An Open Letter: My Frustration with Education in the UK

education-crisis

When I moved to the UK from Canada, I noticed something interesting and distressing. I noticed that many of the people I met had very low self-esteem, especially in their intellectual ability. I decided to try and find-out the reason and it always seemed to come back to experiences in school. While no one’s school experiences in any country are ever perfect, it seemed to me that this was more than that.

Someone very dear to me was the one who suggested the idea of teaching to me. He’d been diagnosed with ADHD at an early age and felt as if he’d been written off in school.  I wanted to make a difference for children like him, and the others I had met.  After some deliberating and with a sense of optimism I decided I was going to change this trend; I would do something about it.

The other reason I decided to pursue teaching was that I came to find-out that the UK was constantly seeking teachers. In Canada it is one of the most sought-after jobs and the chances of securing a full-time position is a near impossibility. This is why I hadn’t considered teaching as a viable option in the past.

I volunteered in a classroom in Canada 1 day a week for a year. Then I moved to England and secured a position as a 1:1 SEN teaching assistant. It was then that I started noticing how different the UK system was from the Canadian system. For example, children were sat in groups at tables based on perceived ability. There was the SEN table, thinly disguised as the red table; the LAP table or “lower ability pupils” called the purple table; the MAPS or “middle ability pupils” at green table, and the HAPS or “higher ability pupils” at yellow table. I was horrified with these labels that seemed politically incorrect, cruel and just plain wrong.

It still turns my stomach when I hear teachers saying that certain pupils are “less able and talented” or “more able and talented.” How dare they compare these bright, diverse individuals to one another. Teachers do not have the right to decide what children they deem cleverer or more talented. What the broad term “more able and talented” really translates into, are those students who do well on literacy and maths testing. And this does not make someone more able, more talented, or more valuable than any other student.

Perhaps the worst part about this is how aware students are of where they rank in the classroom hierarchy. Often when a supply teacher would come in the yellow table would point out -“we do the harder work because we’re the top table!”- while the other students skulked off to their seats. This is not only very detrimental to the self-esteem of the lower groups, but is also a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I did see why they were set up in this way; because each group did different work it made it easier to target certain groups all at once that were working on the same activity. There were 3 adults in this Year 1 class so we could each work with a group to ensure they were performing their best and to ensure “accelerated progress.”

That was a term I heard often, especially since we were nearing our Ofsted inspection. I didn’t know what Oftsed was at first as there isn’t any sort of Canadian equivalent but I quickly found out is an organization that reduces staff to tears. It’s a little bit like Britain’s Got Talent only for schools.

Teachers spent countless hours writing detailed comments on every piece of work even though with 60% EAL (English as an additional language) and a high number of SEN classified individuals, some of them could scarcely read or make sense of the comments and never actually had the time to reflect on these comments because we were much too busy shoving phonics down their throats to get them ready for their looming phonics screening test.

But the comments needed to be perfect because what Ofsted largely does is look at the children’s books. This meant books needed to be pristine with photos of what the children were doing pasted in, learning objectives and success criteria stickers on every page, and quality, differentiated work. So instead of spending valuable time interacting with my 1:1 what I often ended up doing for hours on end was gluing photos in books, marking, and sticking LO stickers in. I would arrive to work 1 hour early each day and spend ½ an hour just sticking in the LO stickers. I would regularly stay until 5, 6, 7 o’ clock pm helping my teacher to mark books simply because I hated the thought of her staying up til 10 or 11pm marking.

Trying to always be taking photos of what the children were doing also interfered with my ability to be present with them. And when I’d read with them 1:1 I’d be so busy trying to scrawl everything down that it was difficult to pay attention to what the book was about or to interact with the child.

But it was important to always be taking photos and writing everything down for “proof.” This is when I began to realize that the UK does not have an ounce of trust in their trained, professional teachers. Oral learning only counts if there is a photo to prove it took place. Sometimes I found I was spoon-feeding answers to children so that they would have something written in their books. I didn’t realize until a little while after I’d left the job to begin teacher training how much of what we did had nothing to do with whether the children had learned or understood what was being taught but was actually to look good for book-looks by our head and for Ofsted inspections.

I saw nearly every staff member cry in the weeks leading up to our inspection (even our head) and in fact, I did as well.

I loved being around the children all day, but morale of staff in the school was alarmingly low. Also, because the last inspection had deemed the school “inadequate” it had been put into special measures which meant that we had visits from county a few times a week in our classroom. A lady would come and watch my teacher teach and sometimes make notes which were not shared with her; it was unnerving and certainly not supportive in any way.

