What English schools will be like 10 years from now

It’s a funny in-between existence, being a school librarian. You’re a semi-detatched member of staff in many ways. A bit like being a governess in a Bronte novel, not quite upstairs but definitely not part of the servants’ hall – you get to sit in a corner, occupied with your metaphorical sewing, and hear a lot of what’s going on, and draw your own conclusions.

It’s generally best not to take sides, at least in public. Not to say anything that could be regarded as political. Social media is fraught with dangers. You observe the harried, basically decent and well meaning professionals around you with a mixture of pity, rage and growing despair. You realise how impossible the demands placed upon them are, how inadequate the resources available. I have seen three or four good people burn out over the last 10 years and need lengthy periods of sick leave. Sometimes they don’t return, sometimes they do but you feel they are only just managing.

I’ve been working with someone this week who is fantastically professional and good at her job, but so overwhelmed that she didn’t realise the school had £600 worth of commission vouchers to spend from previous book fairs. I’ve had to email an overdue letter to the school administrator to print out because there was only one person who could put toner in the school printer and they weren’t around. And the schools I’m working in are pretty good – in fact one was rated outstanding in the last Ofsted inspection.

I don’t think things can carry on as they are, and I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree with that statement. I do what I can, when I can, try to switch off, not to take too much work home, and not burn out. I also work vast amounts of unpaid overtime. None of this is at all unusual. Quite the reverse, in fact.

And here, quite simply, is where I think state education in this country is heading if the Tories win the next election.

The migrants are going home. That seems certain. We will need armies of English people to do their jobs, and it will suit the Government very well if those people are not very well educated. They are not just pushing through education cuts to save money. They want people who aren’t well-informed and won’t rock the boat. In 10 years time, ordinary working class kids will get a part-time education in classes of up to 120, learning literacy and numeracy by rote on-line. The software to facilitate this will be written by large multinational corporations, removing the need for experienced and qualified staff, at least in theory. That is just as well, because anyone who enjoys teaching and wants to do it well will find it soul-crushing to work in such a system, rapidly burn out and go elsewhere. This is already happening. Even those who stick around are likely to lose their jobs because, once experienced, they will be replaced by cheaper NQTs.

Academy chains are the ideal vehicle for this type of industrialised education. They are outside LEA scrutiny and will find it straightforward to replicate their soul-destroying formula, providing the basics at minimal cost and with minimal interference. There will be notable exceptions, places of innovation and passion, but most of these will be the preserve of the middle classes.

The only hope of escape will be top-up classes in everything else – science, arts, drama, basically anything other than the 3Rs. These will all be chargeable to parents. There may be some patchy scholarship-type provision financed by charities. But for most kids, that will be an impossible dream. As will a university education.

Anyone aspiring to a decent secondary education will have to get into a grammar school or go private. Kids don’t need GCSEs to empty bed pans or pick potatoes and strawberries. So why pay for them? Libraries and school trips will only give them ideas above their station. Special needs children will either have sharp-elbowed and determined parents or end up in institutions.

Far-fetched? I wish it was. But all the signs are already there. I can’t see any other way that the current trajectory of educational provision can end. I’m just glad that my kids are old enough to miss the worst of what is to come – although, as it happens, they could both well end up as teachers. And I hope to God I’m wrong, but unless young people wake up to what is happening and get out and agitate, protest and vote, I don’t hold out very much hope for the future.



The Benefits of Breakfast

Robin Lustig writes in today’s Guardian about the truly shocking amount of sugar in many breakfast cereals routinely consumed by children. This includes apparently healthy products: Raisin Bran, for example, contains raisins dipped into sugar solution because, apparently, the originals aren’t sweet enough to tempt little palates.

The physical outcomes of over-consumption of sugar are depressingly well known. Teachers will also be familiar with the effect fast-release carbs have on children’s concentration and behaviour. Just when the hard work of Literacy Hour kicks in, they’re heading for a sugar crash that leaves them grumpy and unfocussed.

Middle class parents will resolve to do better, only to cave in to pester power as the punishing routine of early starts and frayed tempers that characterises the working week begins to bite. Some schools will send home letters reminding parents that unhealthy additions to lunch boxes will be removed and perpetrators named and shamed. I sometimes wonder if the awarders of the Healthy Schools Initiative’s coveted certificates that deck reception areas are aware of the amount of chocolate and cake being guzzled out of sight in the staff room. It is surprising how many people pass through a busy primary school on visits, exchange schemes and placements, and feel the need to show their appreciation when they leave by donating sugary treats.

Worse still, many kids are coming to school on an empty stomach; sometimes yesterday’s school dinner was the last meal they had. Stories abound of teachers providing food out of their own pockets; I’m sure the main motive is altruism but it’s also true that one undernourished child can disrupt an entire class, dragging down those all-important SATS results.

Poverty, chaotic lifestyles, homelessness leading to the lack of a place to even prepare breakfast, can all have a disastrous impact on kids’ nutrition. And the remedy is simple – schools should be properly funded to provide a nutritious breakfast for every child. It won’t happen; the modest proposal to extend free school meals to all infant school children was controversial enough. Governments fear the wrath of the tabloid press too much to risk anybody apparently being offered something by the state that they don’t “deserve” or could in theory provide for their children themselves. But the demand is clearly there, and growing. Magic Breakfast are overwhelmed by requests for help. Universal breakfast provision would remove the stigma that still puts off many needy parents from requesting help, it would give children the chance to start the day in a structured and secure environment and allow schools to have control over the quality of the food the kids were eating.

Meanwhile, we have reached such a nadir in our social provision for the health of young children that those consuming several teaspoons of sugar at the breakfast table can be regarded as the lucky ones.