“Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena,” wrote Vaclav Havel the President of the Czech Republic, a man once derided and imprisoned for his political beliefs, a courageous man, and one of the deepest thinkers of our time.
You have to think very carefully about that statement. It is not so immediately obvious as the classical description based on the Latin word “educare” meaning “to lead out,” but it is not far from Milton’s definition of “a generous and complete education… fitting a man to perform.” But hidden connections, especially in a society where children see their education as measured by achievements in separate, and largely disconnected, subjects, poses a profound question about the nature of our education system. Do we really measure what actually matters?
I wonder how many people saw the connection between three items in The Guardian of December 2nd? The first was an opinion piece written by Sue Gerhardt whose book Why Love Matters; how affection shapes a baby’s brain shows that chasing parents back to work just when their young children need them most will cost the country dear in the long run. Gerhardt explained that the first two or three years of life are the crucial windows of opportunity when various systems that manage emotions are put in place such as self-control, empathy, emotion and motivation. To develop these emotional connections children need to develop strong bonds with those people they regard as safe and familiar and who, above all else, love them.
It is simple-minded of governments, Gerhardt concluded, to force parents into work as being the most effective way to end child poverty. She notes that many chronic welfare dependants have themselves experienced economic deprivation, social exclusion and emotional trauma as children and, as a result, have become the teenage parents, the substance abusers, the aggressive, unreliable, under qualified, psychosomatically ill, emotionally unskilled, unemployable people who are such a financial burden to society. All children need to develop strong bonds in the earliest years of life with people they regard as safe and familiar, and who, above all else, love them. Front-loading the system in fact.
The second article, Primaries failing to teach basic skills, now seems to be the routine annual rehearsal of league tables and SATS results. Something which delights the media. They should not be so cavalier. A majority of children in one-third of London’s primary schools fail to achieve the recommended standards of achievement for literacy and numeracy. This problem has been going on for a long time, so long in fact that it led to the third news item; UK plummets in education table for teenagers. According to the most recent OECD findings British children have fallen from 19th place out of 30 ten years ago for the proportion of youngsters between 15 and 19 in full time education, to 26th place out of a possible 28. All that despite massive increases in funding.
If the proof of the pudding is in the eating then surely the proof of a successful education is how many youngsters want still more of it?
By such a yardstick England stands condemned… and the reason very obviously goes right back to the limited support so many youngsters get in their homes, which deprives them of the emotional energy to make the most of primary education. Having failed by the age of eleven they quickly come to despair in their secondary years so the last thing they want is more schooling. It is incredibly sad for it makes England the dunce in the OECD corner.
See Chapter Three, and Reference 35 of Overschooled but Undereducated, and the whole of the Briefing Paper