I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was about seven. I don’t remember exactly when I emotionally committed to it – I wanted to be a pilot for a brief stint when I was five – but there’s a photo of me when I was in year two dressed as an old-timey (yes, that is the correct historical term) teacher, with the robe and schoolmasters hat, and my own register for ‘Fairy Class’ (what else do you name a class when you’re seven-going-on-eight years old?!). I’ve kept that photo by my desk for the past seven years or so, throughout my GCSEs, A-Levels, and now my degree. When I’ve been reading a particularly dull article or working on a hellish essay (I’m looking at you, Ancient Rome), I look at that photo and remind myself that it’s what I’ve been working towards for the last fifteen years or so. Everything I’ve done in my education has been gearing up to that – to my being a teacher. It’s quite literally my life’s ambition.
The government doesn’t exactly match my enthusiasm for education. Over the last ten years or so, although the actual amount the Department of Education has been given and then spent has stayed about the same (at approximately £85billion per year), as a proportion of the UK’s GDP, the percentage has actually decreased significantly since the Great Recession of 2008. Where spending in education was at a nearly all-time high percentage-wise in 2010 at 5.5% (it peaked at 5.8% in the mid-1970s), over the last decade the amount spent on education as a proportion of the GDP has been allowed to decrease to approximately 4.3%. Let me say this another way. £85billion sounds like a lot, right? Public education in the United Kingdom has received a similar amount of money every year. What am I complaining about? Well, what if I told you that if the government hadn’t decreased the percentage of GDP allocated to education, the education system could have received an additional approximate £50billion each year. Public education could have received a rough total of £135billion per year. To make matters worse, there was a baby boom in the mid-2000s; those kids also need to be in education, so schools have had to take in an increased number of students as a result. So now that same annual amount of £85billion is in theory being split between more students, averaging out at less money being allocated per student. Underfunding schools then means that they are unable to physically expand to accomodate this increased number of pupils as they just don’t have the funds; it means that schools become cramped, each teacher is resposible for more students, the classroom experience becomes more about ticking boxes and teaching to the test so that the bare minimum can be achieved (i.e.: students pass their exams), and the learning experience of each individual student is less than an afterthought. If this is the learning environment the youth are meant to grow up in, what hope do they have for their future? On a more selfish level, their future is OUR future. What hope do we have if we don’t value their education?
But that’s not the worst of it. Whatever money that is dedicated to education is then unevenly split between the Arts and Humanities and STEM. While this is on a much smaller scale than the Department of Education and the government doesn’t explicitly decide how much is allocated to each subject in every individual school, the underfunding of the Arts and Humanities is in a number of ways a direct result of the Conservative Party’s education initiatives (or lack thereof). Beginning in about 2010 with the rise to power of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government, the Secretaries of Education began the process of systematically undervaluing and underfunding the Humanities and Arts by first preaching the necessity of the EBacc (according to the DoE website, “a set of subjects that keeps young people’s options open for future study and future careers”); this was followed by an emphasis on the virtues of STEM subjects, with Nicky Morgan announcing in autumn 2014 that “arts and humanities were chosen [as subjects to take at GCSE and A-Level] because we thought they were useful… this couldn’t be further from the truth. The subjects to keep your options open are STEM subjects”. This kind of rhetoric was tantamount to psychological warfare as far as teenagers were concerned, as with the cost of university tuition fees tripling in 2011 (thanks a lot, Nick Clegg), and the struggle for university places became increasingly competitive as the government stressed the necessity of a degree for any shot at decent life and career prospects, desperate students and parents alike worried for their future financial security, and sought subjects for GCSE and A-Level study that the government deemed worthwhile: i.e.: “more academically rigorous” subjects, meaning STEM. The Arts and Humanties were sidelined as artsy and indulgent, and this in itself fed into the narrative of them being “soft subjects” that were easy and therefore did not guarantee career prospects. The great irony of this is that the government’s promises of great science jobs are not necessarily fulfilled: computer science courses persistently have the highest unemployment rates, while English graduates still go into a range of careers, from publishing to the civil service, and even tech – Google demands communication skills and creativity among other skills as prerequisites for employees.
It should come as no surprise that the subjects that are deemed indulgent and “soft” match up almost exactly to those that are not-coincidentally considered “feminine” or “girly”. Essentially, gender roles are to blame: the hegemony gender stereotypes dictate that men are supposed to be rational, practical, objective, high-earming breadwinners, while women are allowed to be emotional, gentle, subjective, and people oriented. The dichotomy of STEM vs. the Arts and Humanties are the educational embodiment of hegemonic heterosexual gender roles, and many sociologists argue that it is the encouraging of girls into Arts and Humanities and boys into STEM that reproduces and ensures the longevity of the gender role hegemony in adult society.
Wait, there’s more: the Humanities and Arts are not only undervalued and underfunded from the perspective of students, but also from that of an aspiring teacher. Due to the (shit) state of the education system and the strain it has placed on teachers financially, practically, and mentally, there are increasing numbers of teachers leaving the profession due to shere burnout. To combat this, the government have tried to invest in Get Into Teaching initiatives – some of the most notable ones being School Direct and Teach First – in order to not only recruit trainee teachers fresh out of their undergraduate degrees, but also to encourage potential teachers away from other industries. As part of this, the government offers financial incentives to encourage people to Get Into Teaching – but in true Tory style they’ve massively varied the amount of money given as a scholarship or bursary depending on the subject. getintoteaching.education.gov.uk lists the scholarship that a trainee Chemistry, Languages, Maths or Physics teacher could be eligible for as £28k, with an additional £6k bursary, taking the total payment they could be eligible for to £34k. In comparison, History, Art and Design, and Music trainee teachers can only be afforded a £9k bursary. To clarify, a STEM (and a Languages) trainee can in theory be given more than three times the amount that a History trainee can. With that lack of financial support, its no wonder that there are fewer and fewer teachers of Humanities subjects.
Please bear in mind that this is a very brief snapshot of a huge systematic issue. But knowing what I do about the underfunding of education and the undervaluing of humanities: on reflection, my future isn’t bleak. It’s fucked.