At the chalkface: A new dawn for education

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London

When this dread plague ever ends, there is surely a chance to have a tectonic shift in education like we had at the end of the Second World War...

Like many trembling dotards in these dark and dismal times, I’ve been doing a bit of home-schooling – with my five-year-old granddaughter.

Like all granddaughters, she has the beauty of a Botticelli, the mind of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the dancing wit of Beryl the Peril.

It’s a breeze.

Out go targets, tests, exams and semi-colons.

In comes play, larks and some fierce thinking.

Everything that the modern school can’t – or won’t do.

We’ve returned to what my old hippy head called the “seamless web of knowledge”. It’s all connected.

So... we’ve been exploring Greek myths, dressing up like Medusa, jiving like Elvis, painting like Picasso, playing piano like Thelonius Monk, flying kites from high windows, reading the perfect Bing, skipping to nursery rhymes, gazing on daffodils, identifying birds chirping in the freshly unpolluted air, giggling ourselves silly at Laurel and Hardy, and pondering the philosophical implications of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – for starters.

“Why did the prisoners choose to stay in the shadows, Gramps?”

She’s learning things. I’m learning things. It’s a romp.

“Is this school, Gramps?”

Who knows anymore?

Now I know that teaching a single five-year-old is a luxury, but it has prompted some inevitable and obvious musings.

Our school system is pretty rubbish. We’ve been sleepwalking into an educational graveyard for so many years. Many pupils are unhappy, many teachers are unhappy, most of the syllabus is dire. We serve a neo-liberal hell in which we can’t believe and contaminated by a lot of nasty market values. We deal in a lot of failure. We’ve been cut to bits.

The system does not work.

Everybody knows.

Now, when this dread plague ever ends, there is surely a chance to have a tectonic shift in education like we had at the end of the Second World War?

The creation of the welfare state, the NHS, the Education Act. The nation at its finest. Surely this wretched pandemic must wake us up to reboot a better welfare state? Surely nurses and other essential workers can never be treated so badly again. Applause is jolly good, a pay rise and PPE is better. Surely teachers can never be treated so badly again?

A fragile mood of optimism hovers.

Perhaps a sense of the collective is making a come back.

“There is such a thing as society,” confessed our convalescing prime minister.

A revelation?

Thugs say “thanks” from a correct social distance. I do a double take.

Perhaps a gentler, kinder world might happen.

Perhaps, heaven forfend, a bit of socialism might happen.

A tiny voice jags these fleeting, utopian reveries...

The granddaughter skips to a nursery rhyme.

A ring a ring o’roses
A pocket full of posies
Atishoo! Atishoo!
We all fall down...

Breathless, she puts down the rope: “Why?”

“Why what?”

“We all fall down?”

“You don’t want to know...”

But she does.

Everything.

She doesn’t seem too keen to return to normal school...

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at http://bit.ly/2UIMd1O


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