The Education system has depressed young people (and their learning)- why should they succeed to make it look good?

My school is run like a business, and it sucks

So said the young person as they were talking to me a few weeks ago. So said the same young person who said that they told this to a teacher in the proceeding few weeks.

This one sentence and phrase has brought to light a number of questions regarding the state of young people in the UK today. These questions being;

  • What might it mean for young people to know that they are being educated in a system which primary motivation that isn’t actually about them?
  • What might it mean about the politics of education and how competition has turned schools into business and therefore young peoples within education to be nothing more than a consumption/ consumer relationship?
  • Do young people have to be doubly determined to succeed knowing that it will also benefit a system that they have no empathy or respect for?
  • Could the 900 youth workers lost from communities have made any difference..?

 

But first, I want to look back a short while.

When thinking about education being a system, I don’t think that isn’t new. I look back on my own education (I started primary school in 1982, was the first year of age 14/year 9 SATS in 1991/2, and in 1994, was the 6th year of GCSES- I think, and I vaguely remember the first and only time that my school had an Ofsted inspection) . There was an education system at place in the schools I was in, an increase in alternatives for A levels were being introduced (NVQ’s, GNVQ’s) , and I can honestly say, and maybe naively, that as far as I remember, the main reason that my teachers were wanting me to do well. So that I would do well, achieve and succeed, and even if that mean that at some level this was a funnelling of skills and subjects towards vocations and employment, at least, even selfishly, this was about me, and my future.

If i did think of myself in part of a system when I was at school, the scales were, i feel weighted in my favour. My school wasn’t at risk of being shut down. My school didn’t seem to be a place where there was a great deal of fear. My education wasn’t tempered by any notion on my part that what I did in school had an impact on the success or closure of the schools, and because of this, to those teachers I wanted to, I could connect with, as they, themselves would not only teach, but coach, encourage, listen and to a point give opportunity for developing ideas and expression. To a point, because of course there were exams, curriculum and grades to be sought.

But even I, by the point of 18 had had enough of it, even then, When 80% of my friends went onto university from the age of 18, I didn’t. Even when a system was stacked in my favour and I could do well academically in the future, I didn’t want to carry on. (NB i have completed BA and MA as a mature student). It was probably only at that later point when future destinations post 18 that I felt there was a system directing me into a particular direction, and only at the ‘leavers/graduation service’ that having a destination was something that the school was being proud about.

As I said, this was only 25 or so years ago. It wasn’t the 1960’s, or 70’s. It was the early 1990’s.

Thinking even further back, many of you who read my pieces regularly will know that I am an avid reader of Freire and his inspirational educative practices that have shaped Informal education and community practices, as well as others like Myles Horton, and Henry Giroux. So, in reading We make the Road by Walking in the last week or so, I was intrigued to compare the accounts of education of my own, with those of Freire and Horton, admittedly in South America and in the 1950’s stating that ;

I can remember, when I was in High school, how sad I was that my classmates didn’t like to read poems, stories, literature. I enjoyed it so much and they hated it. I thought it was the teachers that did that to them and I resented that. I could see this system, where teachers were killing off any possibility of students ever enjoying literature. To them it was something that you had to learn, memorise and you hated it because you had to do it. And i can remember very clearly how I took my resentment out on the teachers. I didn’t at that stage speak out and challenge them or try to organise a campaign against them, but I would read (my own books) in their classes and ignore them. That was my way of protesting (Myles Horton, 1990)

Whilst there might be some revisionist thinking in Horton and Freire as they remember their school life of over 40 years previously. What the were rejecting and protesting against was the rigidity of an education system that didn’t allow for the beauty and critical thinking that education should be about, and instead for only learning for memorisings sake to be the key function of education. What Horton and Freire in their conversation then talk about is how they began to realise how to try and think, then act in accordance with a different system, other than what they conceived to be the capitalist one. When Freire himself graduated from formal teaching college and started in his first role in a secondary school, and was told he was a good teacher by his teaching inspector, he said of teaching:

Teaching secondary school was then an adventure. It was a beautiful thing for me. At some point, I began to discover that one of the main reasons why the students could learn with me and liked my class was that I respected them, no matter their age (very young). I respected them and I respected their mistakes, their errors and their knowledge. (Freire, 1990)

I include these accounts, because of how they seem to present a stark contrast to how a number of young people perceive the system of their education today.

