Breaking the cycle of bad education


Universe Column for 9th July 2006

by David Alton

30% of pupils  leave education at age 16 with few or no useful qualifications.  These are not just pupils with Special Educational Needs, for whom some support is available in schools, but a far greater number of ordinary young people who have simply found education difficult.

If you were to meet many of  same these people later in their lives, you would not immediately think of them as having low ability.  They may be loving parents, excellent mechanics, first rate shop assistants, skilful lorry drivers and a host of other careers which are vital to the economic and social life of your nation.

They do, on the other hand, make up 80% of the prison population and form a large part of the disaffected youth so many towns-people fear on their streets at night.

These people have very little voice.  They do not write in the newspapers or speak in Parliamentary debates.  Theirs is not the voice heard on television news, nor do they plan the content of courses at schools and colleges.

In school, many of these young people feel disaffected.  While many of them would find it difficult to articulate at that age, they feel a strong sense of injustice at being forced to attend classes at which they are almost bound to fail.  They develop avoidance tactics: arriving late, ignoring instructions, failing to bring a pen, losing their book, needing a drink or the toilet during the lesson.  Teachers report that attendance by pupils in top sets is far higher than for bottom sets.

In addition, low achieving pupils adopt a set of achievable objectives at which they can succeed: wearing incorrect uniform, cheekiness, idleness, disruption, use of phone or iPod – we all know the pattern.

As a consequence, the vast majority of discipline handed out by teachers in school is to pupils who find the subject being taught difficult or irrelevant.

This has several knock-on effects:  most of the stress which teachers report is not primarily caused by pressure of the job itself – it is the stress caused by constant confrontation with disaffected pupils.  The problem of teacher shortage is worst in secondary Maths, not because there is a shortage of Maths teachers per se, but because not enough qualified people are prepared to sustain a career which is so stressful.  While in English or History lessons most pupils can attempt to answer some parts of the questions set; in Maths some pupils have no idea at all in abstract topics such as Algebra.  They cannot attempt the question in any way.

Society at large tends to blame the teachers and governments repeatedly try new initiatives to improve Maths teaching.  However, research at Kings College London over 30 years has revealed the source of the problem.  The higher levels of all subjects, but especially Maths and Science, require a type of abstract thinking which more than half of 16 year olds do not have.  Continuing to teach a topic where pupils lack the thinking skills is totally pointless and creates the classic double bind. It undermines teacher’s morale and is of very dubious benefit to the pupils.

Research which followed a group of lower ability Maths pupils from their first year at secondary till they left at age 16 found that their Maths ability steadily declined despite Maths lessons every week.  They were less able five years later.

Surely it would be better and more productive if we gave an entitlement to all young people that at the fourth key stage, yrs 10 and 11, the last two years of compulsory education, that all young people will have the opportunity to follow courses at which they are likely to succeed.

Instead of following half-baked ideas such as a one-size-fits-all National Curriculum we urgently need to give non-academic pupils in school a chance to shine in the areas where they do well.   Self esteem is the secret to conquering pupil disaffection. encouragement of self esteem and encouragement of personal potential to achieve would be worth a million ASBOs.