3 August 2007

The problem with schooling

OK, your humble Devil is finally writing something for this fine site; by why has he failed to do so before? Well, it's relatively simple really: being privately educated at a well-known British public school, it was taken for granted that I would stay at school until 18 and, really, I didn't fret about it.

As it happens, I am not suited to structured learning, becoming swiftly bored with learning things that I have no interest in. I have learnt more of history, economics, politics and sociology since I started blogging than I ever did at school. To be sure, my science grounding is far superior to that of most people, and I have found both French to be a boon (although Latin has been far more useful over a wider scope).

As for maths, well, I can obviously add, subtract, multiply and do basic division (I have nothing close to my brother's almost terrifying facility for nunmbers), but most people should be able to pick up these skills by osmosis. What else has been useful? Well, in my political warblings, it has been useful to understand the difference between mean and median. Bizarrely, the only things that I have used are quadratic equations (in estimating box-office returns for the forty or show amateur theatre shows that I have produced) and trigonometry (Desktop Publishing programmes aren't very well set up for dealing with triangular shapes).

However, what has always set me in good stead was the fact that I was always taught the underlying principles that governed the facts that we were taught. This is particularly important as it allows one to continue learning in later life; without being taught the underpinnings of the ideas, theories and facts that one learns, one can never extrapolate into unknown areas.

This is what is so very dangerous about the trend in recent years of teaching to the test: not only are the products of our education system pig-ignorant, able only to answer the woolly questions asked in our increasingly debased exams, but they are then unable to understand the principles that form the basis of the world around them. This means that the bar to further learning is set exceptionally, and sometimes unconquerably, high.

The politicians, of course, do not care; they have deliberately skewed the quality of the education system to be judged solely on exam grades, simply because these are easily manipulated. The increasing cries of protests about the educational standards of those reaching university has been easily quelled by changing the system of university funding; the complaints from the business leaders about the low educational standards of those with degrees is easily swept under the carpet as the whining of greedy men desperate for the state to subsidise their businesses.

But the end result is a nation of sorely under-educated people being taught, in the main, by equally under-educated teachers. It would be, for instance, almost impossible to return to teaching English grammar in schools because the vast majority of teachers (in the state sector at least) do not understand the principles themselves.

The corruption of our education system has already had severe repercussions and more will follow.

What has this to do with the so-called "educational conscription"? Why on earth shouldn't people be forced to be in education until the age of 18 if we decree that they must already be so until 16?

Well, for a start, it is a massive waste of time. Last year, about 147,000 pupils failed to get any GCSEs higher than a grade D. This included 28,000—almost one in 20—who failed to gain a qualification of any kind. It is quite obvious to anyone who has taken the ridiculously easy GCSEs that attempting to force these people into an A Level qualification, debased though they also are, is totally pointless; they may as well go to work.

However, it also means that those slower developers, who may be uninterested in learning whilst young, find it very difficult to return to any kind of education. Further, because all education is now geared merely to passing an exam rather than actually gaining knowledge, the qualifications that may be gained are in themselves utterly pointless. Not to mention, of course, that by the time that any 16 year old drop-out may wish to return, the financial bar may well be too high.

Quite apart from the massive overhaul that is required, what we should allow is a flexibility in education. For sure, teach people up to 18: we do this anyway. However, we should allow people who drop out at 16 to rejoin the education system if they desire to do so (something that UKIP has proposed in its Education Policy).

But we should not force people to cut their earnings by compelling them to remain in an education system that does not benefit them. The earning of knowledge is both important and personally gratifying, but making people stay within a system wherein this does not happen is not only pointless but wrong: what our system should be doing is to teach people the underpinnings of the world around them, so that they may continue to live and learn at their own pace.

Anything else is failure.


Fabian Tassano said...

You make two good points in particular DK:

1) "I have learnt more of history, economics, politics and sociology since I started blogging than I ever did at school."

I suspect it's true of a lot of people that after 16, or earlier in some cases, they learn far more when they're choosing whether and what to learn than when it is force-fed. With all that useful stuff out there these days (Wikipedia, online courses etc) people are well-placed to study in the way that suits them - provided they haven't had their enthusiasm for learning crushed out of them. Now that would be real individual-centred education, but the ideological preference among educational "experts" who use this concept always seems to be for some top-down version of it.

2) "What has always set me in good stead was the fact that I was always taught the underlying principles that governed the facts that we were taught."

I think this knowing-how-to-learn-more is one of those "hidden-curriculum" skills (like confidence, leadership, etc) which state schools seem incapable of transmitting. With all the waffle about teaching people life skills rather than useless facts, this point seems to get forgotten. (Perhaps because pro-state ideologues don't actually want to teach real confidence and suchlike - it's too threatening.) One can make one's own theories as to why private schools score so much higher in this area, but I think incentives are relevant here. Cynically put, why should someone want to pass on skills which provide a huge advantage in life, to people who are not genetically related to them, unless there is a clear economic incentive to do so? (I.e. parents removing the child if they think those skills aren't being taught.)

Devil's Kitchen said...

Thanks for the feedback. Regarding the second point, I am unsure that the genetic imperative works to that extent, although it is an interesting point to consider.

If it is anything other than mendacity, I would suspect that it is a control issue more than anything else: if your pupils can learn without you, then it reduces your importance. Although the desire for prestige and status is, of course, a genetic imperative.


Fabian Tassano said...

I agree there may well be a control issue as you suggest.

Re the "genetic imperative", the point I was trying to make is that one needs to think realistically about what the motivations of those ostensibly providing services to individuals, but employed by and answerable to the state, actually are. Intervention is often predicated on the unexamined assumption that the motivations are no different than if the providers were remunerated directly by the customers.

I ask myself: what incentives exist within the state education sector to transmit the same skills which the private sector does? Or to (e.g.) boost the morale of pupils? Especially if they allow themselves to play around with the criteria for success (i.e. exam engineering) in order to minimise, as far as possible, the evidence that the two systems produce a dramatic difference in outcomes.

Incentives are relevant because I don't think one should have to rely on the goodwill of teachers. One wouldn't want to have to rely on the goodwill of a solicitor or an accountant, and I don't really see why different principles should apply to education or medicine.

The Cynical Libertarian said...

Good to see someone is doing something about this!

I'm linking to you at: http://cynlib.blogspot.com/

Fabian Tassano said...

Thanks, we've added you to the roll.