The current vision for state education is fatally blurred: Discuss!

Melissa Benn's picture

Yesterday, the Guardian published an excellent piece by journalist John Harris on the death of creativity and enjoyment of learning our state school system. The piece has caused a lot of BTL ( Below the Line) comment, with many people agreeing with his analysis.

In essence, Harris argued that changes to the curriculum have created an unhealthily competitive and constricted atmsphere in many schools, and particularly for very young children.

Worse, it is producing a state system that aims to mimic the kind of private school education that many on the Tory front bench enjoyed. This may well be leading, in certain wealthy urban locations, to the return of some upper/ middle class families to the state system ( see my recent LSN article on this development here)  partly as a result of the pressure of rising private school fees, partly because a mix of selection ( overt and covert) and elitist values make such institutions 'safe spaces'  for the better off but it is a kind of state school success that has little to do with a vision of education as a place where communities can learn together.

He also reminds us that even in the darkest Thatcherite days, when education was severely underfunded, there were schools and teachers that were doing an excellent job, and thousands of young people who got a good education. Where would you hear that in today's conformist atmosphere, with most of the educational press/media seeming to subscribe to an ahistorical view of education and all intellectual ambition ascribed to the recent, punitive policies of the Conservatives?

Harris's passionate piece seems to me to touch on many of the issues that we discuss here on the LSN and in our recent book The Truth About Our Schools - so I thought I would re-post it here for LSN readers and open up further discussion of its themes.



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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 14/02/2016 - 08:29

The description in the Guardian article about the little girls engaging with a story by picking out 'noun - verb' makes me angry.  The purpose of literature (and I'm not necessarily talking about the Literary 'canon' beloved of school ministers) is enjoyment.  It may also move, amuse, inspire - but it will do none of these unless it is enjoyed.

Splitting stories and poetry into their component parts  does not enhance enjoyment.  Rather it reduces literature to something which must be dissected for no better purpose than to pass a test.  And does this test assess appreciation and understanding?   No - it presents sentences out of context and asks pupils to identify a verb, clause, phrase....

This is supposed to introduce pupils to 'the best which has been thought and said in the world' - that's the lofty ideal put forward by those behind these abominable tests.   But they don't.  They reduce the best of what has been and continues to be thought, said and sung to a corpse laid out for dismemberment.



Emma Bishton's picture
Tue, 15/03/2016 - 11:01

And the stakes get ever higher - apparently my year 6 daughter needs to be able answer questions about subjunctives in this year's SATs! I can remember having to get to grips with the subjunctive whilst learning classics and MFL at secondary school, and I can see that an understanding of grammar is useful when learning other languages. But I'm very sure I was never required to know that the subjunctive even exists as a concept, let alone be able to identify and use it, whilst at primary school. What, after all, would have been the point? As Janet points out, knowing about the subjunctive has done nothing to promote enjoyment of any book I've since read. The teacher faced with this requirement has two choices: to leave out subjunctives and risk all her pupils staring disconsolately at words they have never seen before in exam conditions, or to spend time teaching it (instead of using that time to reinforce something else that might be more useful) and hope that some of them can remember enough about it to have a go at answering the question. Either way, there's a very strong likelihood that a lot of pupils will emerge from the exam feeling less confident about their knowledge of English than they were when they went in. But then I suppose as John Harris points out, if ministers are actually after a system in which the majority of pupils learn quickly that their place is outside the elite rather than in the mix, then they will achieve what they are after.

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