Also, that whilst Freire and Horton have become pillars of thought in community education, their backgrounds were in the very formal education, and formal education in deprived areas that many schools in the UK find themselves today. So, when Freire says ; ‘first of all, I think its interesting for us as educators to think again and again about the political atmosphere, the social atmosphere, cultural atmosphere in which we work as educators’  he isnt just speaking to the youth and community work fraternal, but to everyone involved in education. There is a social, political and cultural context. So, enough of the pre-amble. If I’m honest, some of that was so that it would be read before thinking through some of the questions above.

The current school leavers next summer, post 18, will have been born in 2000-2001, only 6 years or so after I finished school myself. The question therefore is; Is this the first full generation of young people who have grown up and completed schooling in the UK (those who have completed it) to have experienced fully and felt the ideology of competition and the ethics of the market in their education? When i say ‘feel’- I mean, know that their education has been intrinsically linked to and within a system? 

What i mean is, Are the current 18 year olds one of the first year groups to have experienced the following:

  1. Joy or despair at age 5 when the ‘right primary school’ was/wasnt granted
  2. Sats aged 7 and 11
  3. Primary schools that had at least 2-3 Ofsted inspections in the 6 years, and secondary schools the same
  4. Parents who poured over league tables to choose secondary schools or primary school league tables (published the same day as this post) 
  5. A school that proudly said that it was ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ in its documentation, assemblies or ‘banner’ outside the school gates. 
  6. A teacher in secondary school who said that the school was proud of the results of previous years and how this ‘made the school look good’
  7. A headteacher who was about trying to make his/her school the best in the area due to results
  8. A school in ‘special measures’ due to an inspection
  9. Predicted grades shown at every parents evening, because apparently this is what Parents want… as a consequence, testing and exams and assessments more than 2-3 times a year so ‘data’ can be distributed. 
  10. and the list goes on….

What is the impact on a young person of all of this?  do they feel pressure, responsibility, more motivated, or… when education doesnt seem to be about them, but the organisation, policies, data and outcomes, what might that do to how they feel within it..?

For any young person with half a brain, they must know that they are part of a larger system that isn’t about them at all.

It is a system that seems to be focused on the survival of the institution. A survival that is about outcomes, results and data. For young people this means that it is not about them at all. It is about the school, and the ideology of the system. Schooling has become a competition, and each school is fighting for survival and young people are pawns in the battle. As Giroux argues:

A euphemism for privatisation ‘choice’ relieves schools of the pretence of serving the public good. No longer institutions designed to benefit all the members of the community, they are refashioned in market terms designed to serve the narrow interests of individual consumers and national economic policies (2010)

 

And that is why its a business, a business that as a consequence is driven by the ethics of the market. Not neutral ethics, by the way, but ethics of the market, of competition, where its not the respect of young people, their education, choice, enjoyment or even capacity and opportunity to learn and flourish that drives, but grades, memorising and regurgitation. It has become a system that depresses young people into nothing more than an outcome, and reduces education to nothing more than a memory test and the pupils to the data they produce. What impact has this had on teaching and education itself… oh dear… Teachers fill in the blanks__________________________________________

What is the impact on young people who have now grown up knowing they are pawns in the system, not people who have been educated for their good? – well its not just because of debt that they might not go to uni, its that they fear the continuation of the same culture, and so it’ll take even more convincing of parents and others to encourage young people to go to a different institution for further education. They’ve become depressed by education, and for many they’ve given up and become fatalistic. This is what the culture of education has done. This is a tragedy, when so much of the world could be open to them in the future for learning. There may well be other impacts for young people that  knowing  that they are part of such a system will have.

Its is as no wonder that there’s queues for the Mental Health teams in many areas, could this be linked to how young people are educated in areas.. well it could be…

On a different note, when a culture of education has depressed young people – why should they reward the system by doing well within it? –

Might deliberately failing be an act of protest against it, and a way of hoping it might change for the next generation, failing deliberately becoming an altruistic/sacrificial act, to save others.

