March 10, 2004
Francis Gilbert on educational bureaucracy

British state schools are now being graded according to how successful they are, and there are now a lot of stories flying around about children who are discouraged from attempting courses the exams at the end of which their teachers think they are liable to fail, even if those same teachers think that the course itself would be good for the child's education.

Teacher Francis Gilbert writes to this effect in today's Times T2 Magazine, now available to read at timesonline (but not for long if you are not British – if I understand things correctly).

Times have changed a great deal since I went to school in the early 1980s. Teachers are under pressure to get results, and results are usually put first in most institutions. I know this from bitter experience as an English teacher. When I started teaching in the early 1990s, league tables were unheard of and most teachers did not think much about their classes' results. This changed when the first league tables were published in 1992. I remember the day I learnt that I was teaching in a school which was officially the worst in England – only 3 per cent of students achieved five or more GCSEs at A-C grades.

Most of the staff, as they sat amid exercise books in the dog-eared staffroom, hunched over chipped mugs of coffee, were unutterably glum. No one said much. Only one jokey teacher alleviated the gloom by pronouncing proudly: "We are like Millwall. We’re bottom of the league but we’re hard."

It was tough teaching in that school at that time because it felt as though all the staff's efforts to educate the underprivileged, difficult children who filled its classrooms counted for nothing and were not recognised. Even worse, we were pilloried in the press because of our low ranking. The way that society viewed schools like these made me revise my views about wanting to be a parent to troubled children, which was my initial reason for joining the school. I saw that I would get no thanks for this, and would become unhappy if I persisted with this altruistic attitude.

So I changed. Toughened up, one might say. I left the inner-city school and taught at a succession of schools where results were pretty good. Now I keep a vigilant eye on my results, because I have to. As a result, I find that sometimes my head is in conflict with my heart. I know that most students who want to study English at A level benefit from the experience, but I am also aware that some will find A level difficult and will fail to get a good grade. The idealistic teacher in me would like to sign such students on to the A-level course, but the hardened realist with a beady eye on his results exclaims: "No, no! They are bound to land up with a rotten grade. Don’t let them on the course."

This sort of conflict occurs a lot today. What is best for the student is not necessarily best for the institution that wants to be top of the league tables. The obsession with results makes teachers forget why they are teaching.

There are probably some at the DfET who think that if they improve the current measuring system enough it could end up perfect, yet the truth is that educational excellence, like economic excellence, will always elude the measuring systems of bureaucrats. Gilbert is adamant that some of his best teaching has been of the sort which would never show up in government statistics.

Imateacher.jpgIt is my understanding that this is not an actual excerpt from Gilbert's recently published book, I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here.

This, on the other hand, is lifted straight from that book.

Coincidentally, just as I thought I had finished this posting, this email arrives:

Hello Brian

I heard this and thought of you.

Teacher Francis Gilbert was on Radio2's Drive Time programme this evening (wednesday 11th March), promoting his book "I'm a Teacher Get Me Out of Here!"

Though he described himself as being of the left and wanting equality, he delivered a tirade against a crushing bureaucracy he likened to something out of 1984, and said that he was disillusioned by "what the left had done." Notably, as questioned why schools weren't free to devise their own curriculums, something utterly uncontroversial as far as I'm concerned but seemingly unthinkable in today's political climate.

Host Johnnie Walker even chipped in agreeably, pontificating that anything the government tried to run it messed up!

All this on primetime national radio. Cause for optimism?

Regrds, Kit Taylor

Thanks. Very interesting, and of course smack on the nail I also was banging away at.

Although I rather think that Kit has allowed the recent occurrence of February 29th to pollute his dating system. I know the feeling.

Also, although "regrds" is an acceptable abbreviation , I can't be so happy with "curriculums". "Curricula", I think. The way I see it, if emailers are not corrected, how can they learn?

Follow up email from Kit!

Actually, now I think on Francis Gilbert something even more interesting in the interview.

It was along the lines of -

"I can go to the corner shop, and I can buy a good quality jam or a cheaper one. I have that option. But if I want my daughter [aged three] to learn french or classics, the choices aren't available."

If advanced by the Tories, I'd be unsurprised if such a notion were attacked as Thatcherite extremism. What's interesting is that Gilbert's comments were not apparently derived from ideological dogma, but the product of a "man in the street" intuitively questioning why a system that was working well in one aspect of his life wasn't being applied in another that wasn't.

Thanks again!!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:33 PM
Category: Sovietisation