Teaching in the UK (2009)

Since education in the UK and the way it shapes young people’s mentality came up repeatedly in our class discussions I thought I should share my experience of 8 years lecturing young people in the UK.
It is the limited experience of one individual and some 350 students only, but it’s still better than those cosmetics ads that claim “9 women out of 10 like this better than that” and then you look at the small print and discover the survey involved 20 people over a few weeks…
From 2000 to 2008 I was teaching two courses, Multimedia and Film/animation in a North London College on BTEC and Foundation courses, to students age 16 to 18. I was also teaching in another private college on a BA multimedia, but the students there were mainly foreigners from wealthy families so not relevant to our field of interest.
• 99% of the students I was working with were from very modest or poor families and from a variety of ethnic/cultural groups.
• 65% were born in the UK or arrived when they were very young, and they were educated here in their local primary state school, mostly in North-North East London.
• 35% had recently arrived from many different countries, some following the EU expansion to the East, some because of conflicts such as the one in the Balkans or in Somalia.
I had students from (or from families from) China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Turkey, Somalia, South Africa, Greece, Cyprus, Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia, Check and Slovak republics, Poland, Spain, Italy, Barbados, Jamaica, plus British born students form these and more countries as well as mixed families.
With all the limitations of any generalisation, my statistics over the 8 academic years reveal some clearly distinguishable patterns.
• In all groups girls overwhelmingly performed better than boys.
• The overall level of preparation and motivation of the students deteriorated visibly year on year.
• South East Asians, Asians and Eastern Europeans, followed by Southern European and Middle Eastern students, achieved the best results, in terms of quality, consistency and originality, in that order.
• Black British boys were lagging behind and white British boys were definitely and consistently the lowest achievers.
• The level of motivation and self-esteem of the latter groups were also generally lower than average and it always took a great effort to arise their interest and enthusiasm.
The areas where the British-educated students were finding the greatest difficulties were those that involved the use of the written language; even those of them who were articulate and capable with the spoken language had tremendous difficulties when writing.
The other two areas were British students were far behind the others were History and Geography, not just in terms of notional knowledge but also in a more abstract conceptual way.
This seems to indicate a fault in the way these subjects are taught at primary level in the UK.
In general most students had a very short attention span and all work had to be devised in ways that would allow breaking it into self-contained small units.
Again, British students had more problems than the others in making connections and relating various components of the course and in focusing for any length of time on articulated tasks.
Much research seems to indicate that a combination of TV overdose and fragmented language used in social networking and text messaging is responsible for a problematic relationship of younger generations with language, however, I remain convinced that there must be a reason in the way some subjects are presented in primary schools in the UK.
The fact that students from other countries can handle the written English language better than the native British for instance cannot have anything to do with the individual intellect of the students, and they are all equally making use of social networking, television and text messaging.
Where students educated in the UK had an advantage was generally in anything that was related to science and technology, where their attitude was more practical, pragmatic and immediate than that of those from abroad.
In the last three years I convinced the college to allow me to use filmed interviews with some of the students who had the greatest difficulties with the written language, these were accepted as a replacement for some of the written assignments, final evaluations and course review.
The families’ influence was noticeable, among the British students those from Indian and South East Asian families were often under great pressure from their families to succeed and gave great importance to achievement themselves.
Many of the low achievers were victims of a general class mentality that sees education as something to be ashamed of, not cool, and this often created a negative situation, difficult to revert, where students with good potential were intentionally underachieving in fear of being teased by the others.
Several of the white British students had no support from their families, many lived with single parents with drink and/or drug problems and many already lived on their own and did modest part time jobs to maintain themselves.
Several of the recent immigrants, especially those in more dramatic situations such as the refugees, could receive little support from their parents as these were struggling to find work, fit in the new environment and mostly spoke little English.
Many of the students who had come to the UK at an early age were still suffering from a deep lack of identity, speaking the parents’ language at home and mixing with people from their parents’ countries when with the family, going out with the mixed group of their school mates in their own time. Not feeling quite at home in the UK but feeling even more as strangers when going “back home” for the summer holidays.
Most of the white British students had never been abroad or anywhere else in the UK and generally didn’t go on holiday, effectively living in a very “small world”.
Almost all students demonstrated a surprising lack of curiosity and desire to discover new things, in many ways they were remarkably conservative.
I have never encountered any bullying nor any racially related problems with the groups I worked with; all students seemed to mix in a fluid way and with a total disregard for each other’s colour or nationality. Students from the same country would often talk in their language and groups would sometimes joke about each other’s quirks, but it was always in a playful and non-aggressive way.
In their relationship with each other and with the tutors most students were kind and amiable, despite the superficial ‘rough’ attitude and language, mainly an act put up to look the part.
When it came to develop their short films the vast majority of students had serious difficulties in developing any form of coherent stories, which directly relates to their problems with language and the fact that most had never read books.
Generally the first exercise in the year was based around making a mini documentary about identity, individual personality, themselves, and most students had enormous difficulties in describing themselves in any way whatsoever.

In the last part of the film course the students were asked to set up a small film production company, assign roles based on the previous months’ experience and become director, cameraman, set designer and so on. They were expected to develop a story working as a group and then produce, film and edit the film.
One striking element that appeared in 85% of the films was a gratuitous, extreme and mindless violence. This increased constantly and visibly every year. The last two years most of the movies looked like a Tarantino film without the story, with only the torture, bloodshed and sadistic aspects left.
This was all the more remarkable as the students didn’t seem to find anything strange in all that violence, and found it funny. This included most of the girls too. It was a mixed mythology of gang warfare and drunken aggression, one that had little to do with the individuals who were enacting it.
Generally the students’ behaviour as individuals and as a group was dramatically different, were the group’s dynamics were always the most determinant factor.
Most students were affectionate and direct in their own way and often asked for help and advice when in trouble (which was quite often) with family, drugs, alcohol, sex or money. They tended to talk directly to those few tutors they trusted while it was very difficult to convince them to refer to the official college support services, showing an instinctive distrust for anything official.
I gave up teaching in 2008 as I felt I wasn’t capable to stimulate curiosity and enthusiasm in the students anymore.
There was also a growing pressure on the tutors from the college to pass as many students as possible in order to satisfy government targets, which contributed to gradually lower standards and de-motivate tutors.
Ofsted’s inspections were generally futile and the impression was they were specifically trying to match findings with government guidelines.
Also, more than once we received official documentation from Ofsted that contained spelling mistakes, not something that would encourage a tutor to take them seriously.

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