Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Top marks.

THE problem with school is that all the most useful lessons happen outside the classroom.

Things like how to dodge a scrap, and when to turn and fight. How to combine your dinner and bus money to buy a portion of chips while you walk all the way home. You learn how to lose friends and make new ones, and practice a look of total innocence.

You still need maths, and a smattering of science, and how to use an apostrophe correctly if people you meet are not to dismiss you as an idiot, but unless you make one of those subjects the centre of your career you can thankfully forget all about algebra and iambic pentameter.

Me, I picked apostrophes. I understood apostrophes.

That kind of realpolitik is not welcome news to people who think they know best, which is why the education system is constantly being tinkered with. When I was at school it was Baker days, ending dissection because it upset people, and trying to shove everyone at university because that way we'd all be millionaires.

After I left it was constant complaints about dumbing down the system, new-fangled subjects and starring A-grades to make them sound better. Now the government has decided to tear up the National Curriculum and retry exams which were scrapped for being unfair 30 years ago.

I sat GCSEs in the 1990s, and they were pretty hard as were my A-levels. We got graded not just on the exams but on modules and projects during the course of two years, which made it a slightly fairer judgement on our work. They weren't easy or dumbed-down, and I worked damn hard to do well.

Problems crept in because exam boards were allowed to bid for the task of setting exams, meaning that over the years those which were cheapest and promised the highest grades got picked by schools which were ordered to compete by means of exam league tables.

The open market in examinations, league tables, and penny pinching was carried out by a succession of government ministers each of whom seems to have felt that in order to succeed pupils should be more like government ministers.

So you must get As, and if other people get them too they are 'devalued' and you must have the ones with a special star. You must go to university, you must earn more than £60,000 a year, and you must be the kind of person who writes rules rather than follows them.

Never mind that the people who make the world go round are the ones who earn less, who pay their taxes, who follow the rules and grumble about it, or that the very few who change the world are usually those who can't see a rule without breaking it, who hated school and couldn't wait to get out.

Our current Education Secretary Michael Gove won a scholarship to an independent school and studied English at Oxford. Well done him, but if we were all like that who'd drive the buses?

His artfully-leaked exam blueprints - sneakily done, old son, I bet you learned that outside a classroom - show he wants to get rid of the competing exam boards and have a single standard by which children will be judged.

At the same time he wants to tell schools what to teach while getting rid of the National Curriculum which is the only real means by which he can enforce the instructions, and to introduce easier CSE exams for "less intelligent" pupils with questions on working out your change in a shop and understanding a rail timetable.

And that's where what he learned at school differs from what I did. First if you are going to tell someone what to do you need to make sure they will do it, and secondly there is no such thing as "less intelligent", not really. There are children who are slower, who find it harder, who don't get apostrophes so well or are wired a bit differently. If they find something they enjoy they'll soak it up like a sponge, and the main flaw in our education system is that if lessons don't turn you on you're left to find something that will.

Sometimes those children just become disruptive, sometimes they stare out of the window and get low marks, and live ordinary lives, and sometimes they become incredibly good criminals. They're all perfectly capable of applying themselves to things if they can see the point, and our courts are full of people who didn't get a lot of exams and would be amazing if they were running a legitimate business.

The single problem which no-one dares tinker with is that if you don't like exams there's nothing else for you. If you become a plumber, a builder, or run your own business it's because someone outside school helped you do it.

That's odd, because vocational classes - not just for the "less intelligent" but everyone - could not possibly hurt. Clever A-grade youngsters would know how to change a fan belt and plaster a wall, while the exam-phobic ones might just find they're inspired by computer code, building machines or inventing new and brilliant things.

Personally, if someone with a dozen A* grades and a degree under their belt wanted my help to get them a job I'd think twice, because life is about more than sitting exams. But if there were another with a skill of some kind it's far more impressive in the real world.

