If I were Secretary of State for Education I would reboot teacher training colleges, cutting their numbers and requiring far more selection and rigour to improve baseline professional standards and prestige. We need more intellectual heft in the profession (based on the simple principle that you cannot teach what you do not know) and we need teachers to regard education as a risk-taking, free-wheeling and demanding profession. Teaching is a complex distillation of skills, understanding, intelligence and hunches and for far too long teachers have been deskilled and undermined. Teachers need and deserve better support than they currently receive. They need fewer simplistic solutions cooked up in isolation, distorted by ideology, masquerading as silver bullets. Teachers and schools must be shown in their training that the content of lessons and the means of delivery must support real ambition and bravery, in particular to those students whose background offers little cause for confidence. Without that crucial enabler, all else is wasted effort.
I would massively increase the level of demand made by the curriculum right across the system so students have more challenging circuits to negotiate. Lack of ignition is a far more serious problem than is the risk of burning out. On a daily basis, schools create students who lower their sights, lose commitment and passion and acquiesce to spoon feeding and easy success. Students being constantly under-challenged and being given material they have already mastered has created turgid tedium. Highly educated teachers choose material that is more rigorous and rigour requires failure. Following a lukewarm ‘set quota of knowledge’, set by the faceless demands of the low-level syllabus, has resulted in a passionless fragility and seismic disengagement that are the biggest threats to genuine aspiration.
I would close schools who accept that poverty is destiny. If the ‘cultural capital’ barriers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not addressed then low aspirations will mean they slip quietly beneath the waves unnoticed. This cannot continue. Educational progress must be based on intellectual merit, not warped by affluence. The straightforward reality is that the very children who need the greatest support because they are smart but disadvantaged are precisely the learners who are underachieving. For far too long able students have been politely bored in classrooms and left to drift whilst teachers act as cheerleaders for the disengaged, effectively underwriting a culture of low achievement and squandering talent on an industrial scale.
This is one of 41 articles written about what Ian Warwick would do if they were Secretary of State for Education in the UK. The articles were commissioned by the Sunday Times Festival of Education and Summerhouse Education, and sponsored by Pearson. Read them all at IfIwereSoSforEducation.tumblr.com.