You Shall Not Pass

I used to work as a secondary music teacher and music technician and despite not working in this sector any more, I have kept a keen eye on the goings on in education and felt the need to ramble a little about my own opinions on the current state of affairs. It will likely not change anything one jot… but maybe I’ll feel better for sharing.


I’ve thought for many years now that assessment and exams in education seem much more about the results serving as an advertisement campaign for schools/academies etc. themselves, rather than doing any good for the students they are supposed to be helping to be honest. The basic premise of assessment used to be “This exam will show us (and you) what you do not know, and therefore highlight what area you need to work on to improve”. In itself that is a sound idea on the surface, such as mock exams helping students to target learning, but I wonder whether the overall effect of assessing children in a final exam scenario is actually doing more damage than good in a world that is changing and developing all the time.


You would think that the first thing to change with the times would be how we educate our young people. In reality the industrial revolution or the ‘teaching to the bell’ method of running schools is strong and embedded very deeply, so we send our children to school under the illusion that this is the best way to allow creativity to blossom and for discipline to flourish. In reality I think it is madness to think that creativity could develop to its full potential in a template of tick boxes and time limits, especially when sprinkled with oodles of “is your tie on straight?”. Teachers working in schools strive to build students confidence and learning and strive to help personalities to develop, whilst the infrastructure above them goes against them and tries wholeheartedly to take that very same personality away, by making every student look the same and then assumes that everyone learns in the same way. Indeed if you do not learn in the way deemed best then surely that means you are some sort of moron who does not deserve as high a grade as someone who happened to understand that method, that day. To explain further it would be helpful to watch the following film.

This film is extraordinary and it utterly changed the way I look at education.

Changing Education Paradigms

I am very much of the same opinion as Sir Ken Robinson. When I saw this little video many years ago now, I sat on the edge of my seat and was shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!” In my head at almost every turn. I couldn’t help but think to myself how wonderful it would be for this way of delivering education to finally come to fruition, and how freeing it would be for the students and young people who would benefit from this way of doing things, but it hasn’t happened. This video is from 2010 and yet 9 years later we are still floundering under the influence of the industrial revolution. Every time I spend any time thinking about all this I despair now at the direction that the education sector seems to have gone and therefore about the welfare of our young people.


This is the way I see it and what I have experienced.


The rules at the top trickle downwards and the teachers and students who have to live by those rules are being stifled. The ending questions that result from the latest school systems seem to be “did you behave for long enough? Did you do as you were told for long enough? Also if you are someone who doesn’t conform and misbehaves, then you are allowed to break the rules a million times in a flawed behaviour system before any real action is taken, resulting in a student being sent home, which is likely what they wanted in the first place, because they can’t stand how schools are run and do not want to be forced to be just like everyone else.


“You did not do it our way… so you are a naughty person.”


These days Schools and Academies are just a new business venture. If school B falls slightly behind then a bigger more successful school A with more money is invited to come along and “fix” the failing school B. In reality this is where a school A that is better at making itself look fantastic by finding ways to display its ‘unbeatable results’, takes over a school B that essentially ‘did not spend as much time cooking the books of results’ because it was too busy taking genuine care of the individual needs of the students in its care. The “perfect” school A then superimposes its supposed “winning formula” on to the “lesser” school B and suddenly everything on the surface is tickety-boo. Well it is not.

These takeovers never take into account the personality of the students and the surrounding area and environment that affects the students on a daily basis. The “lesser” school B is fabulously aware of all this and has been for many years as it strives to wrestle the environmental factors to its will and manages to still produce students with goals and personalities despite the background and hardships the students have been up against. It is about attention to detail. For example, the “lesser” school B knows about little Jimmy’s poorly grandma and that on Thursdays he needs to leave five minutes early because mum and dad both work up in Scotland together on Thursdays and he can’t get to his grandma’s to help her if he misses his bus that goes from a different bus stop further away. The new “perfect” school A comes in and counts 3 terms worth of missing five minutes of Thursdays lessons and reprimands Jimmy at the end of the year by soiling his attendance report with a crap record. They do this instead of praising Jimmy for his amazing community work on the school’s garden project that the new “perfect” school A is stopping at the end of the year due to “administration reasons”, and they also do not ask how his grandma is.

It is a business. The leaders at the top are business people who pretend to be people people. Underneath them are people who used to be people people, and they succeed or fail and move jobs depending on how well they turn into business people, while the ones who really run the school are the ones who learn how to make themselves look like business people, whilst secretly being people people. Without those people, the school falls flat on its arse. Underneath those are teachers who know their students and know about little Jimmy’s grandma but who are not allowed to do their jobs because that involves thinking and responsibility points and you simply can’t have teachers running around having opinions and making decisions now can you? It is completely pathetic. These days a school is a business, before it is a school. That is absolutely shite.


It seems utterly bonkers to me, to put children into boxes. Imagine if assessment was simply good grammar and basic arithmetic and the odd mock exam within lessons, and that we got into college by having a casual interview where the question was not “How did you score on your GCSE’s?” but was “What’s your opinion on this?” or “What would you do if that happened?” or “What are you watching at the moment?”. Imagine if the questions were aimed to find out if the person in the interview really wanted the college place and if the course was genuinely suited to the person… wouldn’t that be… sensible?


