Saturday, December 02, 2006

Goodbye, Mr Chips

What I had intended to do with the excerpts below was to provide a lot of commentary. On reflection I'm tempted just to write "swine, swine" and leave it at that. When I contemplate how politicians are happy to play with the education of millions it alternately makes me want to weep and to gnash my teeth. They just don't care.
Here we have a society where many are condemned to the underclass by virtue of birth and peer pressure whilst the left -wingers mouth their pious platitudes about `no school left unturned', `no child spared' and move into the right catchment area or send their children to private school.

The man from the BBC is just as bad. He's happy to talk about `little progress in changing the structures' and `school reforms' without the least bit of questioning of that New Labour packaging. He doesn't name and shame the ideologues from the Labour party who would rather see the equality of the gutter than the flourishing of the best.

In short, they make me sick.

I teach the products of this nearly gutted system in what is supposed to be a first class University. I meet students who never learn anything, because they've been taught not to, people who think looking other people's work up on the Internet is `research', mathematicians (all with grade A's at A level) who reach for a calculator to multiply .4 by .6. Able students who've been crippled by the pablum of bland mediocrity that's been served to them at school.

Anyway, I'll stop before I start frothing at the mouth.

Here's Tony ...

10 years after saying his three priorities were "education, education and education", Tony Blair still does not see his education reforms as complete.

closer examination revealed a sense of regret that he has not achieved more with his school reforms over the past decade.

He also sounded what seemed like a note of anxiety about the permanency of the reforms and a desire to embed the latest changes before he leaves Downing Street.

Ten years may seem a long time in politics but many of the reforms remain partial and unfinished...

Mr Blair hinted strongly at one of his main regrets when, looking back at the early years of his government, he said: "over time, I shifted from saying 'it's standards not structures' to realising that school structures could affect standards".

Certainly the phrase "standards not structures" became a mantra during Blair's first term in office, from 1997 to 2001.

This was mainly because of Labour's determination not to become mired in debates about the abolition of grammar schools or the ending of grant maintained status.

So those first years saw little progress in changing the structures of secondary education.

[Estelle Morris] believes there was "a capacity problem in the DfES (Department for Education and Skills)".

"We had some very good people in the civil service but not in depth."

In characteristically honest fashion, she adds that "we did not have all the answers politically either".

A much tougher judgement on the Blair years comes from Chris Woodhead, who was chief inspector of schools in England during Blair's first term.

"What Blair wanted to do - ensure greater parental choice, diversity and to challenge the educational establishment - was absolutely right," says Woodhead, who is now professor of education at Buckingham University.

However, he adds, Blair "has not delivered on any of that".

He believes the failure of the Blair school reforms was down to the prime minister's "political difficulties" with his own party and his failure to dig down into the detail of education policy.

While Estelle Morris believes there has been a real change in the culture of schools, and particularly in the quality of teaching, Chris Woodhead argues that Labour failed because it did not deliver the freedoms that schools needed.

...successive Labour and Conservative governments supported the shift from the tri-partite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools towards a single comprehensive.

They also supported the merging of different exam routes - the O-level and the CSE - into a single exam for all, the GCSE.

These changes were implemented in the name of social equity and as a reaction to a system that was regarded as writing off the majority of young people from an early age.

At first, Blair's government continued the trend towards uniformity: with more central direction and over-arching national targets for all children and all schools.

But latterly he has been more persuaded of the need for different routes for different pupils.

So we have seen, once again, a proliferation of school types and the end of the "monolithic comprehensive".

Now Blair is arguing that the interests of social equity no longer require a single route for all young people.

His espousal of "personalised education" means that "equal, but different" is his way forward.

...if Blair's successors do continue in the same direction, the challenge will be to ensure the different pathways through education are equally valued and not sorted into class-based, rigid hierarchies.

Or, as George Orwell might have put it, will some qualifications be "more equal than others"?

We wouldn't want that, would we? Class-based, rigid hierarchies - nasty, filthy stuff.
Nobody stops to wonder where the class-based bit comes from or whether a hierarchy (rigid or flaccid) might be based on something like ability. That would be more thought-crime after all.

To quote Kipling (The Children) out of context:
...Our statecraft, our learning
Delivered them bound to the Pit...


Yorkshireminer said...

Dear Canker,
how I agree with you here, egality has been the bane of a good education. The comprehensive schools when they were brought in was a good idea. The concept of giving everyone an equal chance. The problem was an equal chance for what. The old school system penitious as it was did give the brightest of the working class a chance to be unequal. The emphasis on equality with the coming of the comprehensive education system seemed to have been translated into we are all equal and therefore the brightest cannot shine as that would prove that we were not equal. The result has been a dumbing down of the educational system and an emphasis on teaching techniques and spin and fads instead of teaching facts. The political correct attitude of the last couple of decades has added to the problem by allowing too many committees to make decisions, causing a stultifying inertia in the system. The obsession with teaching gadgets has certainly not helped. I once had a camel defined to me as a horse designed by a committee, and this seems to me to be a very good description of the educational system at present. I do not know if affermative action is in vogue in England, as I do not live there anymore, has added to the problem but it it has been certainly one of the reasons for the dumbing down of the American educational system. I would like to say a lot more but at the moment I do not have the time. Excellent article by the way.

Canker said...

Thanks very much for the comments and for reading the article in the first place.
The more I see of education the more I think that it should not be a political football, and the more I think that equality of opportunity is the only thing one can aim for.
Moreover, the question of who needs to deliver that equality of opportunity is a difficult one. Politicians are very good at announcing new responsibilities for others. An example is the 2004 Disabilities act which redefines mental illness as a disability (so not something that needs to be cured before someone pitches up at university)-this means that universities are now obliged to make enormous allowances for the mentally ill. I leave you to fill in the details.

Reverting to equality of opportunity: I stress this partly because of my egalitarian instincts and partly because I know what it's like trying to teach the uninterested.
The last thing the UK needs is a version of "No child left behind" with its idiotic implication that the teacher is always at fault if a child fails to learn.
In my experience failure to learn is much more often about a lack of will and a failure to engage with the world.
And that usually comes from the family.
Teachers can't change a child's family environment and that is probably more important than (most of)what happens at school in terms of reasonably successful outcomes for most children.

The old grammar school system attempted to identify those reasonably intelligent and motivated children who were likely to benefit from a fairly academic education. This certainly provided a stepping stone out of the worst aspects of being working class for such children.
We've lost that now. Instead we have enormous peer-pressure in the `sink-estates' NOT to perform at school, with loss of street credibility and fear of physical violence as a consequence.

The biggest problem with the 11-plus, and this is why it became so hated by some, is that a once-and-for-all decision was made at age 11 when, as we all know, that's a fairly arbitrary moment at which to make such a permanent decision. Most of those who failed the 11-plus loathed the results of that system and never forgot that failure.

Neverthless, what we have now is far, far worse. I could go on at length, but time is short. Let me just say that I don't really think that education in the UK can be fixed unless a lot else is, starting with society's attitude to education which currently is that `certificates are meal tickets so give one to everybody except the worst losers'.