If the system has depressed education to its technicality, then it has no room for creativity, critical learning and space for enjoyment. Each young person is the equivalent of the parts of a macdonalds big mac and the final outcome brought about by a process of efficiency, cost effectiveness and replicability, with someone pouring over data sheets and numbers to create strategy from. One is economic, technical and managerial, teaching however, should be an art form. The link between the managerial and education is not lost on Henry Giroux who again writes:

The first is to establish the mission of the school system in terms that are assessable and replicable. The second is to efficiently configure the resources of the system to accomplish the mission. The third is to use feedback obtained to make adjustments in order to keep the mission within agreed upon costs…In perspectives such as this, unfortunately pervasive in the curriculum field, manipulation takes the place of learning, and any attempt at inter-subjective understanding is substituted for a science of educational technology in which ‘choices exist only when they make the systems more rational, efficient and controllable. In a critical sense the Achilles heel of the culture of positivitism in public school pedagogy is its refusal to acknowledge its own ideology as well as the relationship between knowledge and social control ( Giroux, Schooling and the culture of positivism, in On Critical Pedagogy, 2011)

I guess the ideology of the school is not so hidden when teachers freely admit it. And pupils can readily see it. But that doesn’t mean to say that its acknowledged. More that this ‘have to be this way’ and ‘this is default’. Anything contrary is frowned upon, everything within it is ‘awesome’.

For Social control, see the recent pieces on behaviour management in schools on the BBC, and a previous post here, where a teacher describes their reflection of the situation.

What kind of relationship does this kind of culture create for education?

Is the role of the pupil in the school nothing more than reduced to someone who churns out data that can be analysed? Can there be teaching and learning relationships between teacher and pupil when there is such a culture?

In ‘The presentation of the self in everyday life (1960)’  Irving Goffman suggests that the closer we are to the ‘place of trade or goods’ the harder it is to present ourselves with authenticity. Can teaching occur when there is no respect? or empathy? or desire instilled to learn for the joy of the process – id argue, along with Freire not. It takes a considerable more amount of effort for a pupil to feel committed and empathetic towards their teachers, and thus respect them, when they themselves only feel and know that they are only part of such a system. Its funny that as the system as devalued young people learning, schools have tried to find more and more ways in which pupils have to show how their pride of the school – proms, celebration nights, etc etc, masking and possibly causing a conflict in the young people themselves, its almost false.

The psychologists Deci and Ryan suggest that there are three factors that are needed for humans to continue for motivation, these are; Autonomy, Connectivity and Competence . (Taken from Bryan, 2016, p117-120) Suggesting that we are motivated when we believe we have choice within decision making and agency in our self determination, and these relate to our basic human needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness.  One problem is see is that if ethics of the market is driving schools and the relationships therein, then what might be left of those three is merely competence. For young people do not feel in control or have decision making (often options are already chosen as these ‘might produce better results, because of the ‘data’) , neither do they feel any connection with a teacher who is possibly a puppet in the system ( though sympathy maybe),  and yet if all three are required, or the first two in order that the third can happen, then there’s something fundamentally lacking in the culture and young people naturally will reject it – for its not doing them any good, and possibly why teachers are also leaving in their droves.

But overall, it is the politics and the ethics of the market that is driving education, and that seems to be at odds with the process of teaching and education itself. It is the ethics of the market that are shaping the learning relationship between teacher and pupil, and for the first time, this current generation know it and can spot it a mile off? . Why would they invest back? well only for their own selfish ambition. Because if they are able to they have to try and achieve from within a system that has depressed them and treats them as humans with limited respect, agency or dignity. That takes real guts, but may also accompany a feeling amongst the generously minded that their success might only lead to the same system being replicated for others in the future, and the pain of others. It might be a doubly selfish act to do well for themselves and know that it inflicts the same pain on others. Though fail and the system might only try and get more rigid.

Young people aren’t stupid and I am sure this dilemma is played out across the UK. For the future; ask young people currently who would go into teaching – then its probably considerably less than the number 25 years ago. They have seen the pain and fear in the eyes of teachers. Its ironic, I might have gone into teaching, many of my contemporaries did, school was ok for the most part for many so why not keep within it. I’m not sure how many would say the same today.

You’ve got to laugh when schools inject resilience and character improving classes for some, when not thinking that its the system and ideology that is at fault, and whilst this isn’t challenged, then nothing will change. Its a culture of fear, a culture of closure, a culture of competition and all of this reduces the potential for what should be the beauty and creativity of education to occur.

