The Department Whose Name We Dare Not Speak has been restored to its former purpose. Obscured under New Labour as The Department for Children, Schools and Families, it is again called The Department for Education - the first move by Michael Gove, the new UK Minister for Education. Does this mark the end of education as we have come to know it?
Hopefully so. I recently asked a History teacher at a London comprehensive whether education had on balance improved - or not - under New Labour. He was pensive, then answered thus: overall funding, administration, and professionalism has improved; but education itself has nonetheless declined. Why? Because nobody in the game seems to know, any longer, what it means to be educated.
The question when posed causes many teachers and educators - according to his experience - to undergo an existential crisis. Understandably. Imagine, say, being a doctor - whilst not knowing what it means to be healthy.
Behind this is decades of progressive reform since to the sixties, starting with the seminal Plowden Report. The subsequent tide has taken education inexorably away from imparting knowledge - passing on to children the best of what is known - towards a notion of "care" - ensuring no child experiences academic failure. From being the brief years of in which it might be ensured that a child was intellectually challenged, to the brief years in which it might be ensured that he was happy. From the "oppression" of classical education, towards the "equality" of the modern classroom.
The thinking behind what was was once called "special needs" - a programme for children that couldn't cope with the curriculum - is now the thinking behind the entire academic intake. Education is now "needs led", and every child is special. But when the child is given the authority to define his own "needs" (BTW, what child would express a "need for Mathematics"?) the teacher is implicitly shorn of his status. A basic lesson - that you are not the centre of the world - goes un-learnt. In many classrooms, "support workers" hover defensively, mediating between certain children and the teacher, lest the former are unduly confronted by the challenges of the latter. Nobody must experience the intolerable oppression of failure! In some schools, when marking homework, teachers are encouraged to drop "Good/Bad" in favour of "Good/Even better if..."
Teacher: "OK... and even better if you'd answered 4."
This all sounds virtuous and right to many of us; why not just be nice to children, after all? Fair enough. But what has that to do with education? When there is a move from subject-centred to child-centred education, and when subjects become mere contexts within which the "needs" of children are measured, the subjects themselves can be redefined at the whim of policy makers. They end up barely existing at all.
Apart from the consequences of this profound shift manifesting themselves as the "battleground of the modern classroom", simple observations on the declining quality of education speak for themselves. The generation above mine did Classics - Greek tragedies read in ancient Greek. My generation did "Theatre Studies" - perhaps some Brecht if we happened to have a residual Marxist teaching us. The current generation does "Film" - confessional essays about how they felt after watching... Trainspotting.
ADDED: Confirmation via the King's College Annual Education Lecture that standards are at best unchanged - and have more likely been degraded - by reforms of recent decades. A bullet-point in a slide, for example, blithely admits that the switch from O-Level to GCSE was a immediate slip of a entire grade mark in the difficulty of the exams. (Slide 9, PDF presentation.) More telling was that the lecture itself - a flagship of educational academe titled Are We Getting Better At Educating? - was little more than collection of empirical surveys. No references at all to what it means - or should mean - to educate. No questions permitted afterwards from the floor.
When the Academy itself forgets what it is to teach, what hope remains for truth?
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