UK education mimics the worst aspects of a McDonald’s production line
When I taught for the first time it was like a cartoon lightbulb moment. I knew it was what I should be doing. I only discovered teaching because I was unsure what to do when I left university. I took a teaching English as a foreign language (Tefl) course to travel and work out my next steps.
After completing the programme, I wrote to a few schools to see if they wanted an English teacher and I got an interview at Eton, where I’d been to school. As a former student, there was a certain amount of trepidation about going back, but colleagues were supportive. Nowadays it would be much harder to go into teaching the way I did – education has become far more mechanistic.
I co-founded the slow education movement, which kicked off three years ago. I’d been watching a documentary about the slow food movement in Italy [promoted as an alternative to fast food], which was set up by a journalist who’d been shocked to see a McDonald’s next to the Spanish Steps in Rome.
It resonated with how I thought the education system in the UK should change. It struck me that the industrialised model of processing people through exams, and having narrow ideas about how lessons should be taught were mimicking the worst aspects of a McDonald’s production line. After doing some research I met Maurice Holt, a professor of education at the University of Colorado in Denver, and freelance consultant Joe Harrison. We got on like a house on fire and things moved forward from there.
The main hub of activity has been at Matthew Moss high school in Rochdale and at St Silas CofE primary school in Blackburn. At Matthew Moss three lessons a week have been freed up in years 7 and 8 to give students time to develop projects they are really interested in. At the end, students have a viva examination with an adult to explore their knowledge and understanding. The school has also developed a scheme called D6. On Saturday mornings younger students volunteer to attend classes given by older students. The topics they teach aren’t connected to the exam syllabus, they are just of personal interest to the student teacher.
I’ve been implementing the movement by asking students to be more conscious of how they work. Often in exam classes, the quick fix is to hand over a model answer, look at marking schemes and teach assessment criteria. But this crushes enthusiasm. I make sure the first discussions on a text are about students’ responses, so when we explore things more deeply they have a personal relationship with it.
The movement is sometimes criticised for not being realistic for state schools. They have less time and fewer resources. But I don’t agree with that – some very interesting work is happening in comprehensives. You have to be brave and take risks, but a lot of innovation in “slow” projects is coming from the grassroots input of teachers.
I’m concerned about how much uncertainty is being introduced into our education system. We’re creating all these new versions of schooling, such as academies and university technical colleges, and at the same time having a complete review of GCSEs and A-levels, and changing the curriculum. The intensity of change means that the wheels are turning faster and faster. It’s a bit like running an engine with the handbrake on – at some point cogs and wheels will fly off. The problem is that some of those cogs and wheels are children. It’s left so many people, students and staff feeling disorientated and unsure about the purpose of it all.
Schooling has become too focused on targets and grades. There needs to be some form of standardised testing, but it shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all. The American thinker W Edwards Deming, who informs our ideas, talked about the dangers of doing things in the rear view mirror. A lot of exams look at the past, and then you move on to the next thing. He believed in a system of continuous improvement and spoke powerfully about how he used to mark students’ work to find out where he’d gone wrong, rather than the problems they were having.
I asked a GCSE class to rate my teaching using the Irving Teacher-Student evaluation form to understand where I could improve to meet their needs. I asked the same students to self-assess their strengths and weaknesses so they could set themselves goals. The aim was for them to think differently about how they approached their work; instead of seeking targets they were looking to improve. With the information from both surveys I was able to reflect more deeply on my teaching and also get them to reflect more deeply on their learning. The result was that marking their work became much more about how we had reached agreed levels rather than being overly corrective.
The message that there is a difference between curriculum and assessment needs to be clearer. Assessments should be shorter and, at certain times, used simply as a gauge for present achievement and future ambition. There are many short standardised tests that do not eat into teaching time and have far less impact on children’s learning. Most of the data from these tests should remain in school control and be used for improvement strategies, instead of being part of a clumsy accountability structure, or worse still, performance-related pay.