Myself and others stayed at school until 10pm the evening before the big visit. Now when Oftsed or Estyn does come around it’s for approximately three days. They visit classrooms (they observed our class for about 20 minutes in total) and look through the workbooks and statistics relating to the school. Such statistics include attendance, maths grades, literacy grades, government testing results, etc,. This is why it reminds me of being on Britain’s Got Talent. Everyone in the school is nervously putting on their best performance to impress the judges. Then after a farcical amount of time and based largely on statistics and the condition of workbooks, they make a judgement on whether the school is Excellent, Good, Satisfactory or Inadequate which is shared online to be scrutinized by parents and the community. Some staff have mysteriously “disappeared” after these inspections, so it’s no wonder why teachers feel so much anxiety.

I have come to the conclusion that not only are inspection agencies like Ofsted (the English organization) and Estyn (the Welsh equivalent) interfering with student learning and staff wellbeing, but they also have no right to make judgements on teachers and children whom they know virtually nothing about. People are not statistics. Unless they are regularly in the classroom interacting with those children and teachers, getting to know them and their likes, their dislikes, their dreams, their home situations, their fears, their talents- then they have no right to make judgments about them.

While our attendance was outstanding this was because of fines sent to parents who kept children at home. This meant children were sent to school when they were poorly, and staff felt guilted into coming to school rather than staying home to take care of their health. I went in on more than one occasion with a high fever and colleagues of mine came in and were sick to their stomachs in the staff toilets because no one wanted to be the reason for lowering the school’s precious attendance records. Again, this is why statistics are not an appropriate means of gauging success. What looks good on paper rarely looks good in practice.

As far as the test marks being scrutinized, other teachers have revealed to me that test marks are often tampered with so that schools can get increased funding since showing progress translates into government dollars and less scrutiny.

Going back to my earlier point about accelerated progress and differentiation: I don’t believe in differentiation the way that it is being carried out in schools. The importance of differentiation is stressed to us explicitly in University and in school placements. However, I believe that having different work arbitrarily handed to SEN, LAPS, MAPS and HAPS is completely wrong. Not only are you limiting children based on what you think they are capable of, but you are having a profoundly negative affect on their intrinsic motivation to learn and their self-esteem.

Differentiation as it stands is not about realizing that a certain child may need more help with a certain task and contemplating the best way to help that child succeed which comes naturally to teachers. It has become having a different task for each band of perceived “ability” to show to the headteacher and Ofsted/Estyn. It has become about ticking boxes. Spending wasted minutes everyday thinking: how can I show completely irrelevant differentiation in my plan for art? How can I differentiate in PE so that my plan will look good?

I remember being completely hopeless at PE and one of my teachers in high school tweaking some of the rules to work in my favour which was thoughtful, but I sincerely hope she didn’t need to write this into a plan to prove her effectiveness as a teacher. As a trained professional in a Canadian school I can say with near certainty that she did not. That she was simply trusted to do the job she was trained to do. And had she not done this, I still would have turned out just fine.

I do differentiate mostly because I am required to, but as I’ve gained more confidence in my own voice I have refused, at times, to hand out different work according to “lowers” “middles” and “highers.” I have told one of my mentors that while I will have 2 or 3 different sets of work or activities (which makes planning a lesson take 2-3 times longer) I will not tell the children which work they have to do. Instead I will explain the differences in each sheet or activity and let the children take responsibility for their own learning and decide what will be most effective, and what the right level of challenge is for them. This way the children are not limited and do not feel patronized. They are in control of their learning.

When I told my mentor I don’t believe in “lowers” “middles” and “highers” she said what if they all pick the same work? How will you show differentiation? If all the children choose the same work then this simply means there was no reason to differentiate in the first place. If all my students pick the hardest sheet, I won’t think to myself, how will my books look? I’ll think, right on! And if it ends up being too hard for some, at least they gave it a go and had the chance to decide for themselves. It will also help them to make a more informed choice next time, or even during the lesson if they decide to move down to some easier work and build up to the challenge. School is supposed to be about experimenting and learning, not getting everything right the first time.

While my mentor could see value in my arguments she asked what we would do when the head asked for 2 lowers, 2 middles and 2 highers books expecting to see different work? I think this should be answered with a question. Who is this work for? Who is it benefitting? The children or the headteacher?

The answer is obvious. However it is not obvious in practice. The aims of schools has shifted from children learning and becoming holistic, well-rounded individuals towards ticking boxes for higher-ups, especially dreaded Ofsted and Estyn.

