Cuts to Education Funding: does it really spell doom? A response to TES

I just finished reading TES’ recent article “Think budgets are tight now?” which articulates that the UK is spending millions more on its pensioners than its children. The article correlates a lack of future funding to a struggle in the education sector: how will we educate our youth appropriately when we are only spending 3.8% of our GDP on our youth’s education (as opposed to the 7.1% spent on state pensions)? What will happen to our future, the article insinuates: “What does it say about our society that we are prepared to spend more on state benefits for retirees than we are for education?”

At first glance, I think the reader is supposed to feel shock. The picture on the article  shows an old woman literally eating the proverbial public’s money. The underlying question seems to be: why are we “wasting” our money on “old people” who have lived their lives, rather than investing in our future as a society? But hold on a minute: have these “old people” not contributed to society for years, and are they now not able to sit back and reap the rewards? Have they not earned a break? I’d argue that a society should be judged on how it treats its elderly (and its youth, but I’ll come to that in a moment). Respect is a concept hard to come by, and we are in danger of losing respect not only for history (because we aren’t learning it well enough) but also for those who’ve lived it. If we don’t respect our elders and their contributions to our culture and society, what kind of people have we become? And if we don’t pay appropriately for our elders’ pensions, are we even showing them the appropriate respect?

But the point of my post is not solely to question the allocation of funds to pensioners. Rather, I question the focus on funding, on money. Schools need money, I acknowledge. But are we spending money wisely? We’ve been told budgets are tight, redundancies are a real potential, and that we are going to have to “tighten our belts.” This is a national trend, we know, and I think we are meant to shake in fear.

But at second glance, I wonder if the amount of money allocated really matters as much as we think it does. Currently, in the Pisa tests, the UK’s 16 year-old-youth falls in a sadly low 22nd (at least) percentage for England and Maths worldwide. As educators, with or without plenty of funding, smart boards and other expensive technology available at our fingertips, we have not suitably prepared our students for the world, and “social mobility” has been low for years because we–like the US– haven’t been teaching in a way that matters (speak to ED Hirsh about this).

Why does every classroom in the UK need a smart board? Why do schools need myriad technology? Does it make our students learn more? Don’t get me wrong: I do like having access to a smart board and I do my best to use the resource well, but do we need it to transform lives? According to the BBC in 2015, we spent £900 million a year in technology for our classrooms.

My first job was in Albuquerque NM, in the biggest high school in the state, literally bursting at the seams. I taught 36 students per class in portable classroom number 40 and, in 2004, we still had chalk boards. I had no textbooks, no curriculum, and we made it work. I loved creating a culture in my classroom and teaching my students, and I am still in touch with many of them–all of whom have jobs of some kind–today. In my second job, I moved up in the world and had access to white boards. This was on a native American reservation. In my third job, in the international school arena, I was back to chalkboard and a hit-and-miss electricity system. I literally came to class with the book I was teaching and got on it it–and loved it. My students and I had raucous debates about Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado, we discussed the heartbreaking revelations in Kite Runner, and we contemplated the truths of Siddhartha–with or without electricity. In the middle of this teaching experience, I taught in China for a month, and though I loved every minute and every smiling, eager face in each bare classroom I encountered in this country, I don’t remember much in the way of technology or much beyond a chalk board.

Did this make my students learn less? Did this make their education less relevant, less rich, less meaningful? Did it make them less able to perform well on exams? No way. As their teacher, what and how I chose to teach played a direct role in what they were able to do at the end.

China reportedly spends 1.9% of its GDP on education, but we sit back and wonder how they do it; we send delegations to China to study their ways. We bring people back from China and broadcast “Chinese school” on our televisions. Chinese teachers come here and wonder why British children don’t listen to them and they go gratefully back home at the end of their tenure. Having spent some time over there teaching, I can say that teachers certainly don’t have many resources, but they do have respect. The teaching profession is highly respected, and students do what their teachers tell them to do because they know it will earn them the results they want. And what their teachers tell them is simple: learn x, y and z because you will need it. Then their teachers test them explicitly on the knowledge. Then the students learn it again and are tested again, the end. Simple, competitive, straight forward, slightly depressing at times (depending on the teacher), but it yields impressive results that we can’t hope to copy in our current climate.

Similarly, Singapore spends 3.3% of their GDP on education, and yet as of Dec 2016, they ranked highest in Maths, Reading and Science on the Pisa tests.

So, I think it’s safe(ish) to say it’s not the money that has placed us in the 20 something percentile in the Pisa rankings. It doesn’t matter how many smart boards and TAs we place in a room; our students aren’t learning enough.

Before coming here, I had never experienced the type of apathy and/or desperation I have encountered in British children–both in my classroom, those I’ve visited and those shown on “Educating ___” tv shows. I had never seen such a cohort of despondent, hopeless or directionless children, though of course I encountered a few in every classroom in which I’ve taught. I love teaching, enjoy students and value their input; I labour to engage my students and have found it particularly challenging to succeed in this area here. It took me four years’ teaching in the UK–complete with all the training I could get, becoming an examiner, studying independently, discussing and theorizing constantly, and generally reflecting– to put together the pieces and make a statement.