It has been known for a long time now that exams are a completely inefficient way of assessing someone’s capability and learning. Doing an exam does not prove how good you are at English, it proves how good you are at doing exams. The film mentioned earlier explains brilliantly how the current setup of schools lets children down as students are churned through an inefficient learning environment that removes creativity, and as students get older they are conditioned to put their own ideas aside and encouraged to do things the same way as everyone else. Not only that but they are told too often to do things exactly as the teacher says and that no other method of learning is acceptable. For example:

“Zak stop talking!”

“Sorry Sir.”

What if the teacher said:

“Zak, what are you saying?”

“I am asking Tim how to do this question because I didn’t understand, Sir.”

“And do you understand it now?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Tim, Would you like to join me and go around helping people to understand this one?”

“Yes Sir!”

“Thanks Tim!”


Schools are forced into boxes themselves and have such a huge job to actually succeed despite how they are forced to run. Teachers have to read between the lines and do a fantastic job in awful circumstances, but the system lets teachers down, and therefore students down too.

I witnessed this first hand when I was at school and am very grateful for the result in what was essentially a complete balls up. I was in a school where we were put into sets for Maths and English and Science. In English I had found myself in set 3 in year 8 and I worked hard and was told at the end of year 8 that I was going up a set to set 2 in year 9. When I started year 9 I found to my dismay that I was let down by the system. I was told that there was no room for me in set 2… and also that there was no room for me in set 3 where I used to be. You will find this hard to believe but it is completely true… I was a set 2 student, and I was moved down 3 sets to set 5. Yes. Set 5. I was too young to shout about it and complain and do anything other than what I was told… but it actually made me grow up as a person… because I met Mrs Drabble. Mrs Drabble was one of the finest teachers you could ever wish to have. She let you be yourself. She gave assignments that were creative writing… I could write stories instead of read them out loud so rather than read Wilfred Owen I was writing my own stories, one called “Escape from the Enchanted Forest”. We had to write a made up diary story like Adrian Mole, and I called mine “The Life Of Ryan”. Mrs Drabble gave me the confidence to do things my way. I did not have to conform… I could create and reach my own potential, not the potential that the school tried to place on top of me. I remain (hopefully) one of the only students ever to move from set 5 to set 2 in English at my old school.


The point this raises is that teachers have brains and learn how to teach the young people who are sat in front of them. They do not need to obey some uniform ruling that all members of staff must wear a blazer because it sets a good example. No. I do not think it sets a good example. It says “Do what you are told”, when in reality I think it should say “Consider what you are asked” and “Do what you think you should” because you are not a better or worse person because you did or didn’t wear a uniform. Children should not be told that it is not acceptable to have green hair, or that Jamie is weird because he did not conform. Students most certainly should not be told that if they work hard enough that they will be demoted 3 sets in English instead of being put in set 2. As it happens, I met another fantastic teacher in set 2, and I did well in English, but reading Wilfred Owen taught me bugger all about English. Writing “Escape from the Enchanted Forest” taught me loads about English, and more importantly, about who I was.

There are millions of ways to teach things, and schools are too often hindered to teach the main 3 ways as that normally works for 80% of the students in the room, and teachers know that if the template was different that they would change it to include the other 20% of the students, because if there is one thing a teacher knows it is their students and HOW they learn. Teachers are hindered by the powers above them, all the way up to the government, so that if they do not meet their GCSE result quota, or get enough signatures on the A Level course sign-up sheet that they will not get PAYE rewards, and will not be able to run the A-Level course at all, which will cut funding and they will end up as a one or two person department if they do not teach English, Maths, or Science, and those core subjects are bullied to teach things they don’t want to teach just as much if not more than the other subjects, so that they teach “how to pass an exam” instead of Trigonometry, Poetry or Biology. It is ridiculous.

What about Art? Music? Drama? These subjects are dying before our very eyes and all the Government seems to care about is producing the next accountant or factory worker who knows how to turn up on time and do what they are told. Where is the next Victoria Wood going to come from? Or the next David Bowie? The people who inspire the rest of the world with art and music? Surely it has to be from inspirational teachers who go against the grain and manage to reach through the administration and get the message across anyway that it is perfectly acceptable to want to make a living as a musician or an actor or a writer or a painter and to go for your dreams, when the rest of the school system is shouting… “Go for your dreams as long as it is straight into a job with security and a pension scheme and all the perks”.


The Government has a lot to answer for. Education and how schools are run has become a façade. Good teachers leave because they realise that they are not allowed to teach what they know how to teach, and they know that they are compromised. The good teachers who stay behind try desperately to sneak their own teachings in to the mix, through the cracks, in-between the rubbish that they don’t agree with teaching.


Imagine, if Sir Ken Robinson was put in charge of education in this country. An actual education specialist who knows a thing or three about how to move education forward and give power to the teachers… but no. As things stand the public vote for someone in their constituency to represent them in parliament. They base their decision on the candidate’s opinions and promises. They do not get access to the candidate’s skills in how much they know about running the NHS or the educations sector. We then elect a Prime Minister who chooses someone who has never had anything to do with education suddenly have a new job as “Education Secretary”, because that makes sense right? It is like putting a normal member of the public into an F1 car, or a Fire Engine and expecting them to be amazing at that position when they have absolutely no chance of doing anything other than a mediocre job at best. We put people in charge who have absolutely no idea what they are doing.


It is completely INSANE.


Our young people deserve better than this.