Schools now, more than ever, need support not judgement; a helping hand and a cheerleader, not another test to pass.

That is what schooling in the UK has become: test passing; both for teachers and for students. Inspiration, a love of learning and preparing for life in all of its broad contexts is dead. If there isn’t an imminent test on it, it isn’t important. If it isn’t maths or English it isn’t important. If it’s only worth a couple of marks on the next government test, it will be glossed over to make room for the big marks. Teachers are torn between whether they should stay true to their teaching values and have students who don’t perform as well as others, or to spend copious amounts of time drip-feeding them test answers so that it looks as if they are being taught effectively.

Education in the UK has completely lost the plot. There isn’t room in the curriculum-driven, government-interfering, testing and statistics-obsessed system for the children. While the children should be at the heart of the equation they have become a hurdle to jump.

During my first in-school placement I told a colleague about some girls in the class who constantly caused trouble, and he said “at least they’re bright.” I told him about a sweet little boy in my class who struggles with maths and English but comes into school every day with a big smile, is always thoughtful towards others, has a fantastic attitude and lends his best effort to everything he does. I said I would rather have a class full of little boys like that. And so would most employers. He said “you’d never hit your targets.” I replied that I didn’t care about arbitrary targets. He told me I’m in the wrong field.

I don’t believe that I am in the wrong field. In fact when I began teacher’s college I felt as if I had found the exact place in the world I belonged. I was surrounded by intelligent, optimistic individuals who were passionate about education and children. We wanted to help children discover their hidden talents, teach them all about the world, build them up and help them to grow as learners and individuals. We were ready to inspire and be inspired. We were promptly told that 44% of us would leave teaching within the first 3 years and that we would spend most of this course crying. We didn’t believe our lecturers.

I now spend quite a significant of my time crying. I get to school at 8 am and I run around until 6pm, rarely having time to eat anything all day. I plan until 11 or 12pm from Monday to Thursday and for 8-9 hours Saturday and the same on Sunday. Every lesson must tick a lengthy amount of boxes. Having asked about 30 other students whether they’d still like to be teachers only 3 said yes. I was not one of them. All of the other Canadians on the course that I have asked (8) said they would never consider teaching in the UK, nor would they send their children to school here. They have the same complaints as myself (and those in the secondary program have even more relating to GCSE’s).

While I don’t believe for a moment that I am in the wrong field, I do believe that the field is wrong for children and for teachers.

There is not a shortage of teachers in the UK. In fact there is a surplus of talented, enthusiastic individuals who would love nothing more than to teach our youth the skills they need for life. However PGCE programs and the education system at large are snuffing them out.

I came into the PGCE program expecting help and support in exchange for my £9,000. I expected small groups of 5-6 that would meet every week with our tutor to discuss how our week went; what went well, what fell flat. I expected to be asked what I would be teaching this upcoming week and steered towards resources I could use and how to effectively teach those subjects. I expected the University to be signed up to teacher resource websites for us to use. I expected to be informed of what textbooks would suffice since not every lesson can be a practical, wondrous activity (though I am killing myself to try and attain this).

I expected to have a voice on educational issues; to have the regular opportunity to challenge notions of differentiation, segregation based on ability, testing and statistics. Instead we are taught that this is the way things are done and rarely does anyone pipe-up and contradict these ideas though I know I am far from the only one stewing inside.

We are told we must be “experts at everything.” Anyone who claims to be an expert at everything is lying. This is not a helpful or a realistic expectation.

We have even been shouted at by one particularly intimidating guest speaker that it is our responsibility to prepare children for not just the world now but what it will be in 20 and 50 years. No one knows what it’ll be like but the blame is on us if we don’t somehow prepare them!

We are also going to be held accountable for extinguishing the poverty gap and ensuring our class is always quiet and well behaved even though pupil x is acting out because of drug abuse and conflict at home.

We are only human. We are humans who desperately care about these children and their futures but that doesn’t seem to count because it can’t be put into a graph and scrutinized. The same way my lovely Year 1 student wasn’t considered a desirable student because of test performance.

We are put under constant pressure to perform but we haven’t really been taught how. There are only a few teachers at the University who perform themselves the way we are expected to. Instead we are plunked into a placement and expected to get on with it and be teachers. A few times a year our University mentors observe us which is not supportive in any way; it is another show to be judged.

