Your country needs you..!

Mike Stevenson

The brain of the average 2 year old is already 80% of adult size, while the average 5 year old has acquired a vocabulary of 1500 words. Children learn very quickly during their early years, and during this time the brain undergoes its most dramatic growth, as children develop the capacities that enable them to become curious and creative thinkers. In short, children are avid learners whose brains appear to be pre- programmed to assimilate and process experiences and information. That is the point from which most schools start to teach.

Some parents believe that primary schools are too structured for young children, while others would like them to be more structured than they are. Homework is seen as intrusive by some parents while others feel it has helped their child to achieve well. The state system satisfies some parents, while others opt into the private sector and some choose to educate children at home. These choices are governed by many complex factors, so it is not surprising that views differ so radically. Whatever our choices, it is reasonable for us to expect our children’s education to respects them as they are now, and in carefully structured steps, prepare them adequately to live in the world as adults, taking account of their individual abilities, needs and aspirations.

Governments regularly seek to convince us that all is well with schools. Annually we are regaled with stories of increased standards in SATs results, GCSE passes and A Level attainments. Occasionally, some information appears which confuses the issue. If standards are really improving every year, what are we to make of headlines like, “A quarter of 11 year olds fail to reach the expected levels in both English and maths”?

A recent survey showed that a majority of employers who try to recruit young people felt their time keeping was poor, and noted their general lack of courtesy towards colleagues and customers. They also rated school leavers’ ability to address a letter properly as ‘poor or very poor’, and were unimpressed by their inability to take telephone messages. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why 87% of the 400,000 new jobs in the UK last year went to immigrants while youth unemployment rose. A commentator on that survey said “Young applicants lack presentation skills and are careless about their appearance. They need to learn good manners, courtesy, and respect for others; be willing to start at the bottom, and, most important of all, learn to spell. They are over-confident about their abilities, yet often prove to be illiterate, innumerate, and want everything handed to them on a plate”.

Strong stuff indeed! Enough to cause those who work in education to wince and look for a more measured view! However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which conducts regular comparisons of pupil achievement among 65 developed countries, recently announced that between 2000 and 2011, the UK had slipped from eighth to 28th place in maths, from seventh to 25th in reading and from fourth to 16th in science. That study also found that a fifth of UK 15-year-olds are functionally illiterate. This after a Prime Minister declared education to be his main priority and during a time in which educational expenditure has increased tremendously! Clearly, too many of those avid learners who started in schools are not continuing to function as might be expected. So how did we arrive here?

Some commentators believe that beginning in the 1970s and 80s, schools were placed under unprecedented political pressure to take on new responsibilities. Equal opportunities, mixed ability teaching, anti-racist strategies, meeting special needs in ordinary schools, non-competitive games and many, many others all came on the horizon and rightly had to be acted upon. In pursuit of these initiatives, schools were perhaps distracted from their primary function – the management of teaching and learning. At the same time, and perhaps as a consequence of the same pressures, we began to believe that all children must be given gold stars for something, lest their self esteem be damaged. The thing to be avoided at all costs was any form of competition, and so that no one came out on top while others did less well, the content of the curriculum had to be simplified to a level with which all could cope. This meant reducing the complexity of everything to fit the capacity of the least able. A recent research project shows that a ‘U’ grade in maths in 1998 is now equivalent to a B grade, and reports that A-level pupils in 2007 got two grades higher than was achieved by those with the same abilities back in 1988. Similar grade inflation is noted throughout primary school SATs results in recent years.

An OECD spokesman says: “Our study shows that parents in the UK want a lot from their child’s education, but they are not getting it. The UK could learn much from countries such as Singapore which places a very strong emphasis on parent power. Parents in Singapore hold teachers to account. Their involvement in their children’s education is deep. It pays off, it raises educational standards.”

Any group of parents contains a wide range of expertise, training and experience which might be made available to our children through their schools. Imagine the impact if the parents of every child in every school asked to be allowed to contribute towards:

• Helping pupils to recognise that their school has high expectations of everyone, and wants to help everyone to reach their potential.

• Helping to create the calm, orderly and respectful atmosphere which is most conducive to effective learning.

• Helping with the provision of extensive extra-curricular activities and visits that allow pupils to experience a wider range of activities.

• Helping to ensure that the building and its surroundings are pleasant, welcoming and kept reasonably free of litter, graffiti and vandalism.

 • Helping the pupils to express themselves politely, articulately and confidently. • Helping the pupils to understand something about the world of work.

• Helping to develop links with other parents and the local community groups.

• Helping to support and extend pupils who fall behind, experience specific learning difficulties or who do much better than their classmates • Helping to show all pupils that they are valued and respected members of the school and to eliminate bullying

• Helping to create a purposeful, safe environment in which children feel able to learn and develop happily. Making such contributions might then empower parents to reassure themselves by requesting evidence that:

• The Head and teachers are inspiring, enthusiastic and committed to the pupils and the school.

• The senior management team and the governing body support, encourage and monitor the teaching staff, encourage new development and inspire both the staff and pupils.

• All the teachers are qualified to teach the subjects for which they are responsible.

• The majority of teachers are experienced, inspirational practitioners who regularly update their knowledge and skills through training courses.

• Results are consistently above national expectations and continue to improve.

Perhaps if all parents made such contributions and sought such deep involvement in their children’s learning, education standards would improve to match those of our competitor nations, to the benefit of all our children.

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