Thursday, 26 December 2013

Higher levels

Many conservatives bang on about equality of outcome, but what's actually needed is equality of opportunity. And nobody in their right mind could possibly say the UK education system has that just now.

I played Guess Who? with my five-year-old nephew on Christmas Day. It took him a few minutes to get the hang of what kind of questions he had to ask, but after that he was up and away. He could read the names on the board - he got stuck on a couple; he knew the letters, he'd just never heard them pronounced all together before. With English being the horrible, twisted language with no regulated spelling or accents that it is, he's doing great. His parents, my brother and sister-in-law, read to him all the time. But what about less literate parents? Who are dyslexic, or would have been fine with a bit more time or encouragement at school, but it was all going too fast for them? Five-year-old nephew knew all his letters long before he got to school, which made it much easier for him to stick them all together, but I think we need to address adult literacy before we condemn children leaving school unable to read or write.

I'm qualified to teach English as a second language, to any level of proficiency. While I was learning to teach, I thought of a kind of pyramid scheme. Not in the sense of fleecing people for money - I wouldn't be writing this blog if I had - but I thought about it this way:









But not every model is going to work with everyone, and as a teacher you have to be prepared for that. I think most teachers are prepared for that, and I think primary teachers here do a fantastic job of picking up on possible learning difficulties early, when they can be addressed, and if not fixed, worked around. My family has always been lucky to be inspired by earlier generations with a love of learning and the means to pass that on, but that's not true for everyone.

Illiterate does not equal stupid. Being slow at school does not equal stupid. Taking a bit more time to learn something does not equal stupid. Not being academic does not equal stupid. My dad spent literally hours trying to explain negative numbers to me. I just did not get it. He finally hit on a way to explain it that allowed my brain to absorb it - he drew a line on a bit of paper and marked the spaces out on a ruler, with 0 in the middle and hurrah! Bingo! Teachers don't have that kind of time. There has to be parental input somewhere. I refuse to believe the majority of children who struggle at school have parents who don't care - they have parents who genuinely don't know how to help. I explained to an adult friend the difference between it's and its - if you can say "it is" then use it's. SO simple, but nobody had ever put it that way to him before. We'll gloss over the fact that both his parents were teachers, but nobody had given him the key to unlock that door. You can explain most things in a way most people will get. This is why I keep watching Professor Brian Cox because some day he'll hit my brain's physics cord and I'll finally, finally get it. 

I'm going to spend some time trying to develop adult literacy programs in Paisley next year, whether voluntary, paid, or a couple of hours a week in a prison teaching English, either as a foreign or native language. Give them some opportunity, and some outcome. 

For some reason teachers are always under-appreciated, or blamed for bad outcomes, but they can only give opportunities, and on the whole they wholeheartedly do. I've never met a teacher who hasn't knackered themselves trying to make up for bad opportunity. Most opportunity is up to parents, and you can't blame teachers for that. You can't necessarily blame the parents either, because outcome feeds into opportunity just as much as opportunity feeds into outcome. My wee nephews are going to be awesome. I won't have children myself, but I'd like to give a bit forward to the people who will. 

Ultimately a well-educated society is in everyone's interests, and never believe or trust those who try to crush education. Only the badly-educated vote against their own interests. But we need to place a lot less emphasis on academic education and a lot more on practical skills for some children. Not everyone can go to university, and nor should they. We will always need plumbers, carpenters and electricians, and nobody should be made to feel "stupid" because their skills aren't academic. One of my brothers is a highly-proficient IT consultant, brilliant and in demand, and he has far fewer Highers than I do. For people like him academia is meaningless because it's not where his talents lie. We need to start valuing practical skills as much and equally with academic skills, because neither is wrong or bad or pointless. Children shouldn't be told they're failing because they can't pass an exam. Maybe they'll be fixing your car in five years' time. It's all level. It really is.    

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