Sir Simon Jenkins is an ex-editor of The Times who has written distinguished weekly columns for the Guardian for many years. His piece in today’s paper is a devastating critique of England’s education system. The system, as such, has been completely appropriated, dominated and run for many years by politicians and bureaucrats. It is disfunctional and unfit for purpose. This is not to say that what teachers and school leaders actually do – every hard-working day of their lives – is disfunctional and unfit for purpose. Far from it. The vast majority of teachers and headteachers care deeply about the wellbeing of their pupils, and strive on a daily basis to raise attainment and the all-round achievements of their pupils. The problem is systemic and is rooted in the way that education has been corrupted for political ends. If an education system is not run for the true benefit of pupils, and has been appropriated for the benefit of others such as politicians, bureaucrats and businesses, then it becomes dysfunctional and corrupt. Please read what Simon Jenkins has to say. Here are a few quotations for starters:
We can all list the successes whom school had “failed” – from Winston Churchill to Richard Branson. Less easy to list are those to whom school promised much that life did not honour: the prefects who ended in jail, the teacher’s pets who took to booze. Some pupils, like [Nobel Prize winner Sir John] Gurdon, might be galvanised by failure. Most are stripped of ambition and self-esteem at an age when bodies and minds are still forming. Such cruel unfairness is the single, overwhelming charge against selection at 11 – which the grammar school lobby has never answered and cannot.
Some 45,000 English pupils are now resitting their GCSE exams after the latest fiasco in Britain’s descent from education into testing. Reactionaries may cry that children should be taught that “life is full of reverses”, but they have elevated the exam to make it the be-all and end-all of secondary education. It is they who treat academic measurement as an exact science, as they once did “selection by intelligence”. It is they who have made the core curriculum the ark of the covenant of wisdom. They are the dunces of illiberalism.
The GCSE curriculum, with its cores, foundations, inspectors and examiners, is a Victorian archaism on a par with the House of Lords and the Church of England. Education remains the most conservative of professions, because nobody quite knows what it means. A fixed curriculum is accepted because it exists. Like military discipline, past generations suffered it and the present one had better do so, too. It has become a useful tool of state dirigisme. While exams are restlessly reformulated, their subject matter is stuck back in days when “maths and science” were totems of economic fortune. Any other vocational or life skill was for “secondary moderns”.
Britain’s economy is in a mess not for lack of maths but for lack of ethics and common sense. Being top of the world in science did not save the Soviet Union from collapse. Young people need to understand computing, economics, law, the culture of the body, the history of community and the state of the environment. Schools send them out unable to write clearly or grapple with abstract concepts, yet chanting the periodic table like zombies.
The collapse of educational progressivism in the 1980s and its replacement by “teaching to the test” was a real tragedy, caused largely by a sloppy overlay of political correctness and the reduced status of teachers. While the ideas of John Dewey, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Rudolf Steiner took hold in America, infusing much of the charter school movement, in Britain a “good education” is still identified with a juggernaut curriculum, nationally dictated, measured and moderated under stern ministerial audit. Michael Gove’s mechanistic centralism is not so much socialist as Soviet.
If any benefit could emerge from the new “free” (meaning expensive) state school movement, it should be liberation and experiment. Yet most are promising a “traditional curriculum”. British schools are still in Arnoldian mode. They teach what they think will train a mind, not educate a citizen. They observe medieval holidays. “Lessons” are so structured as to ensure most of what is learned in 50 minutes is forgotten and must be recapped a day or a week later. Language schools know that total immersion is far more efficient.
Schools seem terrified of experimenting with new teaching methods or radical subjects. The academic terrorism of tests and league tables has made Gradgrind’s rote-learning seem almost liberal. The British are adept reformers of institutions, in health, education, the law, even banking. They are dreadful at reforming what institutions do.
In years to come teachers and headteachers should ask themselves how they allowed the system to become what it now is. Hopefully they will also ask themselves whether they ever put their heads above the parapet and did battle with those who did such harm to schools, teachers and pupils. They should honestly say whether they ever wrote anything that challenged what took place in the years of the Great Education Wars, or contributed a single constructive thought in writing or in meetings to protect the interests of children and young people. Silence is no longer an option – not that it ever was.
For some positive thoughts on what can be done and must be done to create a better education system please read our previous 3D Eye posts on Finland and Singapore.
Special attention should also be paid to what Simon Jenkins says about the failure of ethics that caused the worldwide economic, banking and financial crisis, and also what he says about the mess that people often make of their lives in spite of their high academic attainment. Teachers must now insist that we place at very centre of what we do in schools the development of the personal, social and spiritual intelligences and allow pupils, through the schools’ overall provision for PSHE and SMSC, to develop high levels of these key intelligences.
- It Takes a Whole School to Raise a Child (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Gove’s centralism is not so much socialist as Soviet | Simon Jenkins (guardian.co.uk)