Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Edyukayshun: How not to be topp

Here’s how John Abbott of the 21st Century Learning Initiative sees the story of English Education —
An uncertain and fast-changing world calls for new heights of creativity, lateral thinking, hard work and ability to reinvent ourselves.
Fortunately, adolescents are bursting with these things — programmed by evolution itself to want to make their mark, explore, acquire fresh insight and work hard in common causes.

Unfortunately, Abbot says, the English have spent the past twenty years turning their adolescents into superior battery chickens. Every school is now a crammer’s. Personally I can say that a fifteen year old complained to me recently about his geography teacher. What was wrong with her? I asked.The reply, quick as a flash, “she wastes our time by trying to teach us things that won't come up in the exam.” This is a fifteen year old, with a growing brain and a world before him, transformed by what we call education into a checkbox automaton. Abbott points out that our adolescents check the boxes they have been trained to check, but God, are they bored! He sees this as a disgusting betrayal of our young and, indeed, our own future. Jesus valued the child above all. The system treats ours as mascots and commodities.

Tony Blair sailed into Downing Street with priorities of “Education, Education, Education.” What have we to show for it? John Abbott’s Over-schooled but Undereducated is a scathing indictment of contemporary English educational dogma — not students and teachers, or even schools, who often work heroically to buck the system, but the centralized, top-down, target driven farrago of lost opportunity upon which billions of pounds has been showered since 1997.

In 2007 UNICEF published Report Card 7, examining the health and wellbeing of children in leading Industrialized nations. It studied 40 indicators and the UK result, in the fifth richest country in the world, was stunningly poor. British children came bottom for family relationships, sexual and substance abuse, happiness and mental health. They came top for bullying, depression and suicide. They scored high for ignorance, too, in comparison with their peers abroad. After 4 years of the Every Child Matters initiative, reading attainment slumped from seventh to seventeenth place, mathematics from twelfth to twenty-fourth.

Abbott examines the whole sorry tale since John Milton wrote:
I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man [this was 1644!] to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously, all the offices both public and private, of peace and war.
Judged by this standard Abbott tells the story of a skilful, ingenious and progressive people, with points of real excellence, but one tragic flaw — an obsession with class. Attempts to provide the kind of through schooling to age 16 that other European nations developed in the 1870’s came to grief in England because of a desire by the governing classes to ensure that the lower orders would be trained to know, above all, their place. Thus the great divide between grammar schools and the rest since 1879, reinforced in 1902.

The 1944 Education Act added to this error the now entirely discredited scientism of Cyril Burt who suggested intelligence was somehow objective and fixed by the age of 11. Everything we now know of brain science indicates that this notion is pernicious rubbish. Selective education parked the majority of English children in schools with pockets of genuine idealism, but a general culture based on containment rather than growth, where they were bored and switched off as often as inspired and equipped.

This was not entirely disastrous, especially for males, as long as they went on to appreticeships, where higher socialisation and education for life could still happen. The abandonment since the seventies of apprenticeships has been accompanied by bureaucratization, centralization, and the fatuous notion of performability — that you can somehow leverage human flourishing by standard targets, pulling the cabbages up towards the stars on elastic, rather than growing them organically by humanity, passion and compassion.

Many primary schools strive nobly, in spite of, incredible to report, lower per capita expenditure than secondaries, teaching the child not the subject. They also have to backfill a kindergarten experience that is impoverished by Northern European standards, against an increasngly ravenous desire by politicians since the eighties to dig up the cabbages every week to check that they are still growing. This activity, of course, inhibits their growth.

Add to these operational follies vacuous liberal utilitarianism which reduces the human being to an isolated production / consumption unit, and the assault of successive British governments since the seventies on the family and institutions of value, and it’s hardly surprising the whole system is lost at sea.

Abbott writes a fluent philippic. His longer term perspective is vital for those who act as though
“English education began in Nineteen Eighty-eight, with the innovation of Baker days and Section 28.” It didn’t, and the long-term results of the muddled and sometimes conflicting heritage of the past two hundred years in our schools are compounded by the larger forces of social disintegration in our own day, to indicate a need for real re-thinking all round. I’m not sure about all of Dr Abbott’s remedies, but it feels as though he has diagnosed a big disease with painful and unerring accuracy.


Vinaigrette girl said...

Ah, but the difficulty is knowing to whom copies might best be given; and indeed, how, without causing undue offence...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I know what you mean! I hope the largely historical grounding of his analysis helps to draw some awkwardness out of the book — and I can't really imagine anyone dsputing the baleful influence of class in English education. I notice someone warmly commending the book on its back was Sir Eric Anderson, until recently Provost of Eton...

Anonymous said...

You have something of a point, dear Bishop, but, twas ever thus! I can recall complaining about one of my own teachers just like your 15-year-old did. On the other hand, the schools that my grandchildren attend are just such a huge improvement over those attended by my own children in the 80s, populated as they were by teachers utterly demoralised by the Thatcher government's attitude to their profession. A huge improvement was needed and the only way to bring that about (as in any improvement drive) was to state clearly what was required, measure the outcomes, then go back and fix areas of shortfall. There will always be conflict between the need to provide competent workers for future industry and the wish to develop well-rounded adults, that will never change, but I know that my grandchildren are being taught in better, more well-managed schools than my children were.

