Controversy over politics, not policy
BY BILL KIRKMAN
In debates about how the education system in the U.K. should develop, the teachers, the real experts, are often ignored.
THERE will be no more concessions to opponents of Prime Minister Tony Blair's plans for education, we have learned this week. There has been deep concern within the Labour Party about some aspects of the Education Bill which Tony Blair is determined to introduce. What happens about the Bill, therefore, has become a major political issue; rebellion on education is seen as weakening Blair's grip on his party. The matter is complicated by the fact that the Conservative Party under its new leader, David Cameron, is indicating its willingness to support the Bill. Winning the battle with the support of the "enemy" would not endear the Prime Minister to those in his party who are increasingly restive about his leadership.
The controversy over plans to reform education, in short, has become a controversy over politics rather than policy. In these circumstances, inevitably, the truly educational issues tend to get submerged. We hear a great deal about failing schools, about the dumbing down of examinations, of people leaving school without the basic skills needed in the world of work notably skills of literacy and numeracy. We hear a great deal, too, about what needs to be done, much of it from people whose knowledge of schools and what goes on inside them is, to put it kindly, limited. Everyone is an "expert" on schools because they once attended one.
One major problem has been the disruption of the education system, and the demoralisation of teachers, caused by a combination of constant criticism and constant change, much of it introduced without proper consultation of the real experts the teachers.
An interesting comment on this came this week in an article in The Guardian by Richard Wilson, head of business policy at the Institute of Directors. Accepting the need to address poor standards of achievement by pupils, he added: "However, higher standards of teaching and improved learning are harder to achieve in a context of permanent revolution". It is an observation which politicians in search of a popular cause would do well to ponder.
They would also do well to think carefully about some of the mantras of the political "reformers", in particular the mantra of parental choice. One problem about choice is that if a school is popular (for any reason, from academic achievement to social exclusivity, which in our still class-ridden society can be an important factor) more parents will choose to send their children to it than it can accommodate. Those who then have to send their children to other schools will see themselves as denied choice and incidentally the morale of those teaching in the other schools will suffer. What most parents actually want is good schools, within easy reach. Achieving that is, I believe, more a matter of resources, and encouragement, than the divisiveness of proclaiming the right to choose.
The politicians, and the commentators, should recognise also that much has been, and is being, done (largely on the initiative of governments, it must be said) in recent years to strengthen and modernise the conduct of public examinations such as "A" levels. Indeed, the UK's examination bodies enjoy an international as well as a national reputation.
In all considerations of how the education system should develop, there is one basic issue which deserves more careful thought than it gets: What is education for?
Many commentators, and certainly many employers, tend to define it narrowly. The purpose of education is seen as being to fit people to take their place in the work force. What they need is basic skills. More emphasis should be placed on vocational qualifications.
Basic skills are obviously important. Without numeracy and literacy, for example, people are at a grave disadvantage. Vocational qualifications are also important. No one will have confidence, for example, in a surgeon, or a plumber, or an accountant, who does not possess them. The trouble comes when people see basic skills, or for that matter vocational qualifications, as the only things that are important. Clearly they should be developed by education or their acquisition made possible through education but that is not the same thing at all.
We live in a world of rapid change. That is a truism which no one would deny. Because of this, most people need, throughout their lives, to acquire new skills, turn their minds to dealing with new problems. The ability to learn, to develop vocational capacity, is an enabling ability. It would be good to find politicians putting their weight behind getting that message across.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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