It's a shame that no-one in power thinks common sense or satire is worth an exam, because if they did perhaps we'd have tests that looked something like this:

1. You buy a £331 armchair, a £493 cabinet, a pair of elephant lamps for £134.50, a £750 Loire table, a birch Camargue chair worth £432, a birdcage coffee table for £238.50, a £454 dishwasher, a £639 range cooker, a £702 fridge freezer, a £20 toaster, a £35 children's mattress, and a £30 doormat. How much of it can you claim from the taxpayer?
a) none
b) some
c) all of it, while flipping your second home a couple of times, adding in your mortgage interest, utility bills and council tax and repaying a mere £7,000 because you helped write the rules

2. Your father built a family fortune of £25m with investment funds in tax-friendly Panama, Geneva and Jersey. Is perfectly legal tax management of this kind:
a) normal?
b) morally wrong?
c) something we won't mention?

3. Fill in the blank. People paid by public taxation to save lives go on strike because they are ______

4. Circle the correct answer. The world's worst role model is either:

Correct answers: Anything that makes you sound like you ought to be running the country.

The 'Gove levels' are just that - a way of turning youngsters into a version of a smug politician who not a soul in the world could warm to, while tinkering endlessly with a broken system without ever actually fixing it.

Which is hardly making the grade in anyone's book.

Concentrate, Gove.


Anonymous said...

*parps trumpets - again*

karl meyer said...

Until Jan 2010 I taught a "Young Enterprise" course where year 11 kids could spend 2.5 hours a week learning how to run a small business and at the end of the year they could keep the profits they made. A useful learning experience you might think. We had a mix of kids including high flyers who'd done a couple of GCSEs early and others who were being kept out of reach of the sharp tools in the woodwork room.

But it wasn't a core GCSE subject so it had the funding cut because learning how to run a small business is obviously not necessary - it's so much easier to join Daddy's merchant bank.

Now with no PAYE jobs going this bunch are telling us all to start our own businesses!

John Symons said...

Working out their change in a shop or understanding a rail timetable is beyond most school leavers these days

Darcy O'Bree said...

As an adult I'm intelligent, articulate, critically thoughtful and when I'm interested in something, I immerse myself completely. I was pretty much the same as a child and yet none of my teachers made even the slightest effort to engage with me. As a result I was constantly bored, easily distracted and somewhat disruptive. I'd have made an ideal criminal.

My ineffective teachers eventually recommended that I leave school at 15 because they felt I was not benefitting from the experience. Of course I now realise that the real reason I was offered the door was because this was a private school and kids like me who didn't conform to the standard model were simply not good for business.

Over the years I wondered if I'd missed out on something by leaving school early and not going to university. I now work in higher education and I've realised that everything I might have learned at uni I've learned in other, far more interesting ways. Most importantly, I partied just as hard as I would have done as a student but I didn't need to fund it with a student loan so I'm now completely debt free!

Foxy said...

Darcy, I think I love you.

Anonymous said...

I'm not from the UK, but I have and do come across a lot of recent UK grads working in a high-tech European science / engineering sector over the past 14 years.

My assessment of these people, as products of the UK education system, is quite mixed. Least impressive for me are the ones out of your top-of-table universities, i.e the Oxbridge types.

They no doubt did all the A* required for admission in the top flight uni's, but I would not say they are well educated. Yes, they are good in maths and science, but they are seriously lacking in what you call 'the most useful lessons'.

They seem to me more like identical widgets off the assembly line. Great at doing one to two things, but forget tasking them to do anything that requires common sense.

Perhaps the 'apostrophe' crowd might be a bit more capable...

Darcy O'Bree said...

Be still my beating heart.... :-)

Anonymous said...

Complete agreement. Gove seems to be in love with the grammar school education he received in the 70's and hell-bent on making sure that every child has the opportunity for the same. Whereas I (and I suspect you too) had a great secondary school eduction in the 90's and I happen to think everyone should have that. Surely my opinion is as valid as Gove's, given that neither of us has ever taught in a school?

