Friday, December 29, 2006

Education, education, education

I hope readers of this blog will forgive me for writing about something that may not seem to be part of its remit. Except that it is. The future of this country in Europe and the world, its future within itself, depends on education as much as on what kind of toys our servicemen and servicewomen get to play with. (No, I don't decry the importance of toys, though I do think the question of whether this country is still and can be in the future a military power is very much wider.)

Most of us recall Tony Blair's comment in 1997 that the most important aspect of political life he was going to concentrate on was going to be "education, education, education". Not that many might know that Lenin said it before him. Every schoolroom in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had a poster on its back wall on which it was written in the appropriate language: "Education, education, education. V. I. Lenin"

Ten years on, education in this country has plummeted to a historically unheard of low. We have a couple of generations of semi-literate and anumerate children, the study of history, foreign languages, sciences and engineering lags so far behind most countries as to have become a joke; our universities are no longer world class and survive anywhere near that by dint of recruiting lots of foreign post-graduate students; there are fewer children from working class or poor families getting anywhere near reasonable education and, therefore, reasonable career than in most other developed countries and certainly fewer than there were under the old system of grammar schools.

The Conservatives had introduced a tiny improvement by their system of assisted places but these were abolished by the Labour government as soon as it came to power, no doubt in the spirit of "education, education, education" (well, for their own children, anyway).

The new Conservative leadership has abandoned any pretence of wanting to change the situation and allow more children to go to schools where they might receive appropriate education. First the Boy-King, in his previous reincarnation as Education spokesman, announced that the last remaining grammar schools will be abolished if (a big if) the party ever comes to power, adding arrogantly and fatuously that people did not want choice in education but wanted the government and officialdom to sort it all out. Presumably, as well as it had been sorted out all these decades.

There is no evidence that he has changed his attitude since becoming leader. This alone will prevent me from voting Conservative in the next election.

Now, we are told that there was
a decision by the Tories last month to drop plans for a full-blown voucher, in which parents would get £5,000 a year to spend at the school of their choice — state or private.
Presumably, at least one reason for that decision is a weak-kneed reluctance on the part of the Conservative leadership to fight with the educational establishment and the teachers' union. But one cannot help feeling that another reason is the overriding fear of letting people make decisions for themselves on important matters. And what could be more important than education?

I would not like to suggest that there might be a strong lack of desire to see competition from bright children from poorer families against the undoubtedly rich scions of the Tory leadership.

It is curious to see how frightened our rulers are of the very thought of vouchers. It is something like fifty years since the idea of universal vouchers as a way of countering state control of education and reversing falling standards was propounded by Milton and Rose Friedman. Yet it remains the great bogey of politics.

We have another initiative from the Government, one that has already been lambasted by the unions as being "elitist", the worst epithet they can think of.

Lord Adonis, who, we are told, himself benefited from a grant to Kingham Hill school, is trying to push through a scheme that will help "gifted" children who would not, otherwise, have access to good education. I assume that the noble peer understands that this scheme is completely inadequate but is trying to get round the problem of his colleagues who will never agree to selection or vouchers (such as Diane Abbott who sends her son to the excellent private City of London School) as well as hoping not to antagonize the teaching unions too much. He has failed in the latter but one could argue that anything the teaching unions bitterly oppose must be good for their pupils.

So what is this scheme that is getting everyone so worked up? Vouchers for education it ain't.
The brightest 800,000 pupils in England are to have vouchers to spend on extra lessons as part of a national talent search that starts next week.

Every secondary and primary school will be told to supply the names of 10 per cent of their pupils who best meet the new criteria for the gifted and talented programme when they fill in the January schools census.

Each pupil on the scheme will be given "credits" to buy a range of additional courses designed to push them further. This includes weekend or summer schools at universities, in which academics are paid to provide master-classes in particular subjects.
As was immediately noted by educational psychologists, the criterion of "gifted" can be defined only according to a few, highly professional tests and the chances are that many will be left out.

Then there is the problem that these are vouchers to be spent by pupils and their parents in the children's free time