The converse of the system awareness is also true. For not only now do young people who might be doing well have the pressure put on them by themselves and probably also their parents, they subconsciously (if they hadnt picked up by now) realise that they are also under pressure because the school relies on them to do well. This is an extra pressure, that again, I think I wasn’t exposed to 25 years ago, others might have been.

In a culture of such competition, and school outcomes is the possibility that schools will do everything to try and cause young people to make the grades, and focus all the attention on the final outcome. Pupils are traded with £100’s of pounds of free revision books, guides, paper, cards, pens and such like, the investment in the final outcome to overcome the deficiencies of the process..? But what if this spoon feeding isn’t helping in the long term – its barely preparing young people for taking responsibility, of discovering subjects themselves and problem solving. but it helps the system and the school in their drive for competitiveness.

This is in no way a dig at teachers, who will no doubt receive thanks from many pupils at the end of term. Teachers in a difficult position who many have known teaching in a more pure era, or dreamed of it – yet are now highly constricted and in constant fear. I’m with you honestly I am. This is about the system and the effect this has on young people who know that they are part of it.

As a final twist. The logistics of the market, and the policies and funding from the Coalition government (2010) on-wards, have reduced local funding budget allocations to the point where, as a recent report suggested, 900 Full time youthworkers have been reduced from communities in the UK since 2016 alone. Now, I’m not going to big up the role of the youth services too much, as often some of the relationships between youth workers and schools was tenuous at best, but what i will say is that isnt just 900 opportunities and more to help ‘support young people’ (as this is what youth workers will have been allowed to do in the school system) – but potentially also 900 voices in different schools who might have spoken up about a ‘better way’ of educating young people, challenged the system a little with teaching staff, even got alongside the teachers who were struggling to educate within it – possibly been a prophetic voice when their own salary wasn’t as dependant on it. As i said, I’m not going to big up the role of those potential 900 youth workers, and schools with such a tight regime may not even have allowed them on the premises. But 900 people on site who might place young people as the core of what they do and who they are might be a challenge to those for whom its the outcomes and data that young people produce that is. The fact that a philosophy of education that many youth workers believe in has a high regard for common good, participation, equality and relationship may have been something to challenge the ethics of the market. But its also why 900 youth workers are dispensable, they critique the neo-liberal ideology too much. They demand that something better be done for the sake of young people, and demand that this is accompanied through respecting, listening and human dignity.

Let me finish with something idealistic and dreamlike especially in the current climate, something that Freire describes;

It is not difficult to see ho one of my principle tasks as a teacher who is open minded (progressive) is to motivate student the student to over come his or her difficulties in comprehending the subject under scrutiny. Essential to this tasks is the teachers affirmation of the students curiosity, which in turn will generate a sense of satisfaction and reward in the student on achieving his or her goal. All this will ensure that the continuity of the process of discovery, which is integral to the act of knowing.  To teach is not to transfer the comprehension of the object to a student but to instigate the student, who is a knowing subject, to become capable of comprehending and communicating what has been comprehended (Freire, ‘Teaching is a human act’, p105 in Ethics, Democracy and civic courage, 2001)

Progressive teaching requires for it to be a human act. It seems a far cry from the competitive teaching and the ethics of the market. Young people know that they are part of this system, in many situations they have been blatantly told that they are. I do believe that there can be another change, there has to be, for the current one is putting both the successful, middle and lower achieving young people to breaking point. Teaching is a human act, what it has become is a trade. Young people are intelligent, they spot a phoney a mile off. And business bullshit rubs off pretty quick, they know when they’re not centre of attention, or being asked to have sympathy with a system that doesn’t return it implicitly. And this is all before they also know that the ideology of austerity has also ruined parts of their personal life . So its worth thinking twice about the ‘Ofsted blooming marvellous’ banners or what is being asked to ‘make a school proud’ – and the effect of this on young people. Oh and in regard to school funding – how much is spent on schools to keep up with the system, with data managers, publicity managers and competition/school improvements? – could that be spent on challenging the system or educating struggling young people?

And while were at it the same could be said for nursing and social work. The needs have increased at the same time as cultures of fear and a shift to market values driving practices.

References

Bryan, Jocelyn, Human Being, 2016

Freire, P,  Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970

Freire, P,  Pedagogy of Freedom, Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage, 1998

Friere, Horton, We make the Road by walking, 1990

Giroux, Henry A,  On Critical Pedagogy, 2011

Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday life, 1960

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