Spending on education has been steadily increasing in recent decades, while standards have been declining. Labour threw huge amounts of money at the education system, and presided over unprecedented dumbing down in the form of the 2007 National Curriculum, which scorned knowledge in favour of mythical transferrable skills. Meanwhile, schools with bloated budgets swelled the ranks of their senior management, filled classrooms with distracting gadgets that would be obsolete within a few years, and paid expensive gurus to indoctrinate their staff in pseudoscientific claptrap such as brain gym, learning styles and multiple intelligences.
Consider the first two schools in which I worked, both state comprehensives. The first, where I trained through the Graduate Teacher Programme, was short on cash. Class sizes were relatively high and technology primitive. The classrooms were well worn and the library was in a kind of tin hut in one of the playgrounds. But it was a decent, civilised place to work, because management were unrepentantly focused on strict discipline, and didn’t waste their time and money indoctrinating staff with the latest fads.
Then there was the grim, chaotic comprehensive where I worked as a newly qualified teacher. On paper, it was better. It was better funded, and located in a wealthier area. There were plenty of digital projectors and plush new buildings going up. These were the years of the Labour spending bonanza. But it was a horrible place to work, because the management were soft on discipline and enjoyed wasting teachers’ time with cringe inducing lectures on the joys of strategies such as ‘what’s in it for me?’
There was plenty of money in that second school, but we would have been better off in a mud hut with decent discipline and a proper focus in subject knowledge.
One of the reasons my second school was so wealthy was that it had followed the typical state school pattern of recent years, and grown to monstrous proportions. This created an ever larger empire over which senior management could reign, and direct ever more plush building projects with the cash that was flooding in. But however many expensive buildings were constructed, it still remained hellish for ordinary staff and pupils.
When I hear people complaining about free schools being set up where there is a surplus of places, I think about that vast, wealthy and nightmarish institution.
Consider this scenario. The headmaster of the local bog standard comprehensive, which has 1700 on its roll, succeeds in securing further government cash to expand yet further. Of course he does: he’s an adept bureaucrat who knows how to push the right buttons. That’s how he got where he is. Now his already monstrous institution is going to grow to even more megalithic proportions. He’s argued that with a growing population in the area, he needs to create another 400 places. More ugly box like buildings are thus thrown up into which he can pile further pupils.
But there are a number of parents in the area who believe that a school of over two thousand can never promote good relationships between staff and pupils. They want to set up a free school in the area. They don’t really mind whether it has plush facilities. They just want a school where their children are known and nurtured.
Unfortunately, they don’t stand a chance. Mr Empire Builder, the local headmaster, has already created a surplus of places in the area. The surplus isn’t likely to go away either, because more and more concerned parents, worried about low levels of discipline in his giant, anonymous institution, are scraping together the money for private education. Of course the poorer families can’t do this. For them, the misery continues. The only ‘choice’ they have is to send their children to the rationally planned, well resourced and thoroughly horrible local comprehensive.
It’s not about the money. Any teacher who has travelled abroad and seen less wealthy but more traditional systems knows this. They have seen children in crumbling classrooms with old textbooks who respect their teacher, and actually have some knowledge in their heads. And yet there are still so many in this country who think that throwing money at the education system is going to solve its deep malaise. We are materially spoiled, and culturally starved. We need to learn from those who own less, but know more.