Elusive factors in the equation consign people to the dead end

December 21, 2000

Even the most talented students suffer under the formula at the heart of education, says David Karliner.

An insoluble equation? Resource + student number = finite successful student outcome.

1986. Brixton Information Technology Education Centre, the government's scheme to retrain 16 to 18-year-olds in the skills of the rapidly growing new technology market.

At 16, Alex Gold has already seen much of life - one charge of grievous bodily harm, the father of a two-year-old, living with his seven-year-old brother alone in a council flat, with little or no interest from the separated parents. Alex has the flair of a born computer technician. He peers into the open box of the then state-of-the-art 20Mb hard disk BBC Basic file server that services ten terminals in the classroom. Alex's expression is one of "I don't like the look of that", acquired from years of looking under bonnets in his dad's second-hand car lot. He drags knowingly on his rolled-up cigarette, presses down on the motherboard to re-establish connection of a heat-cracked circuit he has spotted and the PC beeps into life.

Alex was my student. After he left Itec, I often employed him as a freelance technician at many IT centres, and he always exhibited exceptional talent in his technical work. Occasionally, despite it going against the grain of his upbringing, he would mumble something to the effect of how much he appreciated my helping him find work and showing an interest in overcoming the problems of his precarious lifestyle.

But about 18 months after qualifying from Itec, despite being given many lucrative career opportunities, he went joyriding in a car that belonged to a firm he was working for and wrecked it. Pursued by the police in relation to various inquiries and by a horde of debt collectors, Alex vanished into the twilight regions of Brixton never to be heard of again. The lure of his former companions and the attraction of illegal activities was apparently stronger than that of the respectable, highly paid world of the emerging breed of corporate computer technicians.

Itec was my first teaching post and my first encounter with the "insoluble equation", in some ways, a derivative of Ivor Goodson's "the most crucial of all equations". But my particular equation was that of finding we have only so much resource, time and dedication to give to a set number of students. This will result in a finite number of students being turned out to a successful future.

As educationists, we often seem to battle against impossible odds. If one could not prevent a single exceptional student, to whom considerable extra care and attention was given, from returning to a dangerous dead-end world, what chance has one with an entire roomful of less able and motivated students?

After 18 months at Brixton Itec, having processed maybe 300 students, I knew from our post-course monitoring that maybe 80 students had moved on to employment and worthwhile careers. During that time, many members of staff became exhausted and disillusioned and left, and a disgruntled student with a fire axe demolished the manager's glass partition office. Eventually, the centre was closed because it was uneconomic and new retraining schemes were introduced by the government, all equally flawed.

At the start of this millennium, the equation remains the same, and it is found at all levels of education. The equation appears to be, if not insoluble, certain to result in a finite outcome. Will this always be the case? With our increased knowledge of teaching techniques and all the new technologies at our disposal, can we adopt any new educational methods that will further maximise resource, or is the equation truly destined for a finite result?

Sometimes I view a dedicated teacher as like the hero of Cervantes's Don Quixote , fighting windmills, trying to maintain flawless standards while striving to achieve what appear to be unattainable goals. But is this quest truly in the interests of the profession? I have seen many excellent lecturers lost because of the pursuit of these enigmatic and seemingly impossible goals.

Judging by the government's concept of performance-related pay, we cannot look to politicians for guidance in these matters. Reality of implementation seems to have little impact on political policy, irrespective of party.

In 1993, as a member of the faculty of one of the newly formed universities, I was in the audience when the dean called us together and, in total disregard of "the equation", announced that we must increase student intake and quality of qualification, but with no proportionate increase in resources. This from an institution that was ranked third lowest in the country.

Perhaps it is time to face the reality of the equation. The hallmark of the true professional is not to disillusion anyone as to the truth of what is achievable, irrespective of what they want to hear or what sounds politically favourable. But we will not progress much further if our aspirations are set so high.

David M. Karliner is working part time at Regent's College on the IT module of a business degree and studying part time for a doctorate at King's College London.

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