Radical change, or band-aid?

Last evening’s (8/2/10) BBC’s Newsnight report on the Swedish Private (for profit) School system prompts the question as to whether any other country can teach English schools how to improve, without the English first rigorously and honestly analysising what is the essence of their educational predicament.  Contrary to what I suspect their glossy Party Manifestos will say shortly there is no one panacea that can deal with the numerous, yet inter-related, problems which have placed English education in a difficult, unpleasant and often embarrassing situation.

Unless politicians of every Party are prepared to admit the nature of this predicament – something which the Conservatives were largely responsible for between 1979 to 1997, and for which Labour has been responsible for the past 13 years – there can be no reasonable discussion of what needs to  happen next.  Despite home-grown statistics claiming the opposite, international studies point to the steady decline in the performance of English schools, and in the declining well-being of English children and in the increased levels of mental stress amongst their parents. Without acknowledging these ‘difficulties’ in their entirety any political reform will flounder.

The English place an unrealistic confidence in their schools to do for their children what the parents, and the rest of society, are no longer willing to do for themselves.

… have separated the emotional needs of children from their intellectual development, placing undue emphasis on the latter at the cost of often trivialising the former.

…have forgotten that “a complete and generous education [should] fit youngsters to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously both in their public, as well as in their private lives.

… have also forgotten what the skilled craftsmen of old knew well, that education has to start a dynamic process through which youngsters are progressively weaned from their dependence on teachers and instruction, and given the confidence to manage their own learning as a lifelong activity.

… have been slow to accept that how we are treated as babies and toddlers determines the way in which what-we-are-born-with turns us into what-we-are.  It is the combined influence of home, community and school upon which the country is dependent if future generations are to be capable of doing new things well, while retaining the wisdom of the past.

… can no longer assume that a well-educated person is the by-product simply of the study of a range of academic disciplines, and have to recognise that every child needs the ability to think for itself, to communicate clearly, collaborate with colleagues, and to be able to make its own decisions.

… need reminding that quality education is everything to do with teachers, not much to do with structures, and very little to do with buildings.  Teachers do what they believe in very well, but what they are told to do merely to a mediocre standard; they need both technical subject knowledge and considerable expertise in both pedagogy and child development.

… have to understand that while Britain is one of the world’s richest countries we are also one where the differential between the wealth of the richest and the poorest is greater than almost anywhere else, and that we suffer from some of the highest recorded levels of clinical depression.

Finally, politicians and people alike have to remind themselves that for a democracy to be fully functional, the state cannot simply be defined in terms of government that makes and administers laws within which individuals are left to do their own thing.  Most day-to-day activity has nothing to do with the law.  It is about getting on with our neighbours and creating a quality of life that depends on access to people we trust and admire.  Just to live within the law means very little; but to live within the law and have a sense of civil society is to create a great place in which to live.

In addition to understanding such difficulties, there are three structural issues which compound the English education predicament.

The first such structural issue is the almost arbitrary splitting of primary and secondary education at the age of eleven. This dates from 1944 when, to fund a national system of secondary education at a time when funds for only one additional year of schooling were forthcoming, led to three years being ‘clipped off’ the old elementary school curriculum to create the new secondary school.  This was encouraged by the specious argument that intelligence tests administered at the age of eleven could accurately sort people into the three types identified 2,000 years before by Plato as being those with gold in their blood who were destined to be the rulers, those with silver who would form the administrators, and those with only iron who were predestined to be the workers and farmers.  The 1944 Act equated such destinies as needing grammar, technical or secondary modern schooling.  It was not until the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that the importance of culture in modifying inherited predispositions finally entered the equation.

Subsequently, secondary education has achieved a higher status than primary partly due to the charitable origins of elementary education as being a concern for the well-being of the poor.  Secondary status was further enhanced in the years after the introduction of comprehensive schools (1965) when each such school – attempting to show that they were as good as the former grammar schools – started to build their own Sixth Forms.  From this point the tail started to wag the dog for, in order to provide Sixth Forms with a range of options, such schools had often to be several times the size of primary schools so creating an atmosphere in which disillusioned adolescents (rebelling against the didactic nature of schooling) needed a higher level of teacher control than was the case in the smaller primary schools.

The second of these structural issues relates to the very different kinds of teachers in primary and secondary schools. Primary practice grew out of the need to develop children emotionally while secondary school practice had its origins in subject-specific skills appropriate for university entry.  The old adage; “primary schools teach pupils, but secondary schools teach subjects,” still applies, yet secondary schools also need teachers who understand the emotional development of teenagers, and primary schools need teachers with subject-specific skills.  The answer to both these structural issues is best illustrated by the Finnish all-through 7-16 community school, with teachers of such quality that they can teach right across the age range, and where the schools are sufficiently small and related to their communities that the total society is involved in the bringing-up of its children.

The third structural issue relates to the numbers of children who attend fee-paying schools (over 7%). It is the basic right of parents (subject to the fewest number of safeguards) to educate their own children in the way they think most appropriate.  However, at a time in England’s history when a growing proportion of better-off people virtually  make a statement of their wealth by not even considering state education for their own children, it seems that the issue of a two-tier education, Disraeli’s Two Nations, has returned to haunt England.  A solution favoured by some is to make all state schools in some way ‘independent’, and so encourage the belief in a totally free market.  But education is not an impersonal commodity, as it is as much concerned with attitudes that are caught from social interaction within the community, as it is from what is actually learnt from a teacher.  Education is not just about individuals, but how those individuals pull together.  The more people who see themselves as strong enough to grab one of the few lifejackets and swim to shore, the fewer of the oarsmen left to bring the others to safety.

In a country which, since the early 1980s has primed itself on cutting taxes (which initially hit school budgets very hard indeed as the revenue collapsed) this has released monies for an increasing proportion of families that educate their children separately to the rest of society – while only 7% of pupils attend independent schools, to the stage at which half of those gaining entry to Oxford and Cambridge are now from fee-paying schools.

FINALLY, there are the problems created by the tension that has existed for more than twenty years between the respective roles of local and national government.  This will continue to be a major issue at the Election.  However, this is such a major issue as it relates to the future of our democratic society that I will explore it more fully in the next blog post.