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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 3, January/February 2004

Britain provides glimpse of Campbell’s vision

by Tina Anderson

How will B.C.’s education system look in 10 or 20 years, given the current path of this B.C. Liberal government? We need only look across the pond to the crisis in the English public education system for a multitude of examples of the long-term effects of drastic underfunding and detrimental decision making.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s neo-conservative program of privatization, deregulation, union-busting, and getting rid of all things public sector, Britain has been on a path of social and economic destruction. And nowhere in the country have her policies manifest themselves more drastically than in the public education system. From the masses of paperwork to the blaming of teachers, from the overcrowding of classrooms to the giant steps toward privatization, English public schools are in desperate shape with no hope of a future on their present road. These are lessons we must embrace and act on if we are to avoid the same fate in B.C. schools.

The problems of the English school system are many, but all can be attributed to drastic underfunding. One of the largest and most concerning obstacles to the English system is the recruitment and maintenance of teachers. Given the demands of an extreme workload and little pay, few British citizens are willing to become teachers, thus creating the need to recruit internationally. When British teachers do enter the profession, many leave in the first year or less as they feel incapable of coping with the masses of paperwork and endless hours of preparation on minimal wages. The starting salary for a newly graduated teacher is approximately £17,000 ($38,000), a pittance to live on with the cost of living almost double that of Canada. The thousands of international teachers throughout the country, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, are mainly recruited through employment agencies. One of the few areas of growth in the British economy, these parasitic agencies were demanding anywhere from £1,000 ($2,300) for providing the name of a teacher to a school, to £30 or £40 ($69–$92) per day for every day an international teacher works.

Prior to January 1, 2003, most international teachers were employed by agencies rather than the schools they taught in; however, given widespread abuse and the millions of educational pounds that should have been going into classrooms instead of feathering the pockets of people who contribute nothing to education, international teachers must now be employed by the schools in which they teach. Employment agencies recruit teachers from all over the globe, promising the world, and delivering little or no support once a teacher begins his or her job.

Underfunding is camouflaged in bulk funding to schools. Bulk funding and having elected boards of governors for each school, rather than elected trustees for a district are two giant steps toward the privatization of the system. Bulk funding allots money to each school to administer as it sees fit, rather than a per pupil amount to the district, whereby district standards and regulations must be met. Operating like small businesses, the schools do their own hiring and firing. British public schools are forced to stretch every penny as far as it can go. Most schools do not replace teaching and non-teaching staff when they are absent; instead they reorganize existing staff for internal coverage.

Bulk funding has also manifest itself in an intense and unfriendly competition among schools. That funding is directly tied to the English education system’s fanaticism about testing and league tables (amalgamated and published test scores), which has forced teachers, particularly in secondary schools, to "teach to the test" rather than teach a well-balanced, engaging, and quality curriculum. Test results are published in the national newspapers so that parents can determine where to send their children; theoretically, to the schools with the highest test scores. The more students a school enrols, the more money it receives in bulk funding, creating have and have-not schools, mainly along socio-economic lines. Recruitment based on test scores has resulted in many students’ being refused at their neighbourhood schools.

Teaching to tests is certainly not the only concern of educators in England. The dreaded national curriculum, which sets the educational standards across the country, has eroded almost all teacher autonomy from the classroom. While not so long ago teachers had the ability to teach in a pedagogically sound manner that looked at the needs of their students and allowed an engaging and in-depth study of interest, teachers in primary, for example, are now bound to a time-lined set of very specific units with a huge focus on rote learning: memorization, repetition, regurgitation, and worksheets.

The national curriculum also mandates the necessity to differentiate students. That means segregating a class population into three identifiable groups: capable students, average learners, and strugglers. In most classes, teachers will prepare separate activities for each group, tripling preparation time; however, when teaching new materials and concepts, they target the most advanced group. Beginning in reception (a pre-Kindergarten program that is part of the public school system), this mandated method of teaching leaves most students who struggle far behind, from subject to subject and year to year, never having the opportunity to build on the very basics. With classes of 30 and more four- and five-year-olds, teachers have little individual time to assist those who require extra help. The students who struggle and have had few positive experiences or successes during their primary and intermediate years often enter secondary school laden with social and behavioural problems, so much so that secondary teachers complain they can scarcely teach because of students’ unruly and often violent and abusive behaviours. Such students drop out of school and have few opportunities for employment. Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe, and the highest single-mother rate in the world.

The inadequacies of the British education system and the consequent difficulties of many of its students have resulted in an unprecedented blaming of teachers for the failures of their pupils (a tactical move by the British government to divert public attention away from drastic underfunding). Educators are forced to do a massive amount of paperwork in the name of "accountability." Every lesson in every subject is detailed on provided forms, identifying how the teacher will differentiate among the three groups and what the mandated objectives, starter activity, main teaching and activity, summary activity, and assessments will be. Educators spend more time writing out what they plan to do than doing it, with next to no time for actual preparation. The plan is expected to be posted on a classroom wall, and heaven help the teacher who is not following his or her plan when an administrator or OFSTED (the ministry of education’s notorious assessment force) inspector walks into the classroom.

The weekly plans, term plans, term assessments, detailed incident and accident reports, field trip planning, care plans for students with special needs, IEPs, staff training and development records, parent consultation records, teacher evaluations of their teaching assistants, end-of-year subject leader reports, and anything else a school sees fit to document, burden the British teacher daily. Hence the need for an international teaching pool in England.

Unlike their B.C. counterparts, British teachers have few advocates against the travesties in education. To ensure no opposition to her reign of terror on working people, Margaret Thatcher got rid of "closed-shop unionization" and she severely limited a union’s ability to organize and represent its members. Sound familiar? Unions were rendered almost ineffective, and among teachers, four unions vie for the voluntary membership of a workforce too overburdened with the day-to-day demands of their drowning profession and classrooms to devote any time to addressing the source of their crises: decades of drastic underfunding.

The Campbell government is well on its way to implementing most aspects of the Thatcher blueprint, and already we can see some of those policies creeping into our education system. Teaching in England has been like looking into a crystal ball, and the future for B.C.’s schools looks frightening if we remain on the current path of this B.C. Liberal government.

Tina Anderson is a Richmond teacher, currently on recall status.

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