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Britain’s traumatised education system needs a break – and a decent minister – The Guardian

After two-plus years of Covid and seven secretaries of state in the past six years, teachers and students deserve more support
To be Her Majesty’s secretary of state for education has become a bad joke. There have been seven in the past six years, three in the past two months. Like Keeper of the Wardrobe or Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, the job means nothing besides acting as a visible reminder of the decay of serious government under Boris Johnson.
After two years of trauma, Britain’s education system desperately needs a break. Schools and universities have been closed and exams suspended. Learning has stayed at home, gone online or been delegated to private tuition. Higher education has become increasingly virtual, with ever-diminishing contact hours. And at the height of the pandemic, while Britons showered the NHS with money and praise, they hung their teachers out to dry. Now offered a 3% pay rise, teachers in England are threatening to strike, as are university staff across the UK pending a vote next week.
The sector is in disarray.
To any government, a pandemic is like a war: a moment of disruption and upheaval. It is also an opportunity. The education policies embedded by the Blair and Cameron governments are badly outdated. They led to a craze for centralised assessment, the humanities being suppressed in favour of maths, and a fixation on universities to the exclusion of their Cinderella sister, vocational further education. All these policies are now challenged – and fiercely defended by their lobbies.
Nothing better illustrates this than the revival, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, of GCSE exams after two years of lockdown, with the usual August hysteria of school league table rankings. These exams, at age 16, achieved their nadir under Michael Gove with his supposed toughening of their Victorian rigour. In England, this meant an end to coursework and teacher assessment, and a return to written papers scored numerically. Exams and league tables came to dominate the school year. The one-third of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who failed their English and Maths GCSEs were ejected from the system.
Since then, pleas for the ending of GCSEs have come from every quarter. Head teachers have pronounced them useless and a treadmill. Sir John Major and eight former education secretaries told this year’s education commission, sponsored by the Times, that they should go. The Rethinking Assessment campaign wants the same, along with the Blair Institute. The Commons education committee chairman, Robert Halfon, calls them “pointless”.
Whitehall’s addiction to quantification reflects its craving for control. During lockdown, a transient education secretary, Gavin Williamson, was reduced to gaming exam results with an algorithm. A multimillion-pound marking industry has flourished, with its leading member, Pearson, now facing fines of £1.3m for “incorrect” behaviour. Small wonder, then, that the OECD reports pupils in the UK as being among the most anxious in the world, more so than in exam-mad China and Japan. The organisation’s director of education, Andreas Schleicher, puts the UK “at one end of the spectrum: everything is standardised, and assessment is high-stakes”. Everyone teaches to the test. It is significant that Finland, with no centralised testing, tops every OECD league table that matters.
Lockdown offered a golden opportunity to put a stop to this – and to the rash of testing now inflicted on primary schools. This year’s results show one consequence: a steady defection of A-level pupils from subjects such as English, history and the arts towards more measurable maths and science. There has been a drastic curbing of time available for extracurricular sport and the arts. Teaching of music and drama at GCSE has fallen by as much as a fifth in the past decade. Foreign languages have all but vanished.
During the two years of suspended exams, schools could have been liberated to explore new areas of instruction now commonplace to school systems abroad. They could have delved into physical and mental health, the handling of the law, of money, and skills of personal presentation so critical in the workplace. Educationists could have challenged the narrowness of A-level syllabuses. They could have advanced the still-hesitant cause of vocational learning and of broad-based baccalaureates.
As it is, such opportunities have slithered away in a frantic and misguided rush to make up for lost time in the league tables. Liz Truss, in her Conservative leadership election campaign, proffered a cliche-fest of stale ideas: more grammar schools, more state academies and much more maths. When she was an education minister in 2014 she lauded China’s dirigiste Confucius Institutes and was mesmerised by the rote chanting of Shanghai maths classes. As icing on the cake, she wants a supercharged access to Oxbridge for all pupils with three A*s. She is addicted to micromanagement.
Education remains a conservative profession. Subjects taught reflect little of relevance to life in the world outside. Online is ignored. The internet hardly exists. Lessons are still hour-long. Terms are still fixed by church calendars. Summer holidays are interminable. Three- and four-year university courses waste vast quantities of time and human resources, their techniques and value for money unchallenged.
The hope was that Covid might deliver a shock to this system. Another hope may be that Westminster’s political turmoil will do likewise. But that will depend on the next prime minister finding a wise, radical education secretary who can stay the course. What hope is that?

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist


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