21 June 2012
I was impressed by the Education Secretary’s performance on the floor of the House this morning. The questions came thick and fast and Michael Gove dealt with all of them succinctly, directly, sometimes bluntly and at all times courteously.
When delivered with courtesy the blunt, bold and direct approach is devastating. I was not so impressed with the Shadow Secretary’s constant use of the hackneyed phrase ‘back to the future’ both in the Commons and then later in front of cameras. We want substance not rhetoric.
Education needs overhauling. We are doing our young people a grave disservice which they will not be aware of until they too approach their 30s and 40s and then realise how they have been let down, and by which time, for the majority, it is too late to put right the damage.
I did not like my CSEs, O Levels and A Levels. But they were set by a single examining board across the country, and we were aware of fairness and high standards – very high standards.
Today, we have competing businesses out to make money but in the guise of examining boards offering cheaper competitive ways to attract a school onto its books. Contracts are entered into between school and board, curriculums set, and off we go, the teachers teach. Teach what?
In Liverpool, history appears to start around 1933. From what I see and read, this is the same for many other cities. Young people have a rough idea of what went on in World War Two though they are often lacking in the causes, and all seem to regard Auschwitz and Belsen as the pivotal points of WW2. They have no idea about the Liverpool Blitz of May 1941; have no knowledge of the Western Approaches Museum off Chapel Street - the underground wartime HQs from where the Royal Navy directed the Battle of the Atlantic. They know St Luke’s at the top of Bold Street as the bombed out church but often presume it was just a church that got burned down centuries ago and just left, because the council had, and still does not have, any money to restore it and the church is too tight to spend money on it.
Nelson’s Column off St George’s Hall is met with “Who’s he?” The famous war memorial at Exchange Flags commemorating the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 is met with “What’s that?” and a yawn.
So 1066 and 1215 do not get a look in. “Hastings? Somewhere down sowf mate!” Magna Carta draws a blank stare and total disengagement.
The reforms being proposed are far reaching. Critics major in on detail, instead of the cause and purpose of the clause, gaining the impression that children will only learn by rote. I understand that concern certainly. I benefitted hugely from an imaginative history teacher who brought the subject alive and seemed to take us right into the period we were studying. To this day, in my second year, I remember the Bayeux Tapestry copy commemorating the Battle of Hastings 1066, in 1966, stretching twice around the history classroom.
But my elder sister has never liked history because her history teacher was a total bore who believed that all he had to do was to drone on and throw names and dates. Much therefore relies upon the ability to teach, and to teach well.
It is good that the history of the two world wars is taught. But I think it is also something of a cop out, because the amount of material now available to teachers is phenomenal. And if all else fails, one can always fall back upon Lord Olivier’s superb narration of the monumental series ‘The World at War’.
But we have a duty to stretch the minds of the imagination and to take children down the centuries and to find out what happened two, three and four thousand years ago with equal verve.
And as for learning by rote? To this day I use my twelve times tables throughout the day. It is amusing but also slightly sad to see shoppers in Tesco having to use the calculator on their mobiles.
And this is just the same for every subject within the curriculum.
One of the legitimate concerns is that the overhaul will favour the 40 percent at the expense of the 60 percent school population. That we will end up with a two-tier system of education again.
Handled correctly, that will not happen. But what we must do at once is to return to a single examining board and boot into touch these other so called boards who are just out to make money and whose long term interest in children is as important to them as, currently, Magna Carta is to the vast majority of those born this side of 1990.
And of even greater concern is the shock that young people experience when they discover that prospective employers do not see their A star grades in quite the light that they were led by their schools to presume they were.