You’d think that after a century and a half of universal education in Britain, somebody would have figured out a way to make secondary school less hellish. A lot of the time, they seem to be less concerned with passing on knowledge than they are with locking hormonal teenagers and stressed-out teachers together in a building so that they can make each other miserable for seven years. It’s as if they think kids are cattle that need to be corralled and penned in at all costs.
They start by herding a group of eleven-year-olds into a dingey room with grubby windows, handing them a back-breaking supply of useless items that will either fall to bits or go missing over the next few months, telling them that they will be severely punished for not having all the items on their person at all times and then leaving them to find their way around the building by themselves. The students will then spend the next seven years moving from lesson to lesson, an alarming percentage of which will be spent doing thrilling, mind-expanding things like cutting out target sheets and sticking them in their exercise books. Of course, the teachers will try their best to make their lessons interesting, but that’s hard to do when you’re dealing with, say, a tiny, cramped music room where the pupils can’t move from the keyboards to the computers without treading on somebody’s feet and starting a fight. And that’s if their department is even allowed to exist – over the course of two years, one school I worked at eliminated the library staff, the entire subject of RE and most of the Special Needs department in order to save money. Meanwhile, they expanded the Business Studies department. Priorities!
This is the same school where, after introducing a new, smarter set of uniforms, the headmaster happily announced in assembly that he’d received an e-mail from a member of the public, asking if we’d become a private school. In other words, he was flattered that people thought he’d got rid of all the poor kids. At my own high school, we were told that uniforms were a wonderful thing, because they meant that nobody would be bullied for wearing unfashionable clothes. Instead, we had a year group assembly in which our Head of Pastoral Care told us that girls who rolled their skirts up looked like prostitutes and deserved to get raped and then we got bullied anyway, so that was a waste of time.
Speaking of bullying, I’ve recently heard that pupils going into Year Seven are advised to “tone down” their individuality for the first couple of months, so that they can avoid standing out from the crowd and being picked on. Great lesson for kids, there – the way to react to injustice is to work on becoming a nameless blank slate and hope that the bad people pick on somebody else. This probably wouldn’t be necessary if their average school day was slightly less like an episode of Oz. It’s true that we’ll probably never completely eradicate bullying – no matter where you go, there will always be some horrible kid with the urge to prey on anyone weaker than them – but when a class has over thirty students and only one adult present, it becomes a lot harder for the teacher to notice that one of them is making another’s life hell.
Then, of course, you get the teachers who are under the impression that they’re actually supposed to be prison guards. The ones who give children detention for not meeting an arbitrary lesson goal that they hadn’t bothered to tell them about, take it as a personal insult if the entire class doesn’t manage to memorise a complicated list of instructions perfectly, the first time they give them, or (in the case of a Geography teacher I once knew) open every lesson by screaming at the class until they’re practically in tears. You can’t fault these teachers for discipline, but you can wonder if they’re aware that they’re working with human beings, not robots.
And that’s the problem in a nutshell. A lot of secondary schools seem to be run on the assumption that teenagers – or, more accurately, people in between the ages of eleven and eighteen – aren’t quite human. They’re cattle, blank slates, convicts, robots – objects to be transported from one place to the other and kept under control at all costs. In theory, they’re there to learn, but too often in practice, they’re there to be kept in line and ignored. Sure, everybody gets to leave school eventually, but those seven years of your life help to determine who you are in the future. It’s a time of great physical and mental growth, a time when your mind is truly open to learning and if all you learn during that time is, “Life’s not fair and authority figures can’t be trusted,” then you’ve been swindled out of something vital.
I’m not sure what the solution is. Putting more money into education would definitely help – it would mean more teachers, better classrooms and no obligation to sacrifice one department to save another. So would cutting down on everything that doesn’t involve any actual teaching. I don’t mean getting rid of extracurricular activities – there’s a lot you can learn from those – but pointless paperwork and extended lectures on uniform policy can definitely go. Working with teenagers isn’t easy, I admit – even the best-behaved student can sometimes be driven crazy with hormones and determined to take it out on someone else – but it doesn’t have to be completely impossible. There are better ways to do it and it’s important enough to be done well.