Educational Expectations

Students in the incubation room at the Woodbin...
Vocational? (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

One of the latest buzzwords used to smite teachers is expectations. We were sent a form to fill in the other day (filling in forms being the response to most of the pressures put on schools) asking what we were doing to “raise expectations of what students can achieve”.

Like most teachers, I’m offended by the suggestion that I set out to teach with low expectations. You really couldn’t get out of bed every morning if you didn’t have some shred of optimism. Sometimes, your students know almost nothing when they first come into your subject, and imparting a little of my extensive subject knowledge is one of the pleasures of my job. My expectations of what the students can achieve are not low, but nor are they unrealistically high. And I don’t believe in sugar-coating the truth when it comes to giving students feedback on their work. You do your best to tell them exactly what they need to do to achieve top grades and beyond. Sometimes, faced with a challenge or a technical obstacle, they do lose their gumption.

Is that my fault? I tend to think that their own expectations are informed largely by their experience at home. I’ve got a student – capable of a B-grade but currently performing well below that – whose mother claims s/he “can’t read and write.” This is not true – I’ve got evidence to the contrary – but you wonder about the effect on his/her confidence of getting that message at home on a daily basis.

When you’re dealing with sneaky lying Tories, of course, the language they use (“expectations”) is code for something else. They don’t really think that teachers have low expectations. What they really think is that only privately educated people are worth anything, and that state schools should be privatised as soon as possible. So they’re deliberately ignoring 80% of what state schools offer – over and above what a private one can – and judging state schools on the core subjects offered by the conservative private sector and the conservative, “elite” universities to which they send their students.

Oh, yes, the elite. What the code means is that I’m a bad teacher because I don’t encourage/push enough of my students to apply to Oxford/Cambridge. It’s true, I don’t. That’s because I teach subjects not recognised by those institutions. In their infinite wisdom, they see no value in vocational or semi-vocational subjects, and they certainly don’t view film and media as worthy of study. So the students I tend to be advising are applying elsewhere.

I also look at those institutions and the graduates they produce, and I look at the way the country is being run by them, and I tend to think that their so-called elite education is over-rated. The people in charge of the BBC during the Savile era (and before)? Largely privately-educated and graduates of Oxbridge. In charge of the banks that fucked the economy? In charge of the government that doesn’t know what to do about the economy? Yeah.

Look around you at the world, who is the most genuinely innovative and successful Briton? Who has designed the devices that millions of people use every day and love? Who works for a company that has grown and made profit by actually selling more products rather than by cutting jobs to cut costs? Apple’s Jonathan Ive was educated at Walton High School, a state comprehensive, and at Newcastle Poly (now Northumbria University).

So, no. I don’t recommend Oxford and Cambridge and their back-to-the-50s classical education to my students. I wouldn’t recommend that route to my own academically gifted children.

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