Thursday, 16 December 2010

Education, education, education

A spectacular example of The Telegraph trying to have it both ways:
raft of reforms introduced by the last Government – including a new curriculum for pre-school children and a generation of Sure Start centres – have had no impact on five-year-olds’ understanding of the basics.

An analysis of more than 117,000 children over an eight year period showed pupils’ early reading and picture recognition ability had actually declined slightly in the last decade.

The report by Durham University suggested that failure to develop key skills at a young age could hold children back throughout compulsory education and in later life. (1)
Not how they loudly proclaim that the Labour reforms to early childhood education have had, "no impact on five-year-olds' understanding of the basics," and then add they are actually getting worse in some areas. Only further down the article, they're forced to confess that,
An analysis of results showed a “statistically significant decrease” in children’s reading and shape recognition over eight years and a corresponding rise in maths results.

However, in both cases academics insisted differences were small and not “educationally significant”. (2)
See what they're doing there? In the opening paragraphs, they point out areas where a decrease was observed, even though the wonks behind the study say the decline isn't significant; and then they claim there's been no impact at all on the mastery of the basics - even though the study points out there has been a positive impact on mathematical ability, of an equally significant (or insignificant) magnitude.

There is something wrong with education, however, and I don't think it is something that wil be solved by throwing money into classrooms - though that will help. More teachers, smaller classes, better facilities will go someway, but won't resolve all the problems that confront parents, students, teachers, employers and everyone else who makes up interested society. Because the problems don't really lie in the classrooms. Dispatch once and for all myths about 'trendy teaching,' insidious creeping leftwing PC prizes-for-all ideology, and how all that is needed is the return of God and the cane to make everything better.

The problems originate in the whole messed up nature of the world schools exist in. Individualistic, selfish, me-me-me-now-now-nowism is so ingrained that the idea of actually having to work for something leaves a lot of people - not just school kids - completely baffled. Parents have children and are staggered to learn that they actually have to work - Quite Hard - to raise them into proper little people instead of feral beasts. Children are shocked to learn that they have to actually work to attain success at school. Employees are vaguely under the impression their employer is an entity that exists only to let them piss about online all day, and get paid for it. The whole world is awash with pitiful. selfish, short sighted and shorter minded, callow neo-barbarians who think the time it takes a modem to warm up in an insufferable imposition on them.

We live in a pretty fecked up society, where people are rootless and community is a quaint and archaic notion. We celebrate this anonymity, this alienation from a sense of belonging. It's an essential part of the doctrine of individualism, a consequence of our modern convenience culture. You can't, after all, really be a properly selfish little monad if you feel you belong somewhere and you're part of something as suspiciously collective as a community. heaven forbid that you might feel a sense of duty towards something other than yourself and your immediate family. People can move about pretty much as they please and live where they like. Unfortunately, we're still pretty tribal in our outlook and don't find this very comfortable, and it leads to isolated, anonymous cities, sundered families - who wants to look after aging relatives, anyway? move away to London, and claim you can't possibly afford a bigger house for them ... Which in itself is another symptom of our misbegotten up social priorities. In terms of education, it leads to a rootlessness, an unwillingness to invest emotional capital and effort in the process of learning. If it is all about me, why should I listen to you, or learn stuff that will make it easier for me to fit in with you? You should learn how to fit in with me ...

Wailing about a lack of discipline in school is describing a symptom, not a cause. The problem is the change in the kids coming into the class, not the abscence of flogging - if they were the same sort of kids that you remember from whatever 'Golden Age' delusion you entertain, then it wouldn't matter. Good kids would behave well regardless of the discipline or lack thereof. The problem is, there are more and more problem kids disrupting classes and - in spite of the howls from predictable quarters - there isn't much that 'more dicipline' can do for them. They don't know how to cope with conflict, or respond to authority. They tend to get worse when challenged, not back down. And they wouldn't be frightened of caning or strapping, because that requires a degree of control over their own behaviour which they're not actually capable of, and, even more depressingly, a lot of them would be used to far worse at home.

I do not buy into the idea there has been a deliberate trend towards mediocrity so that all can achieve at the expense of the very best. There has a broadening of what is studied. Kids in the 1950s didn't learn about computing, boys weren't taught to cook, girls (and bright boys) didn't do wood work, no-one learned Japanese and so on. If we're going to increase depth, we have to accept a narrowing of subjects - and that can't be done because parents and politicians immediately wail that "Standards are slipping" if there is any move away from offering Latin and Glorification Of The British Empire Studies. Anyway, I think it's a bit of a myth that there was 'excellence' back then. There was less to learn, and people were herded into specific areas. The best of today are probably the equal of the best then, and the numbers achieving Besthood are probably about the same. Though they may be best at Japanese instead of Ancient Greek.

The archetypal teenager - sucking on a fag on her way to school, yawping into her mobile and pausing only to make an obscene gesture at a passerby or pull her sagging jeans up over her arse - isn't a symptom of the failure of modern education, but of changes in modern society. Mobile phones, cigarettes for all, obese, surly, lazy, unruly, low attaining students, they all have their roots in the wider community, not in the classrooms. If schools aren't performing adequately, it's because society itself is a miserable mess, not because the tawse was banned or because no-one studies Latin any more.

I'd say it is more to do with consumerism and the modern trend for instant gratification (school isn't sexy or fun), the amount of cash people think they have (since the whole country is living on debt and other people's money, we only think we have it, we don't really) which allows them to access far more fun and enjoyable products, and inculcates an attitude that everything should be continuously pleasurable for no significant effort, and a general trend towards selfishness and individualism - hardly a new thing, but now promoted as a virtue.

This doesn't apply to the children alone, but the parents as well, who are often failing to take responsibility, because they have had the same virtues instilled in them, and are now dismayed to find out that having children isn't actually all fun and gratifying, and even if they do want to make the effort, they struggle because modern life is so demanding and expensive that they can't physically stretch time out to include both parents working, maintaining a home, and adequately parenting.

As long as we continue to put the emphasis on careerism, individualism, consumerism and quick gratification of selfish desires, the problems in the schools and in society in general ain't going to go away.
1 - "Labour's pre-school reforms 'failing to raise standards'," by Graeme Paton. Published in The Telegraph, 14th of December, 2010. (
2 - ibid.

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