Saturday, 12 July 2014

Lessons learned?

My timeline filled up last night with a debate on education to which I wasn’t really party, although I read most of the comments this morning and it was clear that the more literate contributor was all in favour of grammar schools, while the one with spelling issues bewailed his treatment as a second class citizen in what used to be called a secondary modern. I went to both, in that my ‘big school’ in a small northern market town was called Thirsk Grammar and Secondary Modern School, despite it being located in the village of Sowerby.

Anyhow, regardless of this quirk of geography, here we toiled at our desks with not a computer in sight, nor any form of what is now called edu-tech. The desks had inkwells and the teachers’ cupboards still contained stores of school ink, although we had by then progressed to cartridge pens. Biros, being the work of some form of handwriting destroying demon, were banned in order to save our souls. The teachers wrote with chalk on actual blackboards and had leather elbow patches on well-worn tweed jackets and not one of them attempted to be down with the kids.

Since then, of course, there have been many modifications to the education system, resulting in more and more spending, a progressively higher turnover of teachers and a steady decline in educational standards to the point where – if headlines are to be believed – British children without an academic bent are unemployable in the modern multicultural world, even as cleaners and hospital porters.

And yet, for all its modernity and high tech, flashing gadgetry, it is arguable that you can navigate life today far easier and with far less learning than it took a few decades ago. With all the world’s knowledge available via a smart phone, and goods and services searchable in seconds, all you need to make your way in the world is what the school leavers of half a century ago had in abundance; literacy, numeracy and good manners. Nobody needs degrees in David Beckham. Seriously, nobody.

As coincidence would have it, my old Royal Navy shipmate, Konrad, called last night and we ended up discussing apprentice training. He is writing courses for an engineering college and I am about to prep for a new class of electricians under training and we were both concerned that with each passing decade we seem to have to start further back. Once, an apprentice would start at fifteen and despite not being academically gifted could cope well enough with electrical science principles to pass the ‘mathsy’ part of the course with the aid of logarithm and trigonometry tables. Now, the calculator users turn up unable to explain a square root and somewhat resentful that we have to re-teach them elementary maths before we can get to the good stuff.

The teachers, well some of them, were striking last Thursday, out in support of other public sector workers against ‘the cuts’.  They should have a good look at what we used to achieve with so much less and go on strike to demand even more cuts. Less really can be more. Cut out all the unnecessary crap – the costly electronic whiteboards, the iPads, the gimmicks and much of the pedagogic propaganda. Particularly cut out the notion that all must have prizes. As more and more qualifications are handed out like cheap sweets it’s no wonder we now have graduates who are grateful to find work in coffee shops.

Bricks in the wall
Time to make more bricks...

None of this, by the way, is the fault of the kids themselves, but a two or three generational slide into apathy and mediocrity across society must surely shoulder the burden of the blame. You simply have to select and stream and yes, you have to condemn also. Those who will not or cannot meet higher academic standards must not be allowed to drag down those who can. And if you can’t achieve that in a single school then yes, segregated schooling may be necessary. Even then, it will take another two or three generations until we restore the standards we had in the nineteen fifties, but it will be worth the wait; all in all we need plenty more bricks in the wall.

1 comment:

  1. Your Thirsk Grammar School sounds just like the one I attended, and despite the lack of computers (they'd never been heard of), something like 90% of pupils who completed the 'A' level years went on to University when a degree meant something.

    Selection was by the "11 plus" exam, passing meant a place at the Grammar, failing meant consigned to the secondary modern, but there was a third option for the "almost passed" boys, the technical collage, from where some managed to obtain enough 'O' levels to attend the grammar at 'A' level standard.