‘No more tears of separation or disappointment’

‘No more tears of separation or disappointment’
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In his 60 years in Guernsey, Dick Taylor has witnessed many transformations within the island’s education system and is convinced the latest reforms are both necessary and based on sound scientific principles. The former deputy Education director explains why he welcomes the changes

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THIS is a great year for all you parents out there; it’s the last year any of you will receive that envelope.

No, not the one containing your income tax arrears – they only stop with the arrival of the undertaker. But that envelope informing you which school your 11-year-old child will be attending from September. From now on they all know years ahead where they will be going, together with all their school mates, and remain with them until they reach the school leaving age.

No more are friends to be separated, although new ones will join them as they become the new intake at the high schools. No more tears of separation or disappointment. I’m sure, like we who have sensed that anxious knot in the stomach as that envelope hits the door mat and our child’s slight tremble of the hand as they slit open the missive that would determine their future few years and possibly, for some, their future life, it will not be missed. Nor will the querulous parental question uttered through clenched teeth and rictus smile, ‘well, is it College, Grammar … or High School (in English law prevailing at the time and in Guernsey by committee resolution known as secondary modern)?’

For my family the situation was compounded by the fact that being the parents of identical twins they might have been selected for different schools, which in the event was resolved in a bitter-sweet fashion, for in playground language ‘they both failed’.

At the heart of this issue lies the fact that all children will now move through the same educational structure for the whole of their statutory schooling. No longer will a bunch of civil servants sit down to mark a test taken in schools in every child’s last year of primary education: a test designed by some academics somewhere in Britain, a test that was administered scrupulously fairly, which I can vouch for having overseen the process for two years; yet a test that was seriously flawed. My reason for saying this I’ll explain later.

The reason I found this process so abhorrent, along with many teachers, is that each child’s future education was decided by people unknown to them, without their or their parents’ consent and without them having any choice in the matter. Surely natural justice demands a child and his parents some right of choice in the actual path of education to be taken, especially as their taxes will pay for it. That right can be exercised if all children enter the same structure with discussions taking place along the way between all the participants to determine the pathway each child will take according to his abilities and inclination.

The reforms proposed by the Committee for Education, Sport and Culture will allow this to happen but under the present structure it would be impossible.

Firstly, the wide range of opportunities that will be needed to allow our children and their parents to build a programme of learning that will equip them to find their role in the 21st century world cannot be provided in a small school. Within the last two years one of my grandsons was able to study only half his preferred subjects at GCSE due to the limited range of subjects his school could offer. Larger schools allow a much wider range of subject specialists to be recruited to the staff. At present far too many schools have to staff courses with teachers who are not specialist in the subjects they have to teach. This is an increasingly serious deficiency as human knowledge is expanding so rapidly; knowledge that has to find its way into the school curriculum if it is to remain relevant in the modern world. Those of us who took our O- or A-levels decades ago would be appalled to be confronted by the papers our teenagers will face shortly.

Secondly it will be essential that only highly qualified and experienced teachers are employed in our schools if our youngsters are to be equipped to fill the job opportunities that will be available to them. Such teachers will not be attracted if they cannot exercise the full range of their professional skills and knowledge together with the opportunities to advance their prospects.

Thirdly the States can only raise a certain amount of money each year by taxing all 62,000 of us in one way or another. They have no access to an ever-expanding orchard of money trees. But we all expect the latest in medical care and drug therapies, to be kept safe by an adequate police force, to have a fire brigade arrive promptly to put out our chip pan fires and to receive a helping hand if we fall on hard times. All of these services are hugely expensive and likely to remain so. Therefore, no States department can afford to waste any of the taxes we provide and none of us is clamouring to pay more. Many of us want our children to attend small cuddly secondary schools, unfortunately not only will they be unable to provide the education our children will need, they would do so by wasting a lot of money.

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I can understand there are those like me who benefited from the 11-plus and the selective system of secondary education. We gained access to higher education and as a result progressed to interesting, and fulfilling, life-long careers and wish to have the same facility for our own children. It not only provided a profession but also social advancement.

