Three out of four secondary school students are not taught physics by a specialist physics teacher. 16% of those eligible for school meals make it to university. Independent schools, however, manage to send 96% of theirs to higher education. These points are raised by Teach First (whose mission is to address educational disadvantage and who have been active around Imperial recently). Their solution? Train as a teacher yourself. If enough individuals who are physics graduates become teachers, the problem will be solved.
Now, it’s been said society has three essential facets. One, to provide food and shelter so individuals can survive. Two, to bear and rear children to replace the dead. And three, to educate, research and to achieve progress so that the next generation is better and smarter than everything that came before it. The first two of these tasks have been done by animals for billions of years, but the third is done only by humans in the last 400 years or so since rediscovery of ancient Greek civilization. It led to the invention of the telescope, microscope and air pump, and gave rise to the idea of mass education. Virtually all our society’s progress comes from these last four centuries. In light of this, it could be convincingly argued that the job of a teacher, who educates children, is one of the most important and worthwhile jobs possible.
…it could be convincingly argued that the job of a teacher is one of the most important and worthwhile jobs possible
Yet when I look closer at what the reality of being a teacher entails, I see a pay freeze for the next four years at a time when inflation has reached 5%. I see their pensions under attack. Micromanagement, bureaucracy and overwork erode their work-life balance. At least office temps don’t have to take their work home with them. Teachers also suffer a lack of respect from the ill-informed, who think they finish work at 3pm and do nothing in school holidays. Furthermore, I see the school building project cancelled, religious groups invited to take over the running of schools (Education Secretary Michael Gove was forced to deny they would teach creationism) and market forces being introduced to education (don’t get why this is bad? Imagine if access to education was as unevenly distributed as income).
There is a reason for all this, the mainstream press will be quick to tell us: the debt. In 2008, several large financial institutions were on the verge of bankruptcy and managed to convince the New Labour government to transfer their private debts onto the public balance sheet, with no strings attached. The banks got an excellent deal; teachers got sold out. This debt had to be paid off, so all political parties started talking about how much they’d cut, by how much they’d reduce public sector salaries and pensions, and how much teachers would be economically punished for the mistakes and greed of the top 1%.
The goals of Teach First are noble indeed, but I can’t help thinking education might be better if they joined an anti-austerity group. Teach First tells us to each solve the problem individually, but they forget we have much more power collectively when we work together. History and experience demonstrates this. With better working conditions and benefits, good teachers will naturally become attracted to the profession.