21 June 2012


Michael Gove’s leaked plans for secondary education – if indeed they are actual plans rather than ideas towards a consultation document – have caused a minor storm, with Labour denouncing them as a means of creating a “two-tier” education system.

But it’s right to ask what’s gone wrong with British school education. As a university lecturer over the past 15 years, I’ve taught hundreds of students who are products of the British school system. Many have been brilliant; some have not. The best are hard-working, intellectually sophisticated, good writers and arguers. The worst, well, read what follows. It’s anecdotal rather than research-based, but:
  • Too many students who have excellent GCSE and A-level grades can’t write clear grammatical English or sustain an argument in writing. This is hardly new: I remember tutors moaning about standards of writing 30 years ago, and the complaint was a staple among critics of “progressive education” (remember that?) in the 1960s and early 1970s. Something is wrong about the way schools teach writing, and it has been wrong, perhaps in many different ways, for rather a long time. I think that old-fashioned grammar teaching with spelling tests and so on is part of the solution. But I would say that, because it worked for me. Then again, if I’m honest about my schooldays, I was also encouraged to take an over-scholastic and over-cautious approach to expressing opinion. (“You can’t say that the monarchy is a waste of money!” my politics teacher scrawled at the bottom of an essay in 1977, next to a 40 per cent mark, my worst in my A-level year.) And it didn’t work for everyone who went to school in the 1960s and 1970s, partly because of daft educational theories that meant it wasn't done – my sisters, who went to a different primary school, were not taught to spell but encouraged to express themselves any old way they chose – but also because it requires attention to individual pupils that was never possible when it was tried with 40-plus kids in a class (remember that too?). The problem is that no one has come up with anything better. Gove needs to do a lot more thinking here, and it can't be solved by going back to CSEs and O-levels: the inability to write coherently is all too common among the students that are supposedly the best, the A-level grade As.

  • As the internet has become a mass phenomenon, the teaching of careful reading and discrimination between reliable and unreliable sources has been catastrophically eroded at schools. Too many first-year university students haven’t got a clue about plagiarism – they copy and paste as a matter of course and act wounded when they’re found out and told off (or worse) – and too many use the most dubious websites as sources for essays. This makes a case for testing at school and university primarily by exam, but also for a much more rigorous approach to evidence in everyday school teaching. Then again, every teacher knows that Google is the weapon of first resort for us all today, and we can’t turn the clock back, or even wish to. Once more, this requires much more thought from Gove: the problem is endemic. The A-level grade As do it as much as anyone else when they think they can get away with it.

  • Most students’ grasp of the most elementary history is dire. Few students appear to have done basic British political history, and economic history is almost unknown. Again, the argument about what’s wrong with history teaching is nothing new, and part of the problem is that you simply can’t cover everything in school. I remember doing a very traditional history syllabus in my school years: start with the Stone Age in the first year of junior school, then the Romans, then the Dark Ages and 1066 – and at secondary school Medieval Britain, the Tudors and (bizarrely) 20th-century world history for O-level, then at A-level the Tudors again, the English Civil War as it was then known, the industrial revolution, 20th-century British political history, Stalin and Hitler. It was a lot better than doing Hitler and the Tudors repeatedly (with a little bit of phoney work on sources), and I had fantastic teachers, but there were massive omissions: to mention the most obvious to me now, Greece and Rome, ancient China, the rise of Islam, the story of European imperialism, 18th-century British politics, America and Germany in the 19th century, Latin America, the grisly end to the second world war. University filled in some of the gaps, but not all (though school and university taught me how to read). History was taken out of the compulsory part of the national curriculum some years ago:  I can’t see how Gove can sort it unless he drops his plans to abandon the national curriculum, makes history compulsory again and sets out a bold syllabus. (If he did, I'd be all in favour, as long as he included Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson as well as the awful Niall Ferguson – and I'd add geography too.) This is not an issue only for weaker students: some of the best of them struggle with the fundamentals. Magna Carta, I'm afraid, did die in vain.

  • Technical skills are not a problem. The bog-standard ICT syllabus is useless, but the idea that everyone should learn programming is plain daft, and maths teaching isn't bad. Every undergraduate can use Word and Google and Facebook and Twitter, and most know how to add up with the aid of a computer. Quite a few are au fait with elementary programming, too. Not a high priority.

  • The most important school failure is the cult of grades. Too many students arrive at university after years of being taught to the test. They expect spoon-feeding because that is what they have always had as the charges of teachers whose bosses (heads and – to a lesser extent in recent years – LEA big-wigs) are interested only in their schools’ place in the league tables. The assumption that it’s all about getting a good mark – which will of course help to get a good job – is now almost universal: any university tutor will tell you that the most persistent gripe from students is that they didn’t get a 2.1 for a substandard piece of work and would like to resubmit because without an overall 2.1 their degree will be worthless. The marketisation of higher education – with students being treated primarily as consumers and universities interested only in their ranking in the annual National Student Survey – is already undermining standards, sometimes comically but mostly by subjecting lecturers to the challenges of whingers who didn’t get the 2.1 they wanted and think it wasn’t their fault. A year of not-very-good finalists who complain can now wreck an academic career. Gove cannot do what he wants unless he reverses the transformation of higher education into a mechanism for satisfying "consumers" – which is precisely what his government has institutionalised, following New Labour.
What’s missing from anyone’s education policy right now is a sense that learning is worth it for its own sake. The idiotic philistine instrumentalism that has driven UK education policy for the past 30 years has done immense damage and will do more if it is not reversed.

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