Yet from the depths of my memory I’m still haunted by that vision of serried ranks of frowning and scribbling urchins, whilst in one corner a little girl sat weeping inconsolably because she couldn’t make head nor tail of the whole thing. Amongst that mass of urchins were those equally as bright or dim as me who didn’t make the cut; at that time only around 8% of any year group could enjoy a more privileged secondary education.

In fact, the 11-plus was never designed to assess the type of education each child needed but to find a cohort of 11-year-olds whom it was thought could cope with a secondary curriculum in preparation for a career in management or some of the professions. The size of the cohort would be determined by the funds the Treasury could make available at the time for providing the schools and teachers with the higher-level facilities and qualifications necessary for teaching specialist subjects.

This all originated in the Education Act of 1902, when there was a shortage of middle management-level personnel, resulting from Britain’s booming industrial economy. It would be utterly wrong to condemn the decision-makers of those times for being short-sighted from our smug and lofty perch with all the benefits of hindsight; they did their best to meet the demands of their society at that time, a full understanding of which we can never appreciate.

Likewise, the Labour administration in 1945 responded to the groundswell of public opinion after the Second World War, demanding a fairer and more equitable social order. They created secondary education for all, following the 1944 Education Act in the form of secondary modern schools, essentially designed to create a better-educated working population for the factories switching from military-focused production to a peacetime role. That government responded to the needs of those times and bearing in mind the parlous state of the economy after the war it was appropriate for that time.

Today times have changed yet again and industries relying on mass production methods requiring huge cohorts of semi-skilled workers have largely moved east. The economies of both Britain and Guernsey increasingly rely on knowledge-based enterprise, albeit Guernsey’s often lagging behind the mainland by a couple of decades – our industrialised horticulture and mass tourism have given way to finance and other businesses based on the manipulation of knowledge using information technology. Therefore, our current workforce needs to be highly skilled and educated. And so ESC in its current proposals is responding to this trend, as did the British governments of 1902 and 1945 and particularly in 1988, when the Thatcher government reformed many aspects of state-funded education that included the development of a national curriculum.

I can also understand parental anxiety about falling standards resulting from the disruption and their reservations about comprehensive schools and I accept that when comprehensive schools were first created on the mainland the system was poorly prepared and often poorly funded. Many secondary (modern) and grammar schools were simply lumped together, sometimes merely using the same buildings that could be quite a distance apart both in terms of miles and culture.

At the same time there were some rather way-out political influences abroad that affected learning programmes and should not have done. Added to that the standard of behaviour in many schools, particularly in inner-city schools with huge social problems, was low.

However, before jumping to any conclusions that comprehensive education arrived as a result of far left-wing influences it should be remembered that by far the greatest number of comprehensive proposals came about during the Thatcher governments, as a result of pressure from the middle and professional classes.

Concern has also been expressed about the effect of all this on the children currently sitting in a familiar classroom with teachers they know, suddenly being uprooted to heaven knows where. I have been involved in similar reorganisations and know how difficult they can be. And I do know that the present committee has gone to great lengths to minimise any disruption to students.

Firstly, their present teachers will be retained and so wherever their classroom may be there will be familiar faces to welcome them. Secondly, the two high schools destined to be developed have been relatively recently built to a very high standard and would be the envy of most places in the world. It’s true construction will be taking place at each site but the building will have to be undertaken to conform with the highest standards of safety under the law.

At the end of the day every child in Guernsey will have the same opportunities and be able to continue their education until they are 18 years and beyond, providing that they achieve the standards required to undertake post-statutory age courses, and every effort will be made to enable them to do so if they wish to proceed that far.