In our teaching in the UK, the public education sector does not place enough emphasis on knowledge. The students who know the least feel the least empowered and, by the time they reach secondary school, they’ve already given up. Because we don’t help students remember and retain information, we don’t change their minds and by the time they’re ready to take their GCSEs, they’re a lost cause.

Teachers have knowledge, to some extent. We certainly have a word-rich vocabulary that has allowed us to circumnavigate university and obtain qualifications and a job anyway. Then teachers enter the workforce as NQTs, or as foreign teachers shell-shocked by the cultural differences and trying to catch up with the myriad bureaucracy thrown our way. I argue that teachers are so busy doing things that don’t actually help students in the classroom–but that tick boxes for the educational higher ups or fulfill requirements that we think Ofsted will appreciate–that we don’t get the reflection time needed to consider why Johnny looks glassy-eyed. Why Chloe “refuses” to progress. Why Riley “kicks off” when I try to make him write a PEE paragraph (or PETER or PEELE or whatever acronym we are using at the moment).

My argument is this: students do not acquire a strong enough knowledge base for their subject in question before they are asked to focus on higher order questions: students are asked to analyse, synthesise, compare and evaluate before they’ve wrestled with KNOWING the actual material. Where have the multiple choice tests gone? Where are the vocabulary lists? Where are the homework flashcards? Where is the mainstream discussion on the importance of knowledge before tackling an analysis of the knowledge?

How are we testing our students’ knowledge?

As far as I can see, we don’t test knowledge explicitly enough in many of our comprehensive schools. This seems to be a largely a lost art. Instead, we assume students will “get” the knowledge from our reading of the text, and from their own “initiative,” and we shake our heads when they tell us they haven’t read it. We call them “lazy” and “useless, sitting there” when they don’t have the correct answer we ask one month before their year 11 exams, but we don’t stop to consider the bigger picture: our students need to be held accountable for textual knowledge, vocabulary, and contextual information. We need to be assigning homework, testing students on that homework, issuing sanctions and rewards in a regular and sustained manner, and allowing our students to become experts before judging them on their inability to answer higher order analytical questions.

Before this year, we got away with this a bit more: for English coursework, we helped our students create planning sheets they could use for their assessment, giving them the knowledge they were missing so that, at least those students with enough working memory to keep in mind the majority of what we said the day before the assessment, many could achieve their “targets” (even though even this is suspect in my opinion, as targets are created by a test students took at age 11).

Now, with 7+ hours of exams to prepare our students for, we must figure out a new way. And in the midst of this, we are bombarded with messages of austerity and the threat that our education funding is drying up. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the hurdles thrown our way, especially when Johnny in the front row still looks glassy-eyed and shrugs his shoulders when we ask him questions. We are meant to connect a lack of funding to a future hopelessness and a student population who won’t be able to achieve because we don’t put enough money into them.

What we need is a thriving teaching culture: a culture that attracts and retains good teachers–people who’ve seen the world, people who study because they love their subject, and people who are truly experts in their field. Instead, many of these teachers–if they even become teachers in the first place–are chased away from the profession (or from teaching in England) because of the insane amount of bureaucratic box-ticking the profession puts them through, and we are left with the few “hero teachers” who force their way through the system hoping for better later, or we’re left with those who don’t know what else they can do with themselves and just try to survive, and we are left with those who are in it because they’re good at bureaucratic work. After all, bureaucracy hides all manner of bad teaching strategies and teacher-created student apathy; these teachers often rise in the ranks to make up a percentage of the UK’s public education leadership cohort.

We’ve made education too complex in this country. We fill our lessons with fluff and train our students to regurgitate lesson objectives, often to the expense of the subject matter. Sure we read the texts (at least in part), but do we go over them the next day, and the next? Do we build on ideas and test students on prior knowledge? Do we try to understand the word-poor culture from which many of our students originate, students who must be given knowledge before they can use their brains for analysis and evaluation? Why must we practise the PEE paragraph structure (complete with sentence starters) every day, to the expense of the knowledge and explanations that should go in them? Why do we test and retest and retest on mock exam material, rather than multiple choice or content questions? Why do we tell teachers they must mark students’ exercise books–even if it’s work from 3 weeks ago, to the detriment of the next day’s lesson planning? Why do we put the ownership for student success on the teacher without considering the content we put on students’ plates?

In the end, I’m grateful for the new GSCE focus on knowledge, but I’m worried that our teachers and education sector won’t be able to acclimate to the new system. I’m concerned that finger-pointing and deflections will stop us from figuring out what we must do to help our students achieve social mobility and an education worth writing home about. Let’s give our pensioners what they’ve earned, simplify our education system, ensure we retain our best teachers by paying them instead of technology conglomerates, and get back to basics!

Give me time, freedom to make decisions and collaborate with other teachers, a chalk board and a set of books, and a class of 30+ children and I’ll give you results. Straight jacket me, bombard with me bureaucracy and fear and I’ll be in the same sad situation as many teachers. But it doesn’t have to be that way–just ask the pensioners what their schools were like!

Rather than be fearful that our elderly are taking our kids’ funding, I argue it’s time to embrace the hope our new GCSEs are offering our kids. Let’s change, teach the knowledge our kids need, and watch them learn to respect their newfound knowledge, and the elders who’ve given it to them.

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