Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers Alliance, backs Michael Gove's proposed school revolution
When I was in Sixth Form (not that long ago), I opted to do Voluntary Service instead of sport one afternoon a week. The work we ended up doing varied a great deal, but for me and two friends it involved working as classroom assistants at a Primary School in the West End of Newcastle.
It was good fun – seeing the same class of children week after week, helping them to learn and also learning for myself how the process of teaching actually works.
The staff were mostly very dedicated, but one experience I had sticks in my mind as indicative of the problems that afflict some parts of the education system.
One week, we were teaching the children History – in particular, about the Tudor monarchs. For a reason I can’t recall the class teacher was away, so the lesson was left to the professional classroom assistant and me as a volunteer.
Having got the children interested by promises of plenty beheadings, burnings at the stake and sea battles, we set about laying out the outlines of the Tudor dynasty.
“Does anyone know what these dates mean?” asked the classroom assistant, pointing to a list on the board that read:
Henry VII 1485-1509
Henry VIII 1509 – 1547
Edward VI 1547 – 1553
Mary I 1553 – 1558
Elizabeth I 1558 – 1603
“I’ll tell you,” she continued, “they’re the dates when each Tudor King or Queen was born and then died.”
I obviously looked a little bit surprised, because she came over to me a couple of minutes later.
”What?” she asked.
Trying to keep my voice down, so as not to undermine her in front of the class, I pointed out that those were the dates they ruled, not the dates they lived. Otherwise, Mary I would have managed the suspicious feat of being born 6 years after her father died.
“It doesn’t matter,” she shrugged back, “they’ll never remember this stuff anyway.”
Leaving aside the fact that she seemed happy to say this in front of her pupils, I was shocked that any teacher could have that attitude.
Education is meant to be an inspiring process – yes, one that people should seek to do as a financially rewarding career, but also one that to do well you need to actually care about.
Her dismissive approach of throwing any old stuff at the kids, regardless of accuracy and irrespective of the impact on their futures, set me to thinking.
It was unfathomable to me how she could care so little about her job or her pupils. It’s inevitable in life that some people just can’t be bothered to take a bit of pride in their work.
Just because such people exist, though, does not mean we should allow their bad attitude to ruin the lives of others. It struck me that the real question was why this woman was being allowed and even paid to teach children when she clearly didn’t care about their education.
The answer was that the people who really cared about the job being done well – the children’s parents – had no say in how their children were educated. Even removing it a step further, the taxpayers who funded that school and the employers who would eventually want to be able to employ well-educated staff had no real say either.
This is why Michael Gove’s proposal of Free Schools is so important. Instead of parents being instructed as to which school they must send their child to, what curriculum their child will be given, and ultimately what standard of teaching they are going to have to shut up and accept, they must be given the right to choose for themselves.
Most parents will stretch every sinew to do the best for their children. Our current system rejects that parental instinct, and rides roughshod over it.
The critics of Free Schools actually cite parental encouragement and responsibility as a negative, harmful thing, normally under the derogatory term “pushy parenting.” Worse, they even peddle the myth that only middle class parents in leafy suburbs want their children to do well and take an interest in their development. In reality, of course, it is a near-universal human instinct, which we should be harnessing, rather than criticising and locking out of the classroom.
Whenever I see an ivory tower “educationalist” or a pompous Toynbee-a-like try to insist that the State has better priorities for children than their own parents, I think back to that classroom assistant in that Primary School. If the parents of her class could have heard her words, I have no doubt they would have been furious.
Whenever I am reminded of that class of keen, sharp kids, I wish fervently that the next teacher to shrug their shoulders about their future is slung out and replaced by someone who actually cares. Giving power to parents would be a major step towards making that a reality.