly all of my work supports students who struggle with English as a subject. In my newer role of WSL Coordinator, I work with students and staff across the curriculum supporting various literacy needs, and I am seeing more and more of the challenging nature of the new GCSE specs outside my own subject.
There is a lot I love about my roles and I am incredibly fortunate to work with an absolutely amazing team of people. There are also a lot of frustrations. Recently, my biggest frustration is an increasing feeling that I am working within a fundamentally broken system. A feeling that, despite the best efforts and intentions of the people working in education around the country, we are not equipping our students, our young people, for life in the 21st century. That our education system is no longer fit for purpose.
With the exception of the boards being dry-wipe rather than chalk, and the presence of a few more computers, classrooms today look largely the same as classrooms from a hundred years ago. So much progress has been made in the last century and yet we are teaching our children and young people (largely) the same things in (largely) the same ways. The one major change is probably in the amount of scrutiny and pressure put. upon schools and school staff, which, quite frankly, does no one much good and is surely having a negative impact on the mental and emotional wellbeing of school staff – a negative impact which undoubtedly gets passed on to our students. As the noose of red tape and tick boxes tightens, we spend hours and days and weeks and months and years dragging students through curriculums saturated with content and yet lacking in diversity, in preparation for ‘rigorous’ exams that don’t really tell us much about students’ abilities. We sweat and bleed and stress over planning lessons and designing schemes, which, because they have to prepare students for said exams, so often end up with the passion and interest of the subjects drained out of them. And all the while our students are missing out on some of the essential skills needed for modern life.
Where are the opportunities for them to innovate and create? Where are the opportunities for them to problem solve and think outside the box? Where are the opportunities for them to find their passions, their interests, their skills and learn to hone them? Where are the opportunities to develop team working skills and to learn more about the beautiful diversity of living in a global age? Where are the life skills that equip them to recognise fake news, or to effectively challenge people in positions of power who are supposed to represent them but fail them continually?
Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is value in a broad and varied curriculum and in the traditional teaching of traditional subjects, and that some of these opportunities can be offered through it. But only if teachers are given the freedom to do so. Far too often, they are not. They are given the promise of such freedom but then presented with content and skills lists so vast that in practice that freedom is so limited as to be practically non-existent. Even if they did have trump freedom, shouldn’t we also be offering the opportunity for more? By all means, keep the study of a broad range of subjects through Key Stage 1, 2 and 3, but without the pressure of continual formal assessment. At KS4, however, moulding it make more sense to choose a small number (just 4 or 5 rather than the current 9 or 10) of subjects to study, with more vocational options available to those less academically inclined? Why not keep English Literature, English Language, maths and sciences as optional subjects rather than compulsory ones, and have every student sit a core set of assessments in functional literacy, numeracy, and digital competency? If there are going to be core compulsory subjects at all surely they should provide skills that might equip them to function successfully in this digital age?
I am no expert and I don’t know what the answer is, but I can’t help but notice that those calling the educational shots aren’t exactly experts either, and I feel like they’re getting it all wrong.