It is absolutely preposterous that essays make up 100% of our grade on the PGCE program. Being able to write an essay is completely unrelated to whether or not you are an effective teacher. In fact, essay-writing is one of the few things that teachers are not expected to do in their endless pile of jobs. So why is the program so focused on writing essays? I would hazard a guess that this is because it will look good during Estyn inspection even though it is tipping already barely-surviving students over the edge and is mostly irrelevant. Nearly every student I’ve talked to has had a breakdown by this point because of the crushing workload. I have had several.

I have talked to students who say they get up at 4am every morning to try and stay on top of the workload; others stay up til 2am every night. We joke about jumping off bridges, although it isn’t unheard of for teachers in the UK to do so. In fact, the suicide rate of primary teachers in England is 42% higher than the national average according to figures taken between 2011 and 2015. Fortunately I know better than to stay in a career long enough to be driven to that point.

Every teacher and fellow PGCE student I’ve talked to has agreed with most or all of what I have said here but have warned me to be careful who I talk to. I’m tired of being careful.

A supply teacher told me last week that in all her years of teaching she has never met a happy teacher. Most teachers have said they want out; that they are disillusioned and warned me not to undertake the PGCE. Still others have said they won’t be able to stay in teaching when they have children as it just isn’t doable. All have said it is no longer a life-long career because you just get burnt out. I have yet to meet a teacher who is happy in their career. And this is a tragedy because teaching should be the best job there is.

The NQT year promises more of the same crushing pressures. Instead of a helping hand in our first year as teachers, we are given a series of hoops to jump through to once again prove our worthiness. It will set us up for a lifetime of hoop-jumping and test passing if we are to stay in teaching.

I am not a perfect teacher, nor a perfect individual if such a thing exists. I don’t pretend to know everything, but I know what I have seen and heard and what I feel. I know Wales has failed to meet its recruitment targets for teachers for 5 years running and the UK is having a “recruitment crises.” I know that no amount of recruiting from other countries can fix what is a miserable, broken system. The problem is not a shortage of teachers but an impossible, suffocating and uninspiring system for them to contend with.

I know that my views run in contradiction to the current state of education in England and in Wales. I know that I won’t last in this climate. I thought I could make a difference to at least one group of students each year; to let them know that despite what the education system will have them believe they are all talented and able. And that each talent is equally valued at least in my eyes: whether it be cooking, singing, dancing, running, maths, science, art, literacy, humour, gardening, etc,.

It seems ironic that I know I will have trouble finding a job and will likely be fired for putting the wellbeing of my children above test marks and levels that pit them against each-other. For proclaiming I don’t care about grades or statistics, which does not in any way mean that I don’t care whether my children are learning because I do care about their learning very much. I will be criticised for saying the things that all teachers are thinking and are too afraid to say.

But I’m going to say it anyway.

 

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “An Open Letter: My Frustration with Education in the UK

  1. I wish I had wise words from my side of the Pond, but we have our own issues with teaching to tests and other threats to our educational system that make teachers’ lives miserable. What are the parents’ responses to what is happening?

    1. I know teaching is a hard job anywhere; the workload is absolutely unattainable. As I’m a student teacher I haven’t really had the chance to engage with parents, but I don’t think anyone who hasn’t worked in a school or as a teacher can understand just how hard it is or how negatively this kind of “differentiation” will impact children’s self-esteem. I certainly didn’t know just how hard this would be; I thought we would be taught how to cope, how to save time, how to properly teach each subject ect,. but that has not been the case whatsoever. It feels like being plunked into a classroom and trying to teach myself how to be a teacher.

      1. And you are not getting any mentorship. It’s “do as you are told”. My English husband encountered that as a chemical engineer and moved to the U.S. where he was allowed to have ideas and was able to file patents under his belt in his 20s. So this is not just in the educational system. I completely feel for you.

      2. It’s such a beautiful place to live. I am in love with the UK as far as the landscape, weather, charm and history… I just wish that teachers here were trusted to do their jobs. I have seen the same kinds of pressures in other industries here as well such as in nursing. All the micro-managing just isn’t working.

  2. You are so brave to go into teaching, especially in the UK! I really respect your choice and know that you will be amazing! Your kids will be so lucky to have you as their teacher 🙂

    Teaching is very difficult and really underrated as a profession. Most people don’t understand unless they’ve actually done it themselves. Ofsted are ridiculous and I agree with you that the system needs to change. Hoping that British education will come out of the dark ages soon!

    1. Thank you 🙂 It’s really disheartening at times. I am busy planning lessons now actually it is all I do every evening and every weekend now. I miss going outside and having a life outside of school; having hobbies and interests. I hope that things will change. In the meantime I am looking forward to the summer holidays!

      Hope you are well x

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