Thursday, 21 June 2012

By Gove, you're wrong!

When I was 16, Mr Aherne, my school year head, spoke to all 200 boys in my year in a big room. But he mostly spoke to the great majority who were leaving rather than the small number of us going on to the 6th form. "Good luck," he said, "Enjoy your jobs or apprenticeships and don't get anyone pregnant just yet." It still brings a tear to my eye.

Michael Gove is right about one thing. Yes, there is competitive dumbing down. Schools, universities, exam boards and governments are driven to collude by a shared rhetoric that has little to do with education and everything to do with justifying their existence. One - just one - of the awful effects of this is to conflate qualifications with education. For example, in my own organisation, as I noted in a previous post, a promising but by no means academic 19 year-old who has never even wanted to go to university is being pushed through an MA from scratch in two years and will become better qualified and - on paper - more highly esteemed than the head of the organisation, whose only consolation is that she clearly employs such excellent part-time staff. Just think, funders, how good the full-time ones must be!

But rather than return to a hierarchical, two-tier system based on purely academic ability, which is what Gove seems to want, we'd do better to do what the Germans and Dutch have done for years, which is have a dual but parallel system, broadly divided between those whose skills are more academic and those whose skills are more practical, but with every attempt made to ensure a parity of esteem between them. The academic kids are just fine, and the less academic ones know they are getting a real education that will equip them not just with skills but with expertise, and they can use it later in real jobs, because not everyone in Germany and The Netherlands works in a bank or a call centre.

On the whole those countries don't privilege those of academic bent like we do, or write off the less academic like we do, so they don't have to come up with bullshit qualifications with bullshit content to try and pretend that we're all academic when we're not, or that the courses mean something when they don't.

Is it an accident that these are two countries which still make things, whose people don't all spend the day behind computer screens or being icily courteous to enraged phone-callers, which have a higher quality of living and, yes, cultural richness than us, and shared between more people, and - which for me clinches it - whose footballers tend to speak better English than ours do?

I'll bet you this: if British kids thought they would get a good education in practical subjects and that there were a good apprenticeship system waiting for them that led to real jobs that made things, we wouldn't have half the problems in our schools - and beyond - that we do today. And we wouldn't need bogus qualifications to prove it.


  1. Thanks for raising these issues. What practical subjects do you have in mind? That is, which practical subjects are currently lacking or underdeveloped?

  2. It's not that the subjects aren't taught, it's that they are seen as the preserve and sometimes the dumping ground of 'less able' (that is, less academically able) kids. This conditions expectations of what they can achieve as well as making the purpose of courses the boosting of 'self-esteem' rather than challenging them or transmitting useful skills. Many of these kids will have already been turned off education in subjects they'll need like English and Maths. Perhaps approaching non-practical subjects as a necessary extension of practical skills rather than a separate academic endeavour might help. I don't imagine, however, that this will happen unless there is an economic base that justifies the effort spent by providing worthwhile employment that gives pride and a sense of achievement, in which case self-esteem will follow and not have to be engineered.