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.