Schooled for failure

Posted on: 07 January 2011 by Alexander Hay

Instead of constantly reinventing schools, perhaps we should begin by asking what schools actually do.

The bad old days - but do modern schools harm children in different ways?

Former education secretary Estelle Morris' claim, that students would be more likely to stay on at school if they did their GCSEs at 14 instead of 16, said many things. 

To begin with, that the ever-shifting debate on education continues to blunder around, looking for the grand unifying theory of everything that will allow schools to teach students how to be 'better people'. Next, that GCSEs must be getting really easy. Finally, large numbers of 16 year olds really hate school.

Yet it doesn't answer the question as to what schools are actually for. The most simple answer is 'education' but that alone isn't enough. What, after all, does one define as 'education'? 

Let's instead divide the debate into two broad camps. On the one hand are the cynics. They see schools as fronts for social engineering of one form or another (whether it's to create budding young socialists or meek, compliant shelf-stockers), a good way to keep the unemployment rates down and as shorthand for a sort of institutional and social rot. In Short: Our children will not be as educated as we are.

The optimists see things differently. They will defend whatever school system they have most investment in, they will sing the praises of how school 'socialises' people and how they also allow the dissemination of proper values (whether they be faith-based, 'traditional' or 'multi-cultural'). In Short: Our children will be better people than us.

The cynical perspective does, to a degree, win the day. Not because of its misanthropic and snobbish tone, but simply because it is more likely to see education and learning as ends in and of themselves rather than wedges to jam some other goal into children's heads.

There are other reasons. Let's start with the most obvious one - the teaching profession. Never has there been such a curious conglomeration of people. Apart from still seriously believing that school uniforms are a good idea (if so, why don't they wear them?), they are ideologically hamstrung; convinced that too much grammar stifles 'creativity' and that a comprehensive school system, which has short-changed many young people, is still worth defending.

Nor does modern education work that well. It's common to decry, for example, the ever-rising success rate of the yearly GCSE and A-Level results as a sign of 'dumbing down'. Apart from the fact that using clichés like 'dumbing down' is in itself 'dumbing down' (so to speak), this misses the point. 

The main difference between A-Level students today and when I sat examinations is that teachers have far more experience now in coaching their students through the exams. Which is to say, young people now are no longer 'educated' but 'taught to the test'. 

Also, and regardless of what school you go to, parental circumstances are more important in deciding how well you do in formal education than that education itself. If the Secondary Moderns were condemned for consigning young people to the scrapheap, comprehensives – or rather, those in poor or bad areas – do much the same today. If these schools are only keeping people off the streets and away from the dole queue then it is time to admit that this is what they are for. Education certainly doesn't seem to be any more.

Instead, perhaps we need to acknowledge that there are three facts overlooked in education. The first of these is that you can't make people learn. You can make them wear odd clothes, force them to go to classes and take part in assemblies, but you can't forcibly educate them

This is the fatal flaw at the heart of the notion of schooling, the naïve assumption that young people can be socially transformed when, by the time the schools get them, much of their future lives are already apparent. The harm has already been done.

Secondly, a one-size fits all education doesn't work. Schools already admit this, covertly, by streaming pupils into classes that best match their ability in a certain area. Yet every child is different and has his or her strengths and weaknesses, which an overly proscriptive and centralised system cannot ever hope to fully address. 

Finally, we must accept that a self-motivated learner can benefit from a good teacher but most of all from their own hard work and initiative. Schools do not teach this – in fact, with its top-down, systematised approach to all things, the modern school can't teach this. As Frank Zappa said - “if you want an education, go to a library.”

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Alexander Hay

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