Probably the most significant improvement will be the development of the current College of Further Education, not only to combine its currently scattered sites into a single campus but to extend the portfolio of courses it can offer. At present around 30% of children at 11 get the chance to choose between studying a largely academic curriculum leading to GCSE qualifications and progressing beyond, whilst the other 70% study a ... largely academic curriculum leading to GCSE qualifications and then moving schools if they wish to proceed further. In other words, all 100% of them follow the national curriculum. And 100% have to achieve the standard required for progression to post-statutory age courses.

What the new Institute for Further Education will add will be a whole raft of courses at various levels that are employment-related in finance, business, nursing, accountancy, law, performance and visual arts and design, the whole construction industry from building to architecture, hospitality and much, much more.

Being a crumbly, as my sons rudely call me, who has spent his life involved in education, I can assure all parents that far greater opportunities will be available for your children to train for well-paid and worthwhile careers if they wish to take advantage of those opportunities and commit to their studies. What I can’t do is guarantee their success – that will depend on the effort they put in and the ability of the Education committee to employ high quality teaching staff.

None of us really likes change, we far prefer the comfort of the well known. However, we all have to acknowledge that change is inevitable and incessant, although sometimes it is imperceptible until it bursts on to our consciousness. We only have to look at our bodies or our gardens to realise this – our hair arrives, thickens, changes colour and for many of us waves farewell; the buds of spring emerge, break into verdant leaf, change colour and fall. And, so it is with human organisations – if they don’t learn to accommodate change, they wither and perish, our shops being an example.

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‘We can’t afford to waste a single shred of local-born talent’

THIS year marks the 60th anniversary of my arrival in Guernsey and my involvement in its education service.

That period has been one of constant change, most of it for the better, and I have to admit that in that time I have played a small part in the process. The school leaving age has been raised twice, necessitating huge additional investment; the benefit being we no longer send half-educated children into the workplace but sophisticated young adults.

In that time at least 16 major capital building projects have been completed, giving the island an education estate that would be the envy of the world. But it’s what has gone on in those buildings during those years that is truly amazing, which is too vast to catalogue here. However, some of the most significant include:

  • The Certificate of Secondary Education, CSE, later to merge with the GCE to become the current GCSE, giving all young people the means to progress to post-16 education and higher education.
  • The development of the College of Further Education, providing an alternative to purely academic post-16 education and employment-related study.
  • The growth of exciting new technology-based learning, such as radio and video recording enabling broadcast media to be controlled by teachers, followed by the explosion of information communication technology that appears likely to question the very nature of learning and the purpose of schools as we know them.
  • The creation of a programme of continuing professional development for the teaching profession and a professional forum at the Teachers’ Centre/Education Development Centre.
  • The adoption of England’s National Curriculum, which gave parents the reassurance that all children within statutory school age would receive the same minimum range of subjects and identify their level of attainment in each; it also gave teachers the information needed to plan the next stage of each child’s learning.
  • The free provision of 15 hours of nursery education per week.
  • The vast increase in uptake of higher education.
  • Support from external agencies such as the Sports and Arts councils.

If I ever had any doubts that the Committe for Education, Sport & Culture was broadly on the right pathway to creating for Guernsey a high-quality education service able to equip each child for life in the world they will enter, they were dispelled by some recent experiences; experiences that reinforced my view that change is essential and we can no longer afford to drag our feet.

The first centred on the recent open day at Les Beaucamps High School, where my life in Guernsey began all those years ago, and took me through an accelerated review of my life and career in the island, through conversations with present and former pupils attending the school throughout its history.

It started in the morning before the event when I met a student from the early 1970s and asked her casually if she was going to the Beaucamps open day being held that afternoon and her answer rather shocked me. She replied in the negative, the reason being it had been an unhappy period in her life because she had hoped to train as a nurse but the school had not been able to prepare for that level of training. She had been a bright, hard-working student and a pleasure to teach and I don’t know whether her failure stemmed from a mental blockage created by the disappointment at 11 years or the exams taken at Les Beaucamps were not acceptable to the Nursing Council, but her ambitions and aspirations had been shattered at that early age.

