Sunday, December 09, 2007

Unlearned Lessons

Test Tubes
More Failed Experients
One of the drawbacks of the daily developments in the HMCE data fiasco stories and the even more rapidly snowballing Labour funding scandal is the number of equally serious stories that haven't had quite the full prominence they should have as especially the TV media focuses on the more immediately politically gory.

The recent sorry tale of how far the country has fallen down international league tables for educational attainment in key areas highlights a scandal in comparison to which lost HMCE disks and dodgy donations pale into insignificance.

It is true that some of the statistics need to carry some limited health warning, but the scale of the slide is to vast to ignore, and it's also damn certain that the government will avoid any fully objective exercise in measuring our relative educational performance against our near neighbours like the plague. There are various fairly straightforward exercises that could be performed to properly and scientificually squash the idea that GSCEs are getting easiser and that A levels may be heading the same way, but it's a cast iron certainty that the government will fight to the last ditch to avoid any such investigation.

Their bleating response has been everything that we have come to expect from this increasingly discredited rudderless government. First prattle on about the inputs , that they've spent X billion and so forth, ignore how such spending may or may not have filtered through the system and move straight on to outputs, based on bare statistics on exam results fewer and fewer have any real faith in. At outouts, the story ends, the outcomes are ignored.

That we have high levels of illiteracy and innumeracy and that employers and universities complain that young people coming to them lack the skills of their predecessors, are dismissed as some form of false conciousness or due to other factors beyond the control of any government.

Look at issues like crime, and it's the same script. Say that the government has spent an extra X billion, talk about selective crime statistics, dismiss people's very real feelings, based on their real experiences, that the streets are less civil and probably less safe places than in the past.

The international comparison tables at least did get some degree of airtime over a couple of days, but it's only one of a number of equally significant stories in the same vein in recent months, that should taken together should shake the confidence of those with the most unquestioning of naive beliefs that massive public spending is the sole or most important route to progress.

One that shocked, but did not surprise this time last week was from The Guardian, linking poor levels of participation in science in the state sector to the decline in support for individual science subjects rather than a single integrated science course. This common sense, pure and simple. It shows an understanding of the mindset of children at that age that this government is only just acquiring after they have done the damage.

I did physics and chemistry at 'O' level, but had no interest in biology as it is taught in school whatsoever, despite later going on to study biochemistry and genetics at university. Only the lowest of the four de facto streams studied combined science. Had I been forced to take combined science I would not only have performed poorly at the biology elements in which I was not interested, but would have been likely to be sufficiently demotivated to perform as well at the other two. It's been hard to find exact numbers taking different options in the current state sector, but the tone of nearly everything I've found on the Internet points to a sorry state of affairs. The 'theme based approach' seems to dominate too, in other words an excuse to make guiding students in their writing essay on climate change take the place of serious scientific education.

Giving kids as much choice as possible has to be a key to motivation, and motivation is a key to real performance. Society has a right to expect people to leave school literate and numerate otherwise they may become a burden on that society, for everything else people will, given a chance, tend to make the decisions that are right for them and find their own niche.

I was given pretty much a free hand on my 'O' level options, and I only really made one mistake, and on that I think I was conned. I took geography instead of history, and was horrified to find that the interesting physical geography with field trips to see ox-bow lakes and the like was to be replaced by worthy human geography focusing on the dilemmas facing Indian subsistence farmers in their choice of how to use cow dung, and some bloke called Mr Yagi who was having a tough time selling Tatami mats in modern Tokyo. Other than that though I came out pretty well from my experience of state education to that level.

I'm sure the money spent has had some positive effects in the last few years, but it's hard not to wonder how much of this benefit has been expended in order to compensate for poorly conceived educational theories that ignore the most important stakeholders in that education, the children themselves.

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