Apparently, what constitutes a good education changes depending on the Government of the day. Administrations seem only too willing to assign value judgements to education in ways that they are often reluctant to do with (say) health. They spend millions of pounds are spent on measuring 5-year-old children so parents can be informed that being overweight at 5 can lead to life-long health problems, but at the same time they accept the social costs of known killers like cheap alcohol and tobacco.
The last 20 years have seen an increasingly prescriptive national curriculum, which seems to please noone. Schools are measured on a tight set of specific tests and league tables have become an end in themselves rather than a means to evaluate schools’ effectiveness. But the effectiveness we’re measuring has become more and more rigid. Schools are hamstrung by timetables that are crammed to bursting, while people of my generation complain that exams ain’t what they used to be.
And now Michael Gove is seeking to sweep through this clutter, to focus on what he calls an ‘English Baccalaureate‘. He wants to return to traditional academic subjects at the heart of an education. Schools will be judged on how many pupils do well in a narrow range of subjects.
I have two really serious problems with this.
- He is effectively saying that there is such a thing as a good or bad education, and it’s all about which subjects you do. People who excel in academic study will ‘do well’. But what about those who don’t? Are they less valuable to society, because they can’t remember which King Henry came before which King Edward? Will so-called ‘soft’ subjects like geography, music, photography, drama or art be relegated within timetables because they don’t contribute to a school’s ranking in the all-important league tables?
- He has claimed the language of the Baccalaureate to try and imply a better, more balanced approach. But there are different forms of Baccalaureate in France (whence it originated), which each have their own emphasis within a very broad range of subjects. Sciences, humanities, languages are part of every variant. Michael Gove’s ‘English Baccalureate’ is more prescriptive and controlled, a very pale imitation of a balanced education.
On the day this was announced a few weeks ago I heard part of Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC Radio 5Live show. I had to stop the car to listen, and cheer. It reminded me of the time in 1982 when Diana Gould tackled Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of The General Belgrano on live TV. Noone had spoken to The Iron Lady like that, certainly not an ordinary person (Diana Gould was the wife of my Primary School Headteacher!). In this more recent example, the eloquent and passionate reason of the caller left Gove floundering.
Sir Ken Robinson says all of this and more. His two TED Talks are wonderful. In his view (and mine) we are in grave danger of squandering our children’s ability. By focusing education on a narrow range of subjects, we create a society where many talents are abandoned by schools and by the children who possess them because apparently they’re not important.
The clips are quite long (16-18 minutes each) but I urge you to watch them…
Why should everyone need to go to university? Why are Gove’s chosen subjects the ones that best equip children to get a job? Does a knowledge of history help me to become a web designer? Why is going to university seen as the primary objective of our schools’ system? We seem to be plunging into a very singular view of what’s important.
When my eldest daughter (now nearly 9) was 6 she had swimming lessons where it seemed like the entire purpose of the lessons was to get the children swimming in straight lines across the pool. The teachers were aloof, barking orders from the side of the pool. She didn’t want to do straight lines, and didn’t enjoy the lessons. We changed to a different centre, where the teachers are in the water with the children, they support and encourage them, every lesson includes an element of play. The children learn what they are capable of, they learn to be confident in the water, and the techniques of swimming soon follow.
WB Yeats – He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.
Our children spread their dreams under our feet every time they draw a picture, write a nonsense rhyme, tell a story, or imagine a make-believe world for their toys to inhabit. We must tread softly.