Friday, August 03, 2007

Another Ill-Educated Proposal

School's Out
Government plans a recipe for resentment
I've come across an interesting new blog, Educational Conscription, featuring some damn good contributors like those behind Devil's Kitchen and the Thunder Dragon, and whose focus in on criticism of government plans to force all to remain in some form of education until the age of 18. I don't really have a great deal to add to the general thrust of the various analyses found on this blog, agreeing as I do with the most of the arguments, in particular, the fundamental argument that trying to force a thankfully small group down this route can only breed resentment and produce results that are limited at best.

It's not actually a subject I had given a great deal of thought to, but in reading Educational Conscription I was struck with the parallels with an education topic on which I do have a strong view, that of the foolishness of some of the government's tinkering with the education offered to those who do stay on until eighteen. It doesn't seem to matter whether governments plan and scheme for those who want to leave school at the earliest opportunity, or for those who want to stay on until eighteen; in each case they seem to wholly ignore the instincts and aspirations of people at that age.

The latest government proposals do seem to be part of a pattern of decisions by governments of all persuasions over the course of my adult life, that seem to show that nearly all politicians have either forgotten what it is like to be young, or that they had very atypical childhoods which they wrongly believe gives them the answers to the problems of all.

Anyone who has been a normal sixteen year old, and remembers what it was like would be able to see why such measures are in all probability likely to be counterproductive. It's an age where you, rightly, want to be given the chance to make at least some of your own decisions; to narrow down the options is not something that many will react well to.

I never seriously contemplated leaving school at sixteen but I do remember so clearly the change in attitude that took place between fifth and sixth forms at my school, back in the 'bad old days' of 'narrow' old style A-levels (you know the kind, took two years to do, rigorous syllabus, big exam at the end). The relief at being able to dump long hated bugbear subjects was palpable, and those subjects that remained on individuals agendas were tackled with something that at times even approached enthusiasm.

Beyond the academic aspect of things, subtle changes to the uniform rules made it something that, even if you didn't exactly like it, you could live with and wasn't far of the dress rules in the more formal offices I work in today. We got a coffee shop style common room, and best of all a pool table, thought the dart board eventually was (probably rightly) deemed a safety hazard and removed. These privileges were much more effective than the collections of enamel 'Prefect', 'House Captain' type badges, in the battle to make the sixth form something to aspire too. They even gave the fifth form a much more Spartan common room of their own, next to ours, from where they could observe the privileges of their elders and betters to give those on the borderline a pause for thought on the decisions they faced.

You were treated in a subtly more adult way, even on the academic side. For a start, unlike the decisions over 'O' levels, as they still were for me, it was a question asked of the pupil, and answered by the pupil, not one made in a consultation between teachers and parents who may or may not have involved their offspring. There were rules, but they were reasonable.

Most notably, anyone with particularly poor performance in mathematics or English language would have to have another attempt in addition to, or in place of one of their higher level courses. This has always seemed reasonable to me. If your performance in these areas falls below a certain point you can become a burden on society, and society has a right with the young, the costs of whose education society as a whole bears, to ask for them to reach some basic functional standards to equip them for life. Having a broader post-sixteen education certainly is a worthy aim in an abstract sense, but frankly people do not become unemployable just because they cannot speak a bit of basic school boy French, nor is it the lack of a humanity in their education that means they cannot read the letter from their credit card provider explaining how poor their understanding of compound interest was.

Overall though, the ethos was all about giving the pupil as much control over their own education as possible, and in the greater part people responded to this. Attempts to force everyone to stay in education until 18 and the tinkering with post-16 education, almost always on the grounds of 'broadening' it are two sides of the same coin; the result in each case is the same, a narrowing of the options available to people in that crucial age range.

I can imagine not only the resentment of those whose sole wish is to leave education and go into a job at that age, and how this will manifest itself either in school or their more vocational education centres, but also of those who would have stayed on into sixth form anyway, but find the same choices I was offered, denied to them.

I have an old school friend, who is a truly brilliant mathematician, who last I heard was back in academia as a lecturer. Like me he found sciences and maths easy going, but for him English and Modern Languages were little short of torture, which he endured just enough to get reasonable passes. The relief when he could finally put these behind him was obvious as he burnt his English set books in his father's garden. He went on to get a good first at university in Maths, and is hardly illiterate. If he'd faced the prospect of something like the baccalaureate type system that much of the educational establishment drools over, the torture would have continued, and he would almost certainly have left school at sixteen.

By all means have some terms and conditions on leaving school at sixteen, perhaps even require a job to be found first, but for God's sake think twice before you try to restrict and constrain peoples choices too far, just at the point when they are rightly expecting to be given a little more trust. Over the last two decades successive governments have inflicted incredible harm on 11-16 education with the same kind of well-meaning but counter-productive initiatives; don't wreak the same havoc on a different bit that still just about works. Sure, we have problems with school leaver illiteracy and innumeracy; that's the fault of what's been done to the kids in earlier years. Go back and fix that, at the moment it all seems a bit like the perpetual shortening of the wobbly coffee table legs, as initiative after initiative is launched to fix the ills of their predecessors.

To the same politicians, before you do any of this, try and put yourself in the minds of those children, the normal ones; it will be hard, because you probably never were one, but, if you can, you might just start to understand why everything you touch turns to shit.

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