Like many practising teachers, I watched the Panorama programme Britains’ Crumbling Schools with a mixture of horror and shock. Not so much shock in the plight of hundreds of children who turn up to schools which almost have freezing conditions, but to the extent that we are failing these children. In truth, the general public has little idea what happens in modern schools and would be appalled by the level of difficulties faced by many schools around the country.
The education system is crumbling, not only metaphorically, but also literally, with hundreds of schools having a significantly disrupted start to the academic year of 2023 – 24, owing to the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete – or RAAC – safety concerns that blighted many school buildings. The physical infrastructure of schools is not a priority for this government, with life chances of children being put at risk.
Long-term solutions versus short-term politics
Schools thought that disruption to learning was finally over after the Covid years, but uncertainty is still ongoing. The impact on this generation of students of these two unprecedented disruptions is still to be fully evaluated. The financial cost alone of school maintenance and upkeep of buildings already stands at £11bn, with questions being asked about why the levels of investment in schools does not equate to an improved experience for children.
As a general election looms, several parties may try to use the state of education to gain political capital, but while these short-term games are being played out, the long-term issues remain untouched. No political party is yet showing any understanding of the necessary reset that is required to ensure that children are offered the best life chances, regardless of their location, around the country. Panorama revealed that there were 10,000 temporary classrooms in England alone, with these conditions likely to continue for many years, creating further holes in the budgets and funding for schools.
Crumbling schools: literal and metaphorical
This physical deterioration in schools has also been matched with a witnessed deterioration of the culture of learning within schools – much blamed on the Covid lockdowns, but in truth, one that can be traced back much further. The experience of teaching, even ten years ago, does not match the teaching experience today. Yet, as a society, the public do not seem to want to know about the increasingly challenging behaviour from pupils and there is a level of blinkered naivety from parents in their response to teachers’ observations about behaviour in the classroom.
As a teacher of over twenty years experience, across a range of large secondary schools, as well as supply teaching, I would argue that behaviour in itself may not have changed, but what has been more marked, has been the response when pupils are challenged on their behaviour. Passive aggression and ignoring staff have been on one end of the spectrum, while swearing at teachers, sexually suggestive aggressive behaviour and objects thrown at them by teenage pupils have now become daily occurrences. Students now revel in their negative behaviour and post their suspension notes on social media as badges of honour.
Teachers are now leaving the profession in droves, with recent figures revealing that “a quarter of teachers (23.9%) had quit after three years and after five years, almost a third (31.3%) had walked away”.
Efforts at teacher retention from the government are failing and as the education system moves onto life support, the sticking plasters which have been used up to now are ineffective against the damage inflicted.
Solutions for schools: a question of time frames
No government appears willing to explore resetting the education system long term – as politics has much shorter time frames. A genuine cross-party approach, exploring questions about what skills we actually want our children to have as adults, and how we can best deliver those, would go a long way to changing the mindset of politicians, who behave as though short, sharp, interventions and then quickly moving on to another project, is the appropriate methodology.
Deciding whether skills should be led by the marketplace, or whether the marketplace can dictate the skills students learn needs to be part of the discussion. Schools often laud the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report which lists the skills of the future, such as creativity, originality, reasoning, and problem-solving, but then are forced to cut arts subjects and courses, owing to funding constraints.
No government has appeared willing to invest the billions that would be needed to invest properly in the education system and to ensure that every child has a level playing field in which to explore their potential. More parents are now home-schooling their children and taking a more active role in their education, with recent figures estimating “that between 125,000 to 180,000 were home-schooled in the UK” in 2023.
At least those home-schooled children could be reassured that their house was not going to collapse around them. Still, surely any government of the UK in the 21st century, is not going to wait until injured children are pulled out of damaged buildings, before finally admitting that education needs to be properly addressed.