Monday, January 18, 2010

Bark: And they say that the education system isn't dumbing down

You may recall that before Christmas I had to write an essay about the place of Science in the National Curriculum. Given that my method of writing the piece took more inspiration from Hunter S. Thompson than Lev Vygotsky, I thought it was a pretty horrible piece of essay writing and thought that I'd have to do a significant re-write when I got it back.

Imagine my surprise then, when I got it back this afternoon and saw it had passed at Masters level. Admittedly, it was a borderline pass and had actually been moderated upwards from HE3 level during the marking process, but despite a few significant flaws (not least the fact it was written entirely in a single 17 hour long sitting) and having passed through the hands of no less than three separate PGCE tutors for marking, it was eventually deemed to be worthy of a Masters level pass.

One of the things we did at the beginning of the course was write down our aspirations for this year - and one of mine was to pass the PGCE at Masters level. Now this actually looks like something that's genuinely achievable. I wouldn't have been too unhappy if it had only had gotten an HE3 pass, but if an essay that I considered to be fairly inadequate for even an HE3 level pass gets a Masters pass... well. Maybe all those years writing game critiques in my spare time weren't wasted after all, and perhaps having high standards of yourself and being a tad overly self-critical is a good thing in this respect. I'll definitely be a bit better organised for my other two essay assignments (one of which is due by the end of the month). Naturally, my first priority is to just pass the course, but a Masters would be nice, especially since the Tories (who now look almost certain to win the next election, later this year) seem determined to make teaching a "brazenly elitist" and "noble" profession...

I think that politicians, particularly my own MP (and Tory Education spokesman, Michael Gove) ought to spend more time in schools, as I happen to think that teaching already is. And I also think that academic excellence and achievement is no real guide as to whether you're going to be a good teacher or not. I know plenty of genuinely brilliant people academically and intellectually who couldn't teach you how to boil an egg. Particularly in terms of Science (my own specialism), academic brilliance doesn't even remotely relate to being able to communicate ideas in a way that is understandable to children - and that is the essence of teaching. I also know people who don't have degrees that would make magnificent teachers, such as one of the curriculum support officers in my last placement school - she had all the necessary subject knowledge and a great rapport with the kids - but since she didn't have a degree, she can't take a PGCE or a GTP to train as a teacher.

It seems to me that the Tories are just talking a good talk - everyone loves politicians to talk tough, especially on education - and teachers are almost like bankers in being a demographic group everyone likes to look down upon (unless, of course, you happen to be a teacher). But I think most politicians are actually completely out of touch with reality when it comes to the real issues facing teachers in the classroom. I'd argue that the whole education system has lost sight of the real aims of education. League tables are undoubtedly the worst thing to happen in education in the last decade or so. It puts a pressure on the system to make everything driven entirely by results and minimum grades. What's the point of having a grading system from A*-G if you only want people to get A*-C? (Incidentally, I've had this same discussion about the rating of videogames, too - if you use a 1-10 rating system, then you damn well better use the whole range, not just 6-9, so as to not offend too many fanboys)

The problem of only using the highest grades when marking exams is that it inevitably prevents the very smartest people from standing out from the crowd. This is something that universities constantly complain about - indeed, some even make undergraduates take more rigorous entrance exams, since so many people get the top grades these days. Thirty years ago there wasn't such a social stigma about whether you'd gotten 9 A's or B's at O Level or not - you were just as smart as you are (or not, as the case may be) - and people could actually be properly differentiated in terms of academic ability. Now it's so easy to get an A that there are really no excuses for not getting an A*-C pass - though admittedly, part of this is due to the greater ease of access to information these days. With the advent of the internet, information and knowledge is instantly accessible and ubitquitous - it's only a lack of effort that really stops achievement - you can't use the excuse of not being able to find the information anymore, because you can download the entire sum of human knowledge in seconds on your mobile phone or computer.

I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think there is an eminently important difference. (Charles Darwin)

This is something I wholeheartedly agree with - I don't consider myself particularly brilliant intellectually, but when I want something, I work damned hard for it. The biggest problem in education these days isn't that teachers aren't good enough - sure there are some bad teachers out there, but on the whole they're the exception, rather than the rule politicians and the media would lead you to believe - the real problem is that information and knowledge is so instantly accessible through modern technology that it's not respected anymore - it's not valued. And I say this as a man who had a 10 year career in IT maintained mostly by my ability to use Google effectively, rather than any intrinsic intellectual brilliance. Well, that's not entirely true - Google doesn't tell you how to analyse and solve problems in a systematic way, and this is one of the things that my education did do a good job of teaching me. But if pupils aren't willing to engage with teaching, because they believe that technology can do all the work for them - and if they can ace all their GCSEs because they've got BBC Bitesize and exam study guides coming out of their ears and their schools just teach to the exams (so that they can maintain their league table rating), is it any wonder that universities and businesses are crying out for people with genuine talent and skills?

In a few years I think we're going to reach a bit of a critical mass in terms of pupils coming out of schools with a straight 9 grade A*-Cs across the board, with the expectation that they're going to be able to get good jobs, who will then find that they're utterly unprepared for the demands of the real world. And in today's global marketplace - where you have countries like India with more graduates than the UK has an entire workforce - whole industries (such as IT) are going to go the way of the manufacturing industries and just disappear from the UK to countries with better trained, better motivated and cheaper workforces.

You might think I'm being melodramatic, but that's the trend I see. After all, last year my own IT team got outsourced to India because they were 70% cheaper and just as well educated (leaving aside the cultural and language barriers that I think will eventually come back to bite Big Business back on its corpulent, corporate arse) than similar people they could employ within the UK.

If you're going to have politicians talk about elitism, then we've got to get rid of the stigma and fear of failure within our education system. All men may (or may not, depending upon your point of view) be created equal - but as the Romans realised, some are more equal than others (primus inter pares, etc). We need to be able to properly differentiate between the absolute elite, the good, the average and the mediocre - by statistical definition, you need to have people above and below average. The current system seeks to create a whole populace that's "above average", which is statistically impossible. What they actually want is an ever increasing standard of what constitutes "average" - that represents a true driving up of standards I can agree with - not just simply having more and more people getting A*-C grades and the actual exams getting less rigorous (Science GCSEs without any Maths in them, for example - I mean, W.T.F.?)

Unfortunately, political expedience requires that standards be seen to be increasing year on year - yet businesses (the people truly at the sharp end, outside of education and politics) keep telling us that the skills gap keeps getting wider and wider. Something has to give sooner or later, but I don't think that the Tories are the people to fix it - at least, not until it's far too late to prevent the inevitable damage to our white-collar industries and economy... As the French say, tant pis...
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