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Education for the masses
Hazel Marshall

‘Education, education, education’ - Tony Blair’s mantra that education would be his number one priority was under fire at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Conference in Torquay last month. He announced the full range of achievements in education that his government had produced - falling class numbers in schools, reduction in the number of children leaving school without qualifications, increase in the number of nursery places, amongst others - but there is still much unrest and unhappiness within the teaching profession at all levels.

But isn’t all this revolution in the ranks of the teaching professions both inevitable and, in some ways, a good thing, if only because it shows that teachers still care? With chronic underfunding in education for years and not enough credit given to those who do one of the toughest jobs in the country, it would come as little surprise if people stopped turning to teaching altogether or just threw up their hands in disgust when they got there and stopped fighting. But they haven’t.
‘No-one can shape the future as you can. No one has greater influence on our young people than you do.’ Tony Blair’s comment to the teachers at the conference was reminiscent of Loyola’s plea to ‘Give me a child till he is eight and I will show you the man.’ But teachers have been unappreciated for years. The old adage of ‘if you can, do, if you can’t teach’ has been a curse upon teachers for as long as it has been around. Teaching, good teaching, is a skill. It is a vocation, or at least it should be. It should not be something that you do because you can’t think what else to do or because you have an arts degree. I have a history degree and I lost count of the number of times in my final year when people said to me, ‘I suppose you’ll have to be a teacher, then.’ I never had the wish to be a teacher but I have the utmost respect for those that do. But for every teacher I know who teaches for the love of it, I know one who did it because they couldn’t think what else to do. And that in itself is damaging. If teaching once more became a respected and well paid profession then it would attract people of the right calibre and temperament.

No matter how much money each government or party offers to put into education, it will never be enough, for education is a monster that can swallow more money than can ever be thrown at it. And quite rightly too, for there is no such thing as too much education. The government’s commitment to specialist schools or ‘Cities of Excellence’ is actually quite an admirable one, as long as it is not at the expense of other schools.

There are no easy answers to the problems of education. Is it more important that all children can read before money is spent on specialist courses? Should academic children be streamed to enable them to learn faster? Should vocational schools be built to encourage those who are not academic to stay on at school? Should everyone have the chance to go to university? Who should decide which school your child should go to?

The problem is that every child is an individual but every school has to cater to a certain, and quite large number, of them. Every child has different skills and abilities. Some children love the rules of school, other children hate them and will never learn within those shackles. Some children love arts, others science, others PT and technical skills. There are some who are bad at everything and others who can’t decide what it is they like.

Everything needs money but how can you ever excuse not funding education properly? Education is the basis for everything else in society. Other problems disappear if you are educated. If you are educated about health then you have better health. The better educated the population, the greater the increase in economic prosperity.

Scotland has always had an excellent reputation for their education system but reports over the last few years have suggested that they are resting on the laurels of past achievements. However, in the past year, they have at least got one thing right. They have scrapped tuition fees and reintroduced maintenance grants for students. The right to a free higher education is a fundamental one and the introduction of tuition fees was a severe blow to that right. It is also the basis of a two-tier society where those who cannot afford further education will not undertake it and therefore only the well off in society will do so. It is therefore important that the reintroduction of maintenance grants is undertaken.

So what does education need from the political parties at the next election? What will make teachers feel more appreciated and make pupils achieve more? The answer for years has been threefold: smaller class sizes, more funding and less paperwork. Labour insists that education will once again be at the forefront of all its policies. If they get back into government (as they almost inevitably will) then this time they really will have to put their money where their mouth is. They have consistently claimed throughout this term of office that chronic underfunding that they inherited from the previous Conservative government has hindered them in their attempts to bolster up the education system. They can’t argue that this time.

Education has no simple answers. Private schools, public schools, specialist schools, special needs schools - the options are as endless as the problems. But there is only one answer to the problems of today’s society and that is education.


© Hazel Marshall 2001

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