The new Conservative government in the United Kingdom has released its plan for education reform. The Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper 2010 (pdf available here) outlines the plans of Michael Gove, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education.
The report broadly suggests decentralizing and reducing curriculum requirements (eliminating tangential subjects while setting higher standards for core skills) and it recognizes the problem of inequities. Whether we agree or not with all of the premises and proposals, we all wish Michael Gove and UK schoolchildren well.
As the title suggests, the reforms concentrate on teachers. The government proposes, among other objectives, to hire better teachers, train them better, and give them more control over what is taught. None of that is in principle new, but the report goes into far greater specifics than Americans are used to hearing when a new administration promises sweeping improvements based on a new ideological model.
The UK reforms also include significant promises about reducing classroom behavioral problems, allowing teachers more disciplinary options, and better protecting teachers from lawsuits and institutional reprisals. Anyone unaware of school discipline problems in the UK has not been reading the UK newspapers, but can get up to speed quickly by reverse engineering this White Paper to discover some classroom nightmares. The White Paper reports that “Among undergraduates considering becoming teachers, the most common reason for pursuing another profession is the fear of not being safe in our schools.”
I was startled to read that in announcing the reforms, and in large part to reduce behavior problems, Michael Gove called for employing qualified service personnel back from Iraq and Afghanistan as teachers. “Qualified” here means college educated, not necessarily anything more. Gove believes that granting teachers more disciplinary powers and having at the head of the classroom people who model military discipline will mellow out the hooligans and rebels. Veterans (ex-forces, in UK usage) might be in the classroom as soon as six weeks after returning from their hyper-alert combat duties in a world where lethal threats can come from anyone at any time.
We might pause to ask whether Gove’s proposal shows greater ignorance of the psychology of students, or of the psychology of combat veterans. PTSD is notoriously difficult to diagnose immediately after service in a war zone. It might not be as hard to diagnose when veterans react violently to a classroom provocation.
Of course some wonderful teachers are veterans, but it would be naive to assume that military service and the experience of military discipline are necessarily positive influences. To be sure, not everyone agrees with me that veterans do not necessarily make good teachers just because of military service.
In the conservative Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley writes that “Those old enough to recall what classrooms were like in the post-war years – and well into the 1960s – will be aware that a good many teachers, even at primary school level, were men who had seen active military service. Unsurprisingly, the standards of discipline were routinely much higher – and, no coincidence perhaps, so were standards of literacy and numeracy.” Imagining a Golden Age, Janet Daley ignores social differences between the two time periods, and she seems a bit lax about the distinction between correlation and causation.
Benedict Brogan, Deputy Editor at the Daily Telegraph, relishes the idea of ex-war zone military police as teachers. He writes: “I wonder what effect their example might have on the children currently stuck in Whitehall shouting ‘Tory scum!’” Brogan seems to envision the militarized teachers calming unruly students, but I imagine instead the unruly students enraging the teachers. Military service inculcates a demand for respect for the authority of one’s own rank, a respect that rebellious youth are likely to ridicule and challenge. Nothing good is likely to come out of that.
Gove’s proposal to fast-track veterans into teaching positions might never happen, and it is clearly a minor component of his plans. The major reform proposals and their assumptions deserve far more scrutiny and thought. We Americans, with our own school problems and serial education reform cycles, will follow the fate of the UK model with interest.