Education cannot compensate for society. Inequality – of income, of health, of cultural capital, of expectations – cannot be solved by the school system; it can be mitigated, even countered in a few cases for a few years, by what your editorial calls “the best quality teaching” (“Our schools are failing the poorest pupils”, Comment).
But whatever that quality is (and that itself is contested), it can never by definition be universal. Yet the only way the Knowsleys of this unequal world will ever access it is if it is universal. Deep-seated, class-related inequalities have always bedevilled educational provision.
Short of establishing a New Jerusalem, “neither the government nor the opposition has meaningful answers”, but nor does your well-meaning editorial. Mitigation of inequality is the best we can hope for. That is the stark, uncomfortable reality.
Professor Colin Richards
Spark Bridge, Cumbria
I’m a teacher in my fifth year of teaching. In my opinion, the biggest problem lies with teacher retention. The job is so demanding that we see many talented recruits leave after only short stints in state education.
A school is only as good as its teachers; the key to social mobility is what happens within classrooms. It strikes me as incredibly inefficient to spend so much time and money training teachers, only to have a third of them leave within five years.
Of course, there is no simple solution. Colleagues leave because the workload is often unbearable. They leave because governments so often demand the changing of syllabuses. They leave because the wages at the beginning of a teaching career are seen as derisory when compared to the work required to earn them. They leave because they do not feel valued.
Grammar schools are not the answer to the problem of “huge geographical disparities” existing in our unfair education system, as your editorial rightly said. It added that the top priority for education funding should be “attracting and developing the best quality teaching” in deprived areas, such as Knowsley, but omitted to mention how this could be done.
Certain areas, and some individual schools, could be designated educational priority areas (EPAs). Here, pupil-teacher ratios would be smaller and pay augmented with significant annual retention bonuses or deposit-free, low-interest mortgages.
A large majority of my 40-plus-year teaching career was spent in Knowsley and one huge problem I experienced was the quality of leadership. Headteachers in EPAs would have to have experienced many years of teaching in such areas. Too often heads are appointed on the basis of ticking the right boxes with the current jargon, and like many politicians, they provide “soundbites” but lack the necessary experience and ability to inspire and lead. A role for staff representation on the selection panel is a must.
Ofsted criticism of schools in EPAs would be banned; it is pointless labelling schools in deprived areas as “failing”, when teachers are working hard, but hindered by administration overload, weak leadership and under-funding. “Meaningful answers” can be provided only by the experts. Lack of trust in teachers explains most of the wrong-headed nonsense spoken by politicians about education.
I agree with David Laws (News) that the government should ditch its grammar school plans. You can’t have true grammar schools without some sort of selection at 11, which means many children would end up in non-grammar schools. Call these what you like but when was there ever a cry for the return of the secondary modern school?