Lessons from the Euston train

11/09/2013  -  9.18

Dr Rob Smith

On a Euston-bound train to the BERA (British Educational Research Association) conference that took place in the first week of September, I fell into conversation with three other passengers. Two were retired, one was close to retirement.  The conversation began with stories about them looking after and reading to grandchildren and helping with homework. 

Of the three, Pat – in her late 50s at a guess – had just discovered she was dyslexic. While she had done a range of jobs and been successful, she could still recall her misery in English lessons and the smack of the English teacher’s ruler on her legs. June talked about how poor she was at Maths and how, even today, when faced with a Maths problem she would just go into a panic. 

I explained that as an ex-Access to HE tutor, I had come across numerous adults who had an emotional reaction bordering on a phobia with Numeracy. After discussion it would usually emerge that this was linked to an unsympathetic and sometimes ogre-like teacher who had reinforced in them the conviction that they were ‘thick’. So it turned out with June. For both of these people, the key ingredient for a successful learning experience – the nurturing of confidence had been ripped away – with lasting consequences.

This brief story has direct relevance to a recent policy development. On 2 September, the Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that all young people will continue studying English and Maths until they achieve a C grade up to the age of 18. Interestingly, Gove seems to be responding to the informed opinion of an educationalist – in this case Professor Alison Wolf – which is unusual for him. 

This is a huge change and, in many ways, it is a welcome one. The policy is likely to have greatest impact in FE colleges. I’m not always sure that everyone understands the work that colleges do (I am virtually certain that many ministers and policy makers don’t understand it) but a key role of colleges is to re-engage young school leavers (as well as adults) who haven’t always done very well in school and to provide them with meaningful and rewarding educational experiences. 

For this initiative to be successful, FE teachers need to be freed up to deliver these crucial subjects in stimulating and personalised ways, in ways that fire the imaginations of their students. Unfortunately, there is no sign that teachers will be allowed to do that. 

Instead, Gove is wading into pedagogy. In his 5 September speech to the Conservative Party to further his sagging leadership campaign, Gove knows best how to teach and is not shy of telling teachers and using Ofsted to enforce his view. For all trained and experienced English teachers, talk is a vital tool for learning: on-task talk, as part of a broader range of strategies for students to connect their own knowledge and experience to the new material being presented in the classroom and to articulate and shape their thinking before beginning to write. 

However, for Gove, this is “chatting” for the sake of it and needs to be replaced by a renewed emphasis on the teacher as font of all knowledge in the classroom. Speaking as an English teacher, I would argue that without a personalised bridge, teaching English becomes an exercise in cultural instruction. And while Gove might applaud that, it’s my belief that if a student decides they don’t want to opt in to that culture, the best teacher’s best efforts are likely to be unsuccessful.

So, in the run up to the next election when doubtless, further interventions will be necessary (teachers have learnt to expect very regular policy change), the challenge for FE teachers will be to create a learning culture in which young people feel motivated and supported to continue working at these qualifications – in the belief that they have a good chance of achieving them. All this, despite the prescriptive and ideological interventions by the Education Minister.

This is a shame because a recent change in funding for colleges – connecting it to retention rather than achievement – has the potential to open up fully personalised approaches to learning.

The fact is: students learn in different ways and at different rates. For that reason, teaching them according to a production line model, by the batch (as Sir Ken Robinson has suggested) is old fashioned and as the testimony of my fellow passengers on the Euston-bound train demonstrated, potentially hugely destructive of the inherent potential of any student that doesn’t fit the ‘normal’ mould.

Dr Rob Smith, Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education