Later at the open day I talked with a former pupil from the early 1960s, when the situation had been even more restrictive and students left school aged 14, meaning that they only received two years and one term of secondary education. Although they were allowed to remain an extra year, there was no nationally recognised qualification available that would have recorded their achievements.

Over the years, things have improved considerably, which was demonstrated by the two young ladies, current students, who gave us a conducted tour of their school. They were mature, articulate and able to communicate confidently, even with adults as elderly as my wife and me. They were continuing in full-time education and had a clear idea of the careers they wished to pursue. Why then had they been separated from other students with similar ambitions and abilities and the potential for carrying the stigma of a different label than those others, who had been selected?

The stigma of failure has left 70% of our children labelled and if they remain in Guernsey they can be labelled for life. One of my sons still gets asked at job interviews the type of school he attended and I still have a vivid memory of the pained silence that followed the opening of that envelope by the other two, who well understood the implications. They were fortunate in finding good employers who recognised their talents and supported them; one is now at the top of his profession following university and occupies a senior role in a major mainland practice, the next has two university degrees at top honours, plus a professional qualification, and the other has run his own businesses and is currently in a senior position in public service. And please don’t justify such anomalies with that tired old mantra, ‘they must have been late developers’. One son will never return to Guernsey and his talent is lost to the island, neither will his sister who did ‘pass’ the 11-plus and entered a profession never likely to see her return to Guernsey.

The second reason I have no doubt about supporting the proposed reforms is being made aware of recent neurological research, possible only in the last 30 years through electronic scanning techniques. For the first time it has been possible to study the living human brain at work. Before this, research had to rely on studying the brains of the deceased or of live other species, and the results have been staggering.

The enormous complexity of the human brain is being revealed for the first time and so far we have merely scratched the surface. However, what we do know now is that immense changes start to happen around the age of 11 years, probably the worst possible age at which to determine a child’s future education. Each of our brains comprises different zones of mental activity that control everything in our life, zones however that in some cases have overlapping functions and they develop at different times over a period of years. These three-and-a-half pounds of our anatomy determine our physical movement, our emotions, spatial awareness, intelligence, reasoning powers and memory – in other words, who we are.

Add to this that zones have the ability to generate billions of connecting electronic pathways that spring to life when mental activity is required. It’s as well not to dwell on what happens when coming across an unexpected ‘road closed sign’ as the brain springs into action to find an alternative route to our destination and back home again, or you might end up in the reason the road was closed.

Then consider that all these accumulated experiences can actually change the physical structure of our brains. Oh, and that every one of us develops at different times in our lives and at different times than any other human being. Then add the fact that life’s experiences can contribute to the growth of these zones and you have roughly what comprises a human being.

So, when is this development of our brains completed? It used to be thought at the end of adolescence, but now we know it varies from person to person. The present state of our knowledge indicates that for some people it can last until around 40 years.

And still some of you think a simple paper and pen test can assess all this complex activity – just when it is all beginning – sufficiently well to determine the education a child will need for the rest of their life. In such circumstances the term ‘late developer’ has no meaning.

Change is ceaseless and we can’t afford to become complacent. Several highly informative reports have shown that the island has a chronic skills shortage, at present only addressed through immigration and its consequent pressure on our resources. Although we cannot ever expect that local labour will fully meet demand, neither can we afford to waste a single shred of local-born talent.

What the present Education committee is doing is to build on the past and to continue the progress made since 1945. However, past solutions will not solve current problems, although they can indicate possible ways forward. We can and should learn from the past, but we can’t cling to it – to do so will only lead to steady decline.

What is being proposed is not revolutionary, merely the next stage in a natural progression; a progression made possible by our past success and the wealth it has created, enabling us to afford every child the same access to a high quality education service, according to his/her needs.

If that progression is interrupted it will be our children who will suffer, not ourselves; it will be their jobs that become unavailable, not ours.

  • Dick Taylor is a former deputy director of Education, a training adviser to the GFSC and employment disputes officer.
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