Qually Folly

Michael Gove has set the cat amongst the educational pigeons in England. By scrapping GCSEs and replacing them with a Baccalureat more common in Europe. Known in France colloquially as le bac, it is an academic qualification which French and international students take at the end of the lycée (secondary education). It was introduced by Napoleon I in 1808. It is the main diploma required to pursue university studies.

Apart from political knee-jerk reactions from the usual suspects, more thoughtful commentators have queried how a single exam in each subject can properly evaluate a pupil’s knowledge and how this will not result in a ‘two-tier’ education dividing academic from vocational pupils.

After 13 years of the Scottish Parliament, the spend on school education has doubled with no measurable improvement in exam results, positive destinations or social problems among young people. The McCrone settlement of 2002 greatly improved teacher salaries and status, while councils have devolved management to schools as well as creating nursery places for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Nonetheless, negative comments in recent reports and comparisons with Scandinavian models lead to the conclusion that our above-average spend per pupil may not be effective. And, while all reports note the relevance of social backgrounds to academic performance, none draw any conclusion beyond providing ‘more resources for the vulnerable’.

Is it therefore time to re-think Scotland’s school system?

What is striking about education debates both here and furth of Scotland is how dominated they are by the vested interests of governments and teaching unions. The two major groups for whom the system largely exists—employers and the pupils themselves who will become employees—are at best abstracted or, at worst, ignored.

A recent blog on this site (Costly Lessons) took independent schools to task but one thing they excel at is understanding and achieving success in the education system and, to a lesser extent, what pupils need to learn for success in later life. That second point applies mostly to those who would ‘read the Greats’ or wind up in the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Archers but they are more pragmatic than their ivory tower looks suggest.

Education cannot be viewed separate from social context, nor without reference to human behaviour, as regards reward, ambition and peer/family pressure. The strict rote learning of the mid-20th century gave way to pupil-centred and, more recently, inclusive learning. At the same time, social norms of conformity and obligation have given way to ambition and entitlement. Taken together with a fixation on academic progression, the result has given more disruption in classrooms with less responsibility being embraced by parents, especially (but not exclusively) those with social difficulties.

Education authorities and teaching unions agree that key learning stages like literacy are best achieved prior to P3 and social interaction skills prior even to that. Anathema though they seem to be here, Scandinavian outdoor nurseries boast an enviable record of teaching infants self-confidence, as well as both practical social skills. Why can’t we at least investigate that as a tool of early learning?

And where Gove is treading heavily at the other, the fear of social discrimination is blocking the recognition of vocational skills as just as important a part of learning for life as academic pursuits. This month, Corby Technical School opened. with a specialisation in engineering and science. Roquette, a major local employer, says it “welcomes the opportunity for young people to develop real skills for their careers alongside relevant traditional academic qualifications that will provide students with increased value to their future employers.”

Leaving aside fixing poor school infrastructure (important but more a question of money than education philosophy), the top priority parameters to address include:

  1. Reducing classroom disruption
  2. Empowering teachers in status, as well as in disciplinary options
  3. Empowering communities to determine strategic direction of local schools
  4. A much different approach to nursery and infant ‘education’
  5. Definition and enforcement of parental responsibilities
  6. ‘Level-playing field’ options for pupil career (vocational, creative, business)

For such to be feasible, let alone effective, a close involvement of multiple agencies will be required, not least police, social work, youth organisations, wardens but especially parents’ groups. But key to any of that, whatever the structure, it must be pro-active, as opposed to intervention once a child is ‘failing’ academically or socially.

Clearly not all homes are capable of the same nurture and support but neither are a child’s chances of success enhanced where parents abdicate their involvement as role models for which no professional can provide an adequate substitute. However well intentioned or professional state involvement might be, families—like communities—stand or fall on their own actions. Our own history from clan clachans to the Gorbals teaches that poverty makes that harder but does not make it impossible.

The folly of the old P7 Qualifying Examination that once sorted pupils into ‘streams’, each with a differing syllabus was not the principle of teaching pupils what they needed to know for their likely post-school destination but the social presumption that any stream was ‘better’. This is where private schools are a liability, focussing on academia and making it evident they regard money (for their fees) as a measure of worth.

In any other part of human endeavour, training for the job would be self-evident. Deep-sea Divers and Supply-Boat Captains share little in their job training, let alone with solicitors and surgeons. Yet all of them wind up on comparable salaries, often living as neighbours.

For society to be classless, education itself must NOT be classless but differentiated and geared to the child, which involves challenges in wood shop, developing new iPhone apps, access to sports facilities (c.f. wur Andy) andinteractive, real-world languages, as well as Latin and Calculus. And that, Mr Gove does NOT involve pushing them all through the same mincer—any more, Mr EIS, than it does trying to level the playing field and ‘make every child a winner’ because neither is helpful training for life.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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