Erika Baker said...

The question is how you measure outcomes.
When I was at school we were set a short test in every subjects about every 5 weeks. The average grade of all tests would make up 50% of our end of year grades, the remaining 50% were down to participation in class. For A’levels there would be separate tests.
We didn’t exactly like the test, but they would allow the teachers to pick up weaknesses early on and to try and correct them, and teaching would continue as normal after each test.

My daughter is in her final week of GCSE exams. She has been taught not very much in the last few months because teachers focused on the revision of already taught content for the all important exams. She’s thoroughly bored with the ever repeating content of her lessons and conversation in our house revolves around how to answer questions so that full marks are awarded. She’s done so many past papers in each subject that she could possibly set her own tests by now and develop the accompanying marking scheme.

It’s not so much whether to dig up the cabbages to check their growth but how to do it. And about not forgetting to feed and water then in between digging.

Pam said...

My first year sixth form history class complained bitterly when our History A level teacher - who had just achieved his degree as an external student and was incredibly enthusiastic - told us that the Paris Commune wouldn't come up in our exam after spending two weeks telling us about it. When we asked him why he had wasted our time on it he said 'Because it is fascinating' and we told him we ere only interested in things that would could come up in the exam - that was over thirty years ago!

My sons are members of the probably most tested group of children we'll ever have - they both had SATS at in year 2, year 7 and year 9 followed by GCSE modules and exams in years 10 and 11, AS level modules and exams from very near the start of year 12 and A levels in year 13.

Our older son has just finished a Masters and that means he's had exams and assessments every academic year for the last 10 years.

Our younger son had ME between the ages of 10 and 14 and we think the stress of the SATS - which was passed on to the children by a very anxious teacher - was a contributory factor.

But bizarrely, from this educational battery farming they both seem to have emerged as well rounded, compassionate, motivated and hard working adults.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks to all for filling out the picture from experience so helpfully. I hope this isnt taken as some blanket condemnation of our present teenagers. I meet a fair number in schools, and they are often very positive people. In addition our own children have done very well at school.

However deep systemic problems remain, bigger than any individual or individual school; the point Abbott makes is that we've been stoking up a class divided system for a couple of hundred years now, and we need to change direction. I feel this especially about less academic children.

I was immensely moved to hear from a group of 15 year olds at a local National Challenge school that the one thing that would have persuaded them to stay in education would have been if their (largely supply) teachers had as consistently turned up as they had. We have let these students down — I'm sure many will catch up, but they wanted to learn, and it can this was made so diffucult for them in a non-aspirational school. To quote the corny old phrase, we must try harder!

Adrian C said...

When I was at school (in the 1960s) there we had a marvellous teacher that told us that it was recognised that some students were 'syllabus bound' and others were 'syllabus free'. The point surely is that our education system needs to allow sufficient differentiation in the classroom so that both January King and Savoy cabbages can flourish. By the way - the post by Erika Baker troubles me (and apols EB if I have read it wrong) because it seems to imply there is only one sort of acceptable growth and that that is growth which is measurable. We really must avoid falling into the 'everything is measurable' trap. Some things are and some things are not.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Adrian, your teacher's distinction sounds like a really significant øne, which I'm sure you find in every school — people who take to the system's requirements and fly, whilst others are more alternative in apprach, and derive greatest benefit from bucking the system.

That implies you need a school to be a really enriched community, so that all sorts can find relatonships to inspire and nourish.

So my discomfort isn't with all measuring, just with narrow band or obsessive measuring.

Naughty question perhaps, because boarding education in England is inescapably tied up with class, but is the residential/ multifaceted reach aspect of it part of the power of boarding education for those for whom it works (I never did it; I'm just interested)?

Erika Baker said...

I think what I was trying to say is that if you don't spend months and months revising for end of year exams you have more time to teach the syllabus in a more relaxed and broad way and to teach and non-exam related materials. You have more time for school trips, for discussion groups, for genuinely interacting with your students.

And although we don't measure things like student satisfaction, behaviour, participation, liking of subjects, enthusiasm for school etc., these are nevertheless outcomes that could be verified if we wanted to.

If we want to test - and I think that in order to pick up weaknesses before they become a real stumbling block and result in bored and disillusioned students we should want to test - then it's important that the tests are evenly spaced throught the year and that each individual one doesn't have an excessive weight.

The SATS, GCSEs etc are only such a nightmare because they are all one single test coming at the end of a school year. With smaller and more frequent tests it doesn't matter if a student flunks a few, they're never that huge big deal that requires weeks and weeks spent on ploughing through the AQA website for more past papers. And they would mean that teachers would be freed from having to teach to the tests and waste such extraordinary amounts of time on revision during school time.

Pam Smith said...

It did occur to me that my theological education was a similar experience of being placed under intense academic pressure (a degree in two years) while being asked also to develop in a measurable way - there are long lists of specific outcomes for ever stage of Initial Ministerial Education from selection to the end of the curacy.

My own view (having qualified as a teacher in 1982 and taught inside and outside schools) is that true education is a rather unpredictable process that happens alongside formal instruction/training. This would seem to be the case with both my sons.

When I was in theological training the answer to any complaint of being overburdened by the demands of the educational process - and anything that didn't go as it was planned = was 'It's all good preparation for ministry.' The annoying thing is that it probably was.

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