Modern Education is Rubbish Part 3: Why Are Our Schools Failing?

November 13, 2006

We will start from a general presumption in favour of grouping according to ability or attainment unless a school can meet the heavy demands of a mixed ability approach. Every school needs to justify its approach to grouping pupils.

This entire blog is meant to be about what has gone wrong with our secondary schools. However before I go on I should sketch out roughly where the main problems lie. I will revisit most of these issues in more detail in the future. The following is meant to be a rough guide to how our system is currently set on failure.

The most pressing problem is behaviour. This has been an ongoing process, the law has changed to make it harder to punish, harder to exclude and harder to consider the interests of those who do behave. At the same time behaviour has not been addressed by those who shape our schools. There are still people with power and influence over education who see discipline as a minor problem caused by poor teaching rather than a constant hazard that is ruining the education of so many children. The net result is any number of schools where the standard of behaviour is set entirely by the pupils and the teaching staff are passive victims, powerless to change matters. This has been made worse by Inclusion, a deliberate policy of closing special schools, and forcing students into mainstream education. This has included many seriously disturbed children and other students who are completely unable to behave, and also students who cannot access any work thereby establishing in the minds of many students that learning and working are optional.

Next we can look at what Phillips (1998) called the “retreat from teaching”. Teaching no longer takes place as it used to, for the following reasons:

  • New teaching methods that emphasise discovery and cooperation
  • Behaviour that prevents conventional teaching
  • The use of mixed ability classes containing students with vastly different learning needs
  • The employment of teachers with poor subject knowledge

These factors have made many classrooms a teaching-free zone. It is no longer taken for granted that a teacher is an expert who is there to give direct instruction to students who will be all be ready to learn at a similar level. Appeasement of the most disruptive students, entertainment and “activities” are the basis of much modern pedagogy. The mixed ability classroom ensures that some students will understand nothing and others will find the material covered trivial. Some pressure to ensure learning takes place has been added in the form of tests and assessments. However these only cover a limited number of subjects and are generally treated with disdain by the educational establishment. Teachers in the subjects that are tested have to teach students who have done no learning at all in many of their other subjects.

Next we have the way schools are managed. Communication within schools is limited and informal. Information isn’t shared, convention governs decisions, and the appearance of action is prized more importantly than action. Communication between schools and other bodies takes place through the medium of paperwork, documentation is more important than achievement. Unfortunately this approach extends to the funding of schools leaving massive disparities in funding between schools based on the ability of management teams to chase funding and fill in forms. The basic requirements of school organisation, timetabling and setting, are done in a haphazard and ill-considered way. The logistical organisation of up to a thousand people would in most walks of life require specialists trained in operational research and administration. In schools timetablers can be trained in a couple of days, and setting is done without any training at all. It is commonplace to assume that egalitarian ideology is the reason why mixed ability teaching has taken hold in our schools. A more practical explanation is the simple fact that ordering students effectively according to a variety of criteria is beyond the ability of many Heads of Department. Use of Microsoft Excel for this purpose might seem an incredibly primitive way to carry out this task, but even that will be beyond many teachers. Haphazard organisation within schools also helps create a confusion of responsibilities and a culture of blame, in which every task is the responsibility of somebody else, and every failure is the fault of somebody else. Inevitably blame trickles downwards with classroom teachers being blamed for almost everything.

Finally we have the wider picture of how education is run. Schools are run at arms length from government. Governments set the legislative framework and put out circulars to Local Authorities (formerly known as Local Education Authorities). This has led to a bizarre diffusion of power. Tricky technical issues are dealt with by government; the content of the curriculum, the legalities of selection, the types of schools allowed. In practice these are too complicated for politicians and are placed in the hands of quangos and civil servants. The important issues that affect our schools at the moment – the use of exclusions, the consequences of non-attendance, setting, discipline systems, inclusion/special needs education – are all left to individual schools and Local Authorities. According to Fitz et al (2006) Education minister, Fred Mulley “once mused that the only direct powers he could exert over schools was to order the dismantling of old air raid shelters in school playgrounds”. That’s not to say politicians are still entirely powerless, but their influence is so strained and indirect that it is entirely possible for politicians to fail for years to get what they want to actually happen in schools. The classic example would be Tony Blair’s expressed opposition to mixed ability teaching – the anonymous quote at the start of this entry was made by him in a speech in June 1996 at Didcot Girls School – which despite his ten years as Prime Minister still seems to have had little effect on our schools.

Blair, Tony, New Britain, Fourth Estate Limited, 1996
Fitz, John; Davies, Brian and Evans, John. Education Policy and Social Reproduction, Routledge, 2006
Phillips, Melanie, All Must Have Prizes,Time Warner, 1998



  1. Further to “preaching to the converted”, I doubt many parents will ever read “It’s Your Time You’re Wasting” or any teachery blog. As long as their kids seem to be doing so well – as evidenced by their fabulously positive reports, few disciplinary consequences, all-singing all-dancing lessons and a clutch of A*s – why should they think there’s anything wrong?

    Howard, what a shameless plug. I’m afraid we’ve all been on far too many INSETs to believe that a classroom management consultant will provide anything more helpful than a counsel of perfection that is largely inapplicable to our own particular situations.

  2. I don’t think that new and ‘dynamic’ teaching methods are really to blame, in fact, as an aspiring ed. psych, I think they’re great. But what’s happening is that they are a convenient replacement for the hard task of disciplining pupils.

    Our whole idea of what a student, what a teenager is has changed. The ideals we hold them to are massively different to what, historically, we would have expected. We have placed education too much in their hands, saying ‘let’s do what’s best for them – they know what that is’.

    Sadly, sometimes you have to impose normative ideals on others, especially those less educated than yourself. John Dewey wrote about this when discussing his idea of a progressive education based on experience. The teacher has a much better idea of what is best, educationally, than the student. The teacher must also be allowed to have a better idea of what is best morally, of how it is best to be a person.

    We are assuming, currently, that teenagers are people that need teaching to pass exams. This is not right – teenagers are coming to be people, they are potential people, who need teaching to turn out in a way we like. This is a distasteful thing to get involved in because society can be wrong, society can be prejudiced, and society can mess people up. But at some point, we have to collectively take on the responsibility of telling people who to be and what we expect of them – parents, teachers, schools, the government, and so on. If you leave the moralising up to Jerry Springer, then the kids won’t be alright.

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