When I was very little, I excelled at school. I loved it. I was the one given a notebook to “write my poems in”, while my classmates learned to copy their names. I marched through the warm biscuity corridors like a kind of king. Time passed. I became average and then less than and then bad.
By the time I got to secondary school I had six or seven chips on my shoulder and had forgotten how to learn a thing. I was the only Year 7, they told me, stiffly, who’d got a detention in their first term. I hated school. It was a grim place for me, disappointments and panic, and hysterical boredom, and the smell of Dewberry body spray covering all manner of adolescent horrors. But it never occurred to me to stay at home. Perhaps this was a lack of imagination on my part, or a fear of authority, or maybe I just kept on going because keeping on going was just what you did. Something since has changed. The Chief Inspector of Schools in England claims that parents and pupils now disregard rules they once took for granted, like attending daily, and headteachers say they agree. The Department for Education’s adviser on behaviour policy said it was Covid that “broke the spell”.
When I read this, for some reason I felt shivers. There are so many spells, growing up. So many social contracts we must tacitly adhere to. Some are important, some are bizarre, some need reviewing, and some, it’s clear, are so flimsy they can be broken in a matter of months, dissolving like soap. A series of stories about the state of schools has revealed quite what terrible trouble they’re in. More than 700,000 pupils are learning in classrooms that need “a major rebuild or refurbishment”, according to a parliamentary inquiry. Rates of absence have increased dramatically since Covid – more than a quarter of all secondary pupils are now defined as persistent absentees, missing at least 10% of classes, while numbers for primary school are similar. The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said this persistent absence “represents one of the gravest threats to children’s life chances”.
And teachers are struggling, too. An inquest is investigating the death earlier this year of headteacher Ruth Perry, who killed herself shortly after Ofsted’s inspection of her primary school, downgrading it from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. Her sister, discussing the pressure and mental toll these inspections place on staff, said, “We had to speak out, because Ruth was not the first headteacher to take her own life after an Ofsted inspection.” The pressure is also coming from inside the walls: one school in Kent has experienced such a deterioration of pupil behaviour that teachers went on strike over fears for their safety, complaining of assaults and threats of violence.
When the education secretary called for a phone ban in schools to improve said behaviour, school leaders said the announcement was a “smokescreen” distracting from real problems, like underfunding, teacher recruitment and providing for pupils with special educational needs. In the summer it was reported, without much surprise, that teachers in England were abandoning the profession in record numbers: 40,000 teachers resigned from state schools in 2022, almost 9% of the teaching workforce, and the highest number since the Department for Education began publishing the data in 2011. Teaching unions blame poor working conditions and the long-term erosion in wages. Since Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement, Rishi Sunak has promised to recruit extra teachers, but failed to specify how he’ll pay for them. Meanwhile, private schools receive tax breaks estimated to be worth more than £3bn a year.
Schools are now places nobody wants to be. But these are places – these are meant to be places – where children learn not just how to count or spell, but how to make friends and become curious, become a person, how to build a society. To see schools failing like this seems to reflect what’s happening in the wider world – the most vulnerable pupils being failed or forgotten, the bonds within communities weakening, a kind of social crumbling. And when a person drops out – when they crash, or falter, or get ill, or get it wrong, or when the system fails them in any number of tiny but devastating ways – there is nowhere else for them to land. The spell truly has been broken.
I don’t know how to fix it – as I mentioned, I haven’t had the answers (nor the poetry) since late 1990 – but it seems crushingly clear that our government has failed a generation of children, with their response to the teachers’ pay dispute, their dismantling of arts education and welfare services, their vacuum of funding for pupils with additional needs, their inability to fund a Covid-recovery package and, of course, the buildings where concrete roofs are falling in, a metaphor too blunt to bear repeating.
It seems clear that pupils should be listened to. What would a good school look like to them? What do schools need to do to rebuild trust with families? What would it take to help pupils want to show up? I was no genius at school, but even I can see how to join the dots.