Monday, 5 May 2014

Fallacies: some thoughts on two recent education stories

Over the May Day weekend two educational stories have come to light.  The NAHT union conference has decided to investigate the benefits of scrapping the six-week summer holidays and University fellows with a PhD in maths or physics are being urged to become school teachers in England to inspire youngsters to study the subjects.  I’m getting a strong sense of deja vu…I’ve been hearing both of these points ever since I became a teacher and, as far as I can see there is little in what is being proposed that is different from the arguments that were deployed in the 1970s.

Is the current system of school holidays fit for purpose?  Of course it isn’t.  No one would designing a school holiday regime from scratch would have terms and half-terms of uneven length.  Higher education generally operates ten week terms though from what ex-students have said, given the paltry amount of teaching they got, it could have been accomplished in two.  Yes I know higher education is about more than teaching and learning—as should all education—but this is hardly value for money…but that’s a different issue.  Would it be better say to divide the school year into six terms of six or seven weeks?  Would it improve student learning and teacher sanity?  Well certainly the latter but as far as learning is concerned the jury appears still to be out.  We already have a varied system of school terms with often neighbouring areas having slightly different term and particularly half-term dates and government gave academies and free schools in England permission to vary term times earlier this academic year.  But the main concern for the National Association of Head Teachers appears to be the burgeoning cost of holidays during school breaks—they can easily be double those in term time—and its solution according to Russell Hobby is:

We would like to see local or regional co-ordination, but at that point you could also have the opportunity to have a staggering of holidays around the country.  So if different parts of the country within local authority boundaries or regional boundaries had slightly different holiday times I think that would ease the pressure on the prices of holidays as well.’

He said the change would take away some of the excuses that both parents and teachers made about missing school days.  I’m afraid I don’t see the economic logic in his argument.  Even if you staggered school holidays—and there is a case for secondary schools breaking up for the summer in late-June or early-July and coming back mid-August to fit in with the examination cycle—that would not prevent an increase in the cost of a holiday but will simply lengthen the time that leisure companies can charge a holiday premium.  It is, as the companies continually say, a matter of supply and demand. 

In my experience, there have always been staff shortages in one area or another in schools.  This has been the case particularly and persistently in Mathematics and Physics.  Why would you want to teach if you have a degree in these subjects when your skills earn better pay and conditions by working in other areas of the economy?  The government’s solution—yes yet another initiative in this area all of which have previously largely failed—is to pay ‘experts’ £40,000 a year as research fellows to conduct master classes for pupils in networks of schools, set up free online maths and physics resources for schools to use, and teach lessons that stretch more advanced students.  Usual response from the teaching unions with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers saying that the experts should be trained as teachers before being allowed to educate children.  Well that probably will guarantee that the scheme never gets off the ground!!  The response to the story on the BBC website is equally negative…experts won’t be able to communicate with students and so on. 

We spend an inordinate amount of time and money teaching teachers to teach and a lot of it is wasted.  To teach effectively you need to know your subject and be able to communicate it interestingly to students in ways they can understand…you can improve a teacher’s ability to do this but if they can’t communicate effectively in the first place it really is a waste of time.  The best teachers I know are great communicators and who make learning interesting and fun for the students and they get great results.  They may or may not be experts in their fields but they have the confidence and communication skills to get the subject across.  Now you can’t teach that.

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