Factory SchoolFactory Schools

Hussein Lucas

I first heard the term 'factory school' used by a disenchanted comprehensive school teacher about 20 years ago, but I don't think he coined it. He also said that if people asked him what he did he no longer described himself as a teacher but as 'a professional box-ticker'.  The last time I saw him he was heading out to South America to work in a privately-run international school. I don't think the term was ever intended as an attack on teachers but on the system, which another disenchanted teacher described as being run on the 'stack 'em high, teach 'em cheap' principle.
I've since heard it used several times by Sir Ken Robinson, most recently during his appearance on Desert Island Discs. At the Little Commonwealth centenary celebration held in November, one of the guest speakers, Albert Lamb, described comprehensive school pupils as 'factory workers tied to a system of testing and attainment, in ways similar to the past, and nowadays, in addition to parents and the state, the corporate world has a handle on them. They have no time to be kids.'

It's true to say that practically all the teachers I've spoken to, and liked as people, are those who've got out or would like to get out of the mainstream, either by moving sideways into working with excluded kids or transferring to alternative schools. A member of my extended family who took early retirement a couple of years ago on stress-related medical grounds was head of department in a large comprehensive. He has since recovered and is enjoying life. Like many teachers his opinion is that assessments, targets and the swelling tide of form-filling has degraded education and continual interference from the current powers-that-be is making it well-nigh impossible in any meaningful sense.

If you set targets people will inevitably cut corners and massage figures to reach those targets, as happens in the NHS (I have another relative in this organisation) and used to happen in Communist Russia and China. Top-heavy bureaucratic totalitarian organisations and countries always set targets. As a head teacher your job, level of pay, status and grant depend on you reaching your target, so inevitably for many heads this becomes their primary focus. No wonder that stress-related early retirement amongst secondary head teachers is more common than in any other profession. They are top of the league table in this respect.

Several years ago people even stopped talking about education. Teachers were expected to 'deliver the curriculum' to 'pupil units' or sometimes 'customers'. Perhaps this terminology is out of fashion, like 'Total Quality Management', but the process continues.

The fact is that, no matter how dedicated and inspired, teachers in these non-human-scale institutions are not free to teach to individual needs, let alone educate in a rounder sense, but are controlled and manipulated by a hideous bureaucratic machine subject to the latest whims of whichever Secretary of State for Education happens to be in power, whose principal concern is making a name for himself (or herself in the case of Margaret Thatcher, lest we forget) and furthering his/her own political career.

But nobody has to dance to the tune the state plays. After all, we pay the pipers. If sufficient numbers of disenchanted teachers, parents and students banded together and demanded change, then it would come. We make, or endure, our own reality.

 

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