Tom A said...

From a different point of view: At school I was always the quiet fairly intelligent one who sat there and worked away not causing any bother. I also was never engaged by a teacher, thus by the time I reached higher education I was stuck in a rut of just doing enough to get by and never really found the impetus to push on for greater things. I'm sure with the right teaching I could have been a motivated pupil but school rarely excited or challenged me. I now have a job I love that I have helped create mainly using skills no one taught me at school. The only downside is that should I wish to leave none of these skills look as good on paper as a bunch of fairly worthless educational certificates.

Stacie Lewis said...

Brilliant. Well said

Tanza said...

I think the primary school education has to be addressed, rather than secondary. If the basic 3 'r's aren't there, how can children feel confident in the wide range of subjects they are bombarded with in later education. Not all secondary school teachers bother with grammar and punctuation while marking, say, a science essay. Whatever they call the new 'old' exams, nothing will change if the basics aren't being addressed in the first place. Some might relate to a few pieces here...

Zeds said...

I was in that weird year when they were scrapping the old system - 1987 - when, depending on how your mark went, you received either an O Level or a CSE (or obviously a fail). Madness to go back to that horrific way of pigeon-holing someone.

We weren't judged on course work, either, but I was one of those lucky ones who larked around all year disturbing others who struggled, and wasn't particularly daunted by exams while the strugglers were.

But in any case, I got five Os and five CSEs - distinctly lower than the 12 A*s that many pupils seem to get today.

However, in October I'll have been a journalist for 25 years, having started three months after leaving school at 16.

My education has had bugger all to do with that - apart from apostrophes, of course, Foxy - but the way I grew up and the things I was interested in did. Not least the daily newspaper my mum and dad had on the breakfast table each morning and the freebies that would come once a week to tell us which of the locals had been done for flashing.

I know teachers get a bad rap for moaning about pay and conditions - god knows I join in, too - but they're still the best people to decide how kids should be taught.

AND - fact - when Gove speaks, he always sounds like he's in a mid-gulp. That alone prevents anything he says from being taken seriously.

Ian Cox said...

I wish I was clever enough to do plumbing. But best of all, if I was a politician, educated in the hallowed halls of Oxbridge, I'd wish I'd done accountancy, then I would be free of morality.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is the obsession started by the last lot of dross to get 50% of kids to go to university. Why? If you want to design a spaceship or learn how to operate on the human brain, going to university is probably a good idea.

But for most people vocational qualifications are a better alternative.

Most employers will actually just settle for people who can read, write and add up and are able to string a few words together in some form of coherent manner.

We used to be a country of engineers and creators, now we're obsessed with the media, looking like Cheryl Tweedy or wanting to get rich quick being a pub singer for Simon Cowell.

The media don't help, every time some engineering project is covered in the media, we get moronic questions from journalists such as "why are we spending money on this?". Sure, why for example would we want to spend a few million designing and building a telescope to learn more about the universe? When someone gets a load of public money to spend on a new luvvie play in London or buy some work of art from a demented halfwit who could hardly paint the media never say "isn't it a waste of money?"

Engineering and science is seen as uncool, unless it's to do with 'climate change' when the media think it's the best thing since sliced bread.

I'm not blaming all the media but generally science and engineering are sneered at by TV and radio presenters in particular who seem happy to admit to not understanding the subject.

Thing is, the public enjoy it, the BBC's Stargazing live gets huge TV ratings, the Sky at night which is shoved away on BBC at some god awful hour is still well loved.

Kids need to see that engineering and science is worthwhile, when the last lot of honours came out the media focussed on the usual z listers and ignored the likes of Adrian Newey who has designed some of the best Formula 1 racing cars in modern times. The man is a genius.

Jennie Redman said...

