Off message: Primary school education gap hits skills drive

All the talk of filling the skills gap, signing up to the Leitch skills pledge, the formation of the Commission for Education and Skills and the continuing government focus on education, education, education, should be good news for UK plc (Personnel Today, 1 January 2008). The fact that it will place a huge burden on human resources (HR) and training professionals, who are often under-funded, under-represented and wholly ignored by those at the top, seems to have been cast to one side for the moment.

All this filling-the-skills-gap chat – and that, sadly, is all it is so far – ignores the gaping chasm that is the education gap.

To develop skills requires a basic level of education. And while some skills require no reading and writing ability, would it not be helpful to be able to read an instruction manual, or understand written instructions from a client?

Yet according to official government figures, 20% of pupils leave primary school unable to read or write. And going into secondary education unable to understand what they are looking at or listening to is hardly likely to grab the attention of the attention-deficit-disorderly queue lining up to be excluded at the first possible opportunity.

The reason for this abject failure, we are told by the education experts, is that targets and administrative burdens are getting in the way of teaching that class sizes are too big pupils too unruly and wanting to fail facilities sub-standard. Then there’s the issue of pay and motivation.

People are not drawn to teaching by the stratospheric salaries, in much the same way that doctors are not lured into their seven-year induction to the world of patient abuse by thoughts of great pay (although it obviously helps). And, like medicine, teaching can be a very rewarding occupation. Trouble is, it can also be totally frustrating, intimidating and virtually impossible to do well. But unlike the medical profession, society sneers at teachers, as though they are somehow getting away with it – big holidays, short days, etc – and somehow seems able to begrudge them a not unreasonable 2.4% pay rise.

Quality, not quantity

But lurking beneath the public sneers, there is a real concern that seems to be sidelined whenever teaching becomes the latest hot topic of conversation: the quality of teaching.

There are certainly plenty of inspirational individuals within the system who do an amazing job turning uninterested youths on to the concept of learning and driving those with talent to go as far as they can.

But for every great teacher, there seems to be at least a couple of out-and-out duds, backed up by a bulk of ‘adequate’ under-performers.

Of course, this charge could be made about any job in any profession. The difference is that only teaching has the opportunity to shape minds when they’re at an impressionable age, apart, that is, from religion – which is one good argument against faith-based schools.

So where is the quality control in the teaching system?

The schools inspectorate, Ofsted, is doing its level best to turn schools into hotbeds of beancounting – forcing otherwise successful, but perhaps slightly shambolic schools to toe the line on the admin front. But Ofsted somehow misinterpreted the government mantra as ‘targets, targets, targets’, and seems to be more concerned with the performance of the school, rather than the performance of the individuals within it.

And wherever there are targets, there are small-minded individuals trying to get around the criteria, fake a way through the system.

And while the beans are being counted, inspirational teachers are leaving the profession in their thousands (more than 90,000 between 2000 and 2005), driven out by the mad rush for statistical and administrative excellence, and paving the way for administratively gifted but perhaps educationally challenged individuals to rise to the top.

It seems that people who can’t teach… teach.

‘Bad teechers rool’

Bad teachers struggle with class discipline, struggle to get their lessons planned and to hit the targets set by the inspectors. But by working ridiculously long hours, they manage to get their paperwork done. As a result, it looks like they’re doing a fine job.

So who’s been appointing these poor miseducators? And who lets them get away with it?

HR must take its share of the blame. And while the profession will no doubt point to a lack of talent among applicants and the fact that families should be demanding more from their children’s teachers, sadly for HR, parents don’t appoint the useless ones.

Of course, we have a two-tier education system and one half – the privately funded half – is doing fine, thanks very much.

Now, I’m no fan of public schools, but if they failed to deliver at the same level as state-run institutions, they’d soon go out of business. They cannot afford to fail, as people are paying directly for the privilege. And despite the fact that all our taxes are paying for the rest of the schools, the current state of affairs suggests that the state education system may be the last vestige of the old-style nationalised world of unaccountable public sector working – where failure is the norm, and possibly even encouraged where cash is poured down the drain, lining the pockets of no-one in particular and educating hardly anyone.

So, as laudable as the government’s skills drive might be, it will be virtually impossible for businesses and government agencies to deliver as long as one-fifth of the working-age population cannot read or write. And it’s that fifth who will be required to step into the breachif the government ever hits its 50% degree-educated target.

So it definitely is time to get back to basics: the basic task of employing the right people to do the right job. The nation’s children deserve a better service. And the nation will be better served by a properly educated workforce.

It’s not rocket science.

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