Gradgrind ethos spells hard times for schools | Letters

Readers respond to Simon Jenkins’ article about the school system and helping children with special educational needs

Simon Jenkins’ attack on the test culture imposed on our schools by the government is right (A Gradgrind ethos destroys good schools, 26 October) – except that it destroys all schools. The pressure group Reclaiming Education has recently said: “Our children are the most unhappy in the developed world while their teachers face a higher workload than practically anywhere else.” The emphasis on measurable results rather than the immeasurable – as Jenkins puts it – is partly responsible.

Our hope must be that a Labour government with its plans for a national education service will come to power. The party’s 10-point draft charter for this service says it will “tackle all barriers to learning” (item 5), teachers will be “valued as highly-skilled professionals” (item 9), and there will be a focus on reducing workload (item 10).

What is also needed is for Labour to pledge to ban the publication of school results in league tables and to slim down the current level of testing and examining. Primary school children should not be tested nationally and, since schooling now continues to 18, the GCSE is unnecessary. Years ago Tomlinson put forward wise plans for a range of diplomas to be taken at 18+. It is time to introduce these. As Jenkins suggests, exams should follow the slate and the birch, and disappear.
Michael Bassey
Emeritus professor of education, Nottingham Trent University

• Simon Jenkins hasn’t realised that good schools measure the learning of pupils with special needs by marking progress, not attainment, and Ofsted inspectors are perfectly happy to accept this. Moreover, this process is essential if such pupils are to receive the best possible teaching, directed to their precise needs – details that can only be identified by careful monitoring. This kind of analysis is a valuable educational tool, and yes, if applied in the form of testing to mainstream pupils, will result in improved achievement. Children like achieving, funnily enough, and to describe the situation as “suffering” is misguided.
Ursula Hutchinson
Newport, Isle of Wight

• Simon Jenkins is absolutely right about the teaching in today’s schools. I wrote on the subject to my MP in August using the same arguments, so far without response.

However, I take issue with his dismissal of mathematics as an irrelevance. One can earn a living with algebra and get great joy and beauty from geometry. But, most importantly, mathematics requires precise thinking and this makes it an essential topic for all of us. Most politicians (and probably journalists) are familiar with basic arithmetic, but the kind of thinking required in mathematics is absent. I suggest that if more precise thinking had been used in setting up universal credit, it would have been more successful. Woolly thinking leads to woolly results.
Cliff Gilbert
Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex

• The number of children with special educational needs is not 15% as suggested by Simon Jenkins, but 100%. Every child is special and in 21st-century England, we should have an education system that acknowledges this. Progress in neuroscience, developments in ICT and an understanding of the importance of responding to individual needs make it possible to optimise learning for every child.

It is time to ditch the narrow, prescriptive, one-size-fits-all national curriculum and high-stakes testing that have bankrupted education in England and design a system that values the diversity of human life. It is not rocket science.
Fiona Carnie
Alternatives in Education

• How appropriate that Simon Jenkins uses a Dickensian metaphor to describe our schooling system. A series of education ministers have tried to reintroduce the spirit of Dotheboys School into education. The emphasis on rote learning that Dickens condemned is very much in evidence in our schools today, with their emphasis on continued testing and exams. The guiltiest parties in this sorry affair are the politicians. All education secretaries have introduced a series of self-promoting reforms designed to catch the media’s attention. Fortunately for them, no matter how ill-conceived their reforms, they face little real opposition. The denigration of teachers in the popular media makes any opposition from them ineffective and children being children can be ignored. What is destroying our schools is ambitious politicians who have little real concern for children’s education or welfare, as they see education just one rung on the ladder to something higher and better.
Derrick Joad
Leeds

• Thomas Gradgrind of Dickens’ Hard Times, though an enthusiastic amateur sponsor of the ethos of a reductive system of standardised education, is neither teacher nor the creator of the curriculum. The splendidly named M’Choakumchild is described as one of 140 newly qualified teachers “lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs”.

Gradgrind, having made his money in the hardware trade, is an aspiring politician, a businessman with too much time on his hands who seeks to aggressively convert the masses to a system of “facts” that support his fantasy view of reality. Not something that could occur nowadays with all our access to digital information.
Austen Lynch
Garstang, Lancashire

• Like Simon Jenkins, I too went to the local rural village school. Twelve of us of every age and ability from five to 12 in one schoolroom led by Miss Armstrong. A large open fire, enormous kettle and cocoa and milk at break time. Cold outside lavatories. Scottish dancing at lunchtimes, or outside in the playground. We made farms of sticks with acorns for sheep and pinecones for cattle, which we herded around. There was painting, chanting tables, maths and history books, spelling, reading, storytelling and visits to the woods and river on nature walks, bird watching and naming plants. We moved when I was seven but I had two of the happiest and most complete years of my childhood and an unforgettable education. No exams.
Anna Ford
London

• The “obsession with testing” that Simon Jenkins identifies is undoubtedly a chronic problem in schools. However, recent findings that between 65% (NASUWT) and 80% (NEU) of teachers considered leaving the profession in the last 12 months, is evidence of a problem not easily cured by less testing and the removal of its bureaucratic burdens. The disease is far too advanced for that. A systematic overhaul is required of a system distorted by marketisation and reducing education (more than ever) to a trauma to be endured rather than an opportunity to be enjoyed. The looming crisis in special educational needs is a monstrous, but entirely predictable outcome of a system that cannot properly focus on learning needs when it is contorted by unnecessary priorities and unreconcilable demands.

This disastrous situation is, above all, a consequence of marginalising the expertise and ignoring the opinions of the professionals at its heart. Teachers have effectively been de-professionalised, if not actively de-skilled by governments that see education as a matter of “delivery” – and it is no small matter that this word has become synonymous with “teaching”. The tragedy for teachers is that they cannot regulate their own affairs by appeal to a professional body on a par with the GMC or the Law Society. A second great debate in education to match that of the late 1970s is long overdue, but this time to promote rather than pillory the professionals on which it depends.
Paul McGilchrist
Colchester, Essex

• In the same week we have read that our schools are failing children who are poor or who have special needs or both. Pupils who are more likely to be taught in sink schools, which are more likely to sink a bit more because teachers face problems not encountered at Eton. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report you referred to last week (Report, 28 October) said disadvantaged pupils here are more stressed than anywhere else except Turkey. Like Simon Jenkins, I’d be delighted if the superstructure of league tables, exam results and Ofsted was dismantled and replaced with something more humane.

If we have to carry on, there are some simple solutions. Weight school league tables to reflect disadvantage and special educational needs. Schools should be judged on the results of pupils they exclude. Schools can only be excellent if they achieve excellent results for disadvantaged children. If they don’t teach many of these they can’t be excellent. Implement the two main OECD recommendations. Don’t let disadvantaged pupils wind up in the same schools. Where geography makes that difficult give financial, intellectual and career prospects incentives to get the best teachers where they are needed most. Make university and public sector recruitment reflect society.
Philip Kerridge
Bodmin, Cornwall

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