O Levels were deliberately designed in the 1950s for the most academic 20%. The other 80% left school without exams until CSE came in during the 60s. Either Mr Gove wants to deprive 80% of students of the chance to find their own level - as GCSEs let them do- OR he's suggesting that more than 20% can take them - in which case clearly we've made progress since the 1950s, so why go back?

Anonymous said...

I am totally amazed that intelligent people think Primary school teachers do not teach the 3 r's Yes there are some children who leave at 11 who are unable to read and write but on the whole a hell of a lot of intervention has gone in to enhancing their skills, particularly for reading and writing as they are such fundamental skills.
Back when I was in primary school in the 80's there certainly WERE those children unable to read and write yet that were simply ignored or they attended Special schools. (Don't forget we are quite rightly an inclusive society now) The higher and middle ability were focussed on and if the lower attainers were badly behaved they were kicked out!
Respect in society in general has declined. The media totally twists things to sell a good story and school's are blamed for all that is wrong in society. Obesity, lack of respect and discipline, the list is endless. Everyday we are bombarded with problems our schools should be responsible for solving. Don't forget we also need to get them to work together and be caring moral citizens, give them breakfast, ensure they understand history, geography, know how to use ever changing technology, speak a modern foreign language, cook, make things, appreciate art, understand how, why when things happen.
I totally love my job. I love engaging with the children in my class and getting to know then individually and feel so proud of their achievements. Yet I feel this government is going to ruin our Education system and set children up to fail even from as young as 5. All it wants to do is turn each and every school into a private business (academy).

Suzt said... just disproved your point. Exam results don't mean "pigeon-holing". Your distinctly average qualifications didn't hold you back from a challenging, exciting and successful career. If you've got it in you, you will succeed, qualifications or no. Just ask Kelvin Mackenzie (one o-level).

And Foxy your points are spot-on. Except for your comment that nobody is "less intelligent." That would mean we are all equally intelligent which is a liberal delusion. But you can be a drug-adddled dosser and still be intelligent. It's not a necessarily positive thing or a surefire route to success.

Mike Fleming said...

Purely anecdotally, there seem to be more cases of people who succeeded in life despite poor academic qualifications from the days of O Levels than there has been since the introduction of GCSEs. Whether this proves anything, I don't know.

Zeds said...

SuzT, reading it back, I see what you mean. I was actually trying to say precisely what you just did - just badly!

As for pigeon holing, I meant the idea of kids being aware they're taking supposed lesser or more highly regarded exams is surely bad. Sorry for confusion.

Iain McIlwaine said...

I left school back in '95. Not wanting to sit in my parent's pockets any longer I did an apprenticeship. Loved it. I'm as techy as they come and it was a fantastic foundation. I was forever amazed at the guys coming out of uni that didn't know how to put a cable together to build the network! It's ALWAYS handy knowing how to put a cable together when you work with networks. Telecom by the way, not I.T. (just saying...)

Trouble is, I've tried jumping countries a couple of times and the lack of degree is always a sticking point. Hasn't necessarily been the deal breaker but it ends up involving a bit more "creative paperwork" to justify my credentials for the target country.

As much as I'd never trade in my apprenticeship, a degree is internationally recognised as a bit of paper that says "you're qualified"

Anonymous said...

Its apostophe's you idiot!

Anonymous said...

Anyone can be trained on the job to do the job. What employers want, in my experience, is people who can turn up every day, on time.

Darcy O'Bree said...

As more kids get degrees I'm noticing some wildly unrealistic expectations. The graduates believe the hype about leap-frogging the lower ranks and walking into a well paid job while the employers believe they're getting some kind of "plug-and-play" employee who requires no further training. Both end up disappointed.

When I'm flooded with job applications it's tempting to take the easy option and cut anyone who's not got a relevant qualification but it's an arbitrary selection criterion. In any case, I'm not so concerned with how they've acquired their knowledge, I'm far more interested in how have they've applied it. And that's why a well written CV is the best bit of paper you can have!

Fleet said...

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