‘Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.’
I am in Paris. I love Paris. It reeks of the arrogance and certainty still of the ‘City of Light’ title, and the popular French imagination that the events of 1789 were the crown that sat atop the Enlightenment and set the stage for the scientific revolutions of the 19th century, and the dominance of the world by this cold and dark continent: a dominance at first political, but most meaningfully and enduringly in terms of scientific ideas about the workings of nature. Of course, one or two Americans would have something to say about that, but I rather enjoy this impression of Paris precisely because its arrogance is (slightly) misplaced.
Scientific dominance has always gone, and always will go, hand in hand with education. You cannot have one without the other. This I think is true at all levels, from the first 7 year-olds rolling balls down ramps in primary schools, to the latest research findings rolling out of the world’s leading universities. There is no shortcut. This though, is not something that is always agreed upon: we are living in a time of comprehensive educational change at all scales ranging from Michael Gove’s ‘free schools’ to the Beijing Genomics Institute’s stance that PhDs no longer hold value: better to have armies of graduates staring at computer screens (and to be fair, writing useful software) trying to decipher the genome of some obscure parasite of the Panda, than have people dreaming up and testing hypotheses and writing theses. That however, is another blog. I want to return to Mr Gove.
Though I hate to say it, I am a broad supporter of his fundamental premise: that educational standards in the UK have dropped, and that school-leaving qualifications are not now the level that they have previously been, or fit for their primary purpose: distinguishing between students. Anyone who argues otherwise I think has the not inconsiderable task of explaining why entry standards for the best universities are ever on the rise, to the extent that we have introduced the grade ‘A*’ – I can think of no more damning indictment. While I have been teaching undergraduates for 5 years or so, and therefore am in no position to comment on a long-term trend, I suspect that it is not correlated with an increase in the academic quality of 1st year undergraduates.
It is incredibly unpopular likewise to admit to being fundamentally of similar instinct to Mr Gove when it comes to the form that education should take. Nevertheless, I am, at least in inclination (I suspect we would both call ourselves traditionalists). I was once told by somebody who I consider to have been amongst the brightest people I have ever come across that no-one has improved upon the best way to teach anything in 2500 years: by young people sitting around discussing ideas in the presence of an intelligent teacher in very small groups. The idea that telling 35 students (or indeed 95 – ‘scientific’ educational approaches ironically seem to have invaded even university science education) what their learning outcomes are is going to make the remotest difference to their future performance as adults in writing things worth reading or doing things worth reading about is ridiculous. So are the vast majority of the ‘scientific, evidence-based’ educational reforms that accompanied the rise of the flawed genius who originally coined the title of this blog*. As such, it is here that I (thankfully) depart from our eponymous Secretary of State.
The way to improve state secondary education is not to diversify the kinds of institution through which the state delivers education. It is precisely the opposite. Having free schools, academies, comprehensives, grammar schools, and private schools available to every parent is not the key to educating the future writers and doers of our country; the key is to teach them with intelligent people in small groups. That is it. The Secretary of State for Education does not need to argue that the education system requires reform to make it into more of a marketplace. He does not need to obtain votes of no confidence from teaching unions (with nakedly obvious relish in enhancing his own standing within his party in anticipation of a future battle for the leadership with a charismatic Mayor) by telling teachers that their pay needs to be ‘performance-related’. He simply needs to do two things: fight the chancellor for more money at budget time, and spend that money on decreasing class sizes. That is (predominantly) it.
As I said, I share many instincts with Mr Gove, not least his admiration for the way that education is structured within private schools. While the state system was busy systematically making state schools compete with one another in league tables and ironically removing the notion of such competition from a generation (my generation) of British youngsters by inflating their grades, removing competitive sport and finally literally selling them a plethora of poor higher education qualifications**, private schools were doing what they had done for generations: educating students in very traditional subjects, in very small groups, and developing their intellect to the point where they would contribute extensively to the future of the country (by serving as cabinet ministers, perhaps?).
Private schools do a lot of things incredibly well. They encourage a range of educational opportunities by hugely promoting theatre, music and sport, and any other extra-curricular activity it is possible to think of. (Indeed, I am not sure extra-curricular has much meaning in the private schools that I have come across). They encourage a culture of work by demanding of students an awful lot of sheer commitment, effort and quality. This is not confined simply to intellectual effort (indeed, in my limited experience – I am state educated – intellectual effort is not prominently required), but rather those qualities of personality that are independent of intellectual ability and present in good people, people who go on to write and do.
What they are not good at is fairness. We should not make our education system more like a market, because you shouldn’t be able to buy an education*** – it is too important for that; we should make it fairer. The single best way to do that is with intelligent teachers teaching small classes.
*One Anthony Blair, who incidentally was much better at speaking to teaching unions than Mr Gove.
** This point is very contentious. I shall not impart my own opinion on it any further in this piece, other than to mention in passing that in the year that I went through the UCAS system, one of my options was to apply to read David Beckham Studies at the University of Staffordshire.
***Actually, I am of the opinion that it is not possible to do that, but this may be a semantic argument and I shall leave it for another day.