September is the month of reinvention, new chapters and open doors. Historically, the Romans believed that the month was overseen by their god of fire, Vulcan, and associated it with the god’s fiery might, commanding droughts, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Despite being only two days into September, we’ve already experienced our fair share of Vulcan-esque politics as anti-coup demonstrations rage like wildfires across the UK. Indeed, our Prime Minister – and I use those words with the utmost reluctance – is a zealot of the ancients, having studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford before carving out a career as a red-letter liar and spewer of incomprehensible Beckettian monologues. Hours after taking office, Johnson installed a bust of Pericles to Number 10, and whilst The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins claims judiciously that the PM is more of an Alcibiades figure, I can’t help but feel that in this day and age, the drawing of classical parallels is a monumentally futile exercise. As much as I’d love to facilitate the poncy flexing of my (shrunken) intellectual muscles in a well-rounded counter to Jenkins’ claim with the suggestion of a lesser-known Greco-Roman ruler, my school days have expunged themselves from my goldfish memory. I am a scholar of Wikipedia, BA (Hons).
For those in the education system, September marks the end of the long summer and the beginning of the new academic year. For me, September marks my annual stationary haul, a series of shoulder-tapping emails to prospective lecturers asking after their reading lists and my yearly pledge to Not Leave Essays Deadlines To The Night Before. I am now entering my eighteenth year in the education system, and, for eighteen consecutive years, I have forgotten my organisational pledges after the first week of the ninth month.
As an occasional English Tutor, my September lessons are always my most ambitious. I arrive at the lesson with wads of colour-coded print-outs, interactive strategies, brainstorms and enough language technique checklists to give me back pain. Admittedly, I’m not that much older than many of the students I teach, but generational differences are apparent enough. GCSE and A-Level curriculums are increasingly more challenging whilst teachers are overworked and underpaid to the precipice of burnout.
Today’s students are hardly the mass of Tik-Toking Fortniters and clout-goggled VSCO Girls that the press depicts, the majority of the students I meet are far more consumed with worries about collective global futures, climate change, under-18’s ineligibility to vote, all mixed in with those timeless teenage worries of self-image and social anxieties. Statistically, childhood happiness is at its worst in a decade, with over 200,000 students of the 40,000 households surveyed by the charity Children’s Society, stating they were unhappy with their lives. As much as Snapchat is berated for distracting teenagers, reducing attention spans and popularising narcissism, and whilst they might not be unfurling a broadsheet over the breakfast table, the fact that students have some general awareness of current affairs – depending on which publications they follow, can only be good. Who can I speak to about developing my cultural column into soundbite Snapchat stories?
Whilst this year A-Level results were on average 1% lower than in the previous year, decades of encouragement have finally amounted to more female students than male sitting STEM subjects at A-Level according to information published by The Guardian. Whilst there are many positive aspects to the news, the arts are hit the hardest by lack of funding and government support. Secondary school Music teacher Rebecca has felt the detrimental effects of overemphasis on STEM subjects at the expense of the arts since she joined the profession. “As a music teacher, it’s becoming harder and harder to be effective in a classroom environment due to either a lack of funding, or a lack of respect – from colleagues, students, and parents alike.”
Yaseen Akhtar teaches Science at a London Academy and goes above and beyond their role as 2nd of Charge of Science to ensure that their students receive a balanced cultural education. They coordinate a range of extracurricular clubs, including Japanese and Social Justice, as well as lovingly assembling colourful multidisciplinary lessons. “After going to the Advocacy Academy graduation and seeing 16-year-olds that had launched their own campaigns and the Special Patrol Group’s work in Brixton I was galvanised to bring some of that to our school,” Yaseen explains. “This year, I’m planning schemes of learning for Year 8 and exploring diets and bodies through cover shots from Femzine and Galdem to further develop a conscious awareness that beauty or attractiveness can take a huge array of forms and conceptions of beauty aren’t fixed. If we don’t include ways to help our students develop into whatever they want to be, we aren’t really teaching them.”
Jack Lloyd also teaches Secondary Science in a London school, and whilst he loves the work that he does, it’s affected his demeanour outside of work. “I’m naturally a very relaxed and confident person, and teaching has changed that somewhat,” Jack admits. “I have to meditate daily and I doubt my skills a lot. I wouldn’t change it, not for a long time anyway, but it’s stressful. However, I’m a little embarrassed to say I’m quite proud that I do it.” He’s sympathetic towards his students sitting the reformed exams, and fears that the content is desperately out of touch with the needs or interests of young people – failing to equip them with vital information to carry them into adulthood. “I’ve always felt that if a subject is compulsory, that implies we expect every adult to know it.” He tells me, “So what science should every adult know? I would say health, sex and climate change.”
So who’s championing, safeguarding and supporting today’s teachers? Who’s rallying for contemporary, modern curriculums? Speaking shortly after he was appointed the role of Education Secretary, Williams gave his maiden speech invoking the ghoulish spirit of Victorians obsessed Jacob Rees-Mogg (the seventeen-year-old Jacob gleefully received a phial of Queen Victoria’s anointing oil for Christmas), stating that, “We will have a truly vibrant economy only when we recreate the Victorian spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness that made Britain such a vibrant country.” What exactly does that mean? That the Victorian monocultural era of corporal punishment, child labour, poor houses and stark inequality made us… vibrant? Despite his A-Levels in Government, Politics and Economics, Williams’ basic grasp of History is baffling. There’s little vibrancy to the directionless buffoonery of Brexit Britain, where xenophobic bullying in schools has seen an increase of 49% since the 2016 EU referendum, as uncertainty mounts around the status of EU citizens.
A meaningful education is far more nuanced than quoting Baudrillard in casual conversation and a CV of straight-A’s. It’s clear that the current administration is out of touch with the needs of the millennial generation, and whilst the government may not be there to pick up the pieces of an overworked and underfunded education system, there are a number of initiatives which facilitate free and subsidised learning courses. The Arvon Foundation runs creative writing workshops with industry-leading tutors between Devon, Shropshire and Yorkshire. If you’re searching for some intellectual stimulation from the comfort of your own home, the Open University’s OpenLearn scheme offers over 900 free courses which will earn you a certificate of participation following successful completion.
Whatever your flavour, continue to read, learn and search for the education you deserve. Because after all, September is just another month.