Nelson Mandela once asserted that ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” If not a weapon, then at the very least, a power-tool for levelling up. My grandmother left school at 13 but was a strong advocate of life-long learning and, thanks to the ‘Workers Educational Association’ (WEA), founded in 1903, she was living proof of its value. Following in her footsteps I have been back to school many times and last year, in common with thousands of others, I resolved to learn a new skill. Thus began my piano lessons with Rosie Tompsett. An accomplished professional violinist, Rosie turned her hand to teaching piano during lockdown and delivered remote piano lessons to three generations of women in my family (me, my sister in-law, daughter, and grand-daughter).
Almost a century after the WEA was founded, I helped the newly minted Learning and Skills Council (LSC) with their comms strategy. This quango declared that henceforth, further education (FE) was to be ‘learner centric’ and FE colleges were now to be funded according to the numbers of pupils on their rolls. Sadly, these measures, designed to empower learners and drive performance amongst institutions, gave rise to unintended consequences. The combination of ‘learner-centrism’ and financial considerations made it impossible to sanction absenteeism or idleness amongst students, who in any case were legally obliged to remain at college until the age of 18. Stripped of any authority, many FE staff became demoralised, performance declined and yet again teachers bore the brunt of policy failure.
I’m not suggesting a return to those dark times when working class kids like my grandmother left school at 13 to go out to work, but we do need to reinforce the idea amongst our young people – and their parents – that education comes with obligations for both the learner and the teacher. And we need to reinforce the idea amongst politicians of all hues, that teachers deserve our respect, delivering what most of us simply couldn’t; helping young, sometimes disadvantaged, or disaffected students to develop the skills and behaviours they need to make the most of their lives.
The LSC is long-gone, so why this rant on education now? This morning my ABRSM Grade 1 Piano certificate dropped through the letter box. It came with a card from Rosie saying, ‘well done!’. I say, well done you Rosie for your skill as a teacher; and also, huge respect to the thousands of other teachers who worked stoically on, despite the ups and downs of the past two years. Learning is a path and the journey starts from where we stand. Perhaps, in 2022, schools and colleges across the land could institute an annual ‘take your MP to work’ day? Who knows where it might lead?