TORY leader David Cameron has been posturing for the pollsters again this week by putting forward a ridiculously elitist proposal to bar graduates with weak degrees, or from former polytechnics, from the teaching profession. He will have only the best bourgeois academic minds instructing our children and restore teaching to the noble profession it once was. And this, he says, will enable gifted pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve entry into the best universities.
The unspoken corollary of that, of course, is that only an exceptional handful from the labouring classes can rise above their status to be patronised by their betters at a posh university. The rest, as ever, can be written off and need no more education than will help them operate an electronic till and serve up fast food. In fact the less they know about the world in general, the less they will be likely to become demanding and realise how much they are being cheated by the system.
Teaching unions have reacted angrily (there’s a few potential Tory votes lost) by pointing out that academic success and the ability to convey either information or inspiration to schoolchildren do not necessarily go hand in hand. Indeed the most superior academics are likely to come from an upper middle class background that will prove an almost impenetrable cultural barrier between them and the working class children they are trying to teach.
Teachers and pupils will be completely unable to understand each other; both will be demoralised and we’ll be back to the standard classroom of the 1950s secondary modern.
On the other hand teachers from former polytechnics — still regarded by the Tories as second class universities — will have shared many of the same class and cultural experiences as their pupils. They will at least be able to communicate. And actually getting a degree in a polytechnic, or less well funded university, takes a lot more self discipline, self motivation and hard work for the student than in the well-staffed groves of higher academia, where rich and pampered students are encouraged by one-to-one sessions and high levels of “pastoral” care.
The difference between academic grades of degree nowadays is more likely to be a measure of how many hours the student had to work in their local burger bar to pay their bills and how exhausted they were during the exam sitting than any innate ability.
Of course some teachers are better than others but trying to measure these qualities mechanistically is useless. A good teacher is first and foremost one who can make students feel they matter and that the effort they make will be rewarded.
Undoubtedly the best education system for giving the most opportunities to the most the children is the comprehensive school — if it is well funded and well staffed, with back-up and special needs teachers who can give individual attention to children who are struggling for whatever reason.
Tory education policy has two strands — one to maintain the class structure by providing a good education for the upper classes and secondly to provide business opportunities to their friends to make profit from tax payers’ money while pretending to educate the children of the poor.
A century ago there was a thriving self-education movement among adult workers, especially on the left. It resulted in the foundation of mechanics institutes and polytechnics, with evening classes in innumerable subjects. The Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built a chain of huge libraries throughout Britain for the benefit of the working classes to educate themselves. All these came with a selection of different sized meeting rooms for study groups, clubs and political groups.
Today Carnegie would be astounded at the creation of the world-wide web and all the information that is freely available to all of us. Despite the Tories’ intentions, keeping workers dumb and uninformed is no longer possible. Any student who wishes can study any subject they want to any depth they want. And we can all be students all our lives — we no longer need scholarships to be allowed in to the best classrooms in the world. All we need is motivation and determination. The Tory education policies will not work for us and our children. But in the long run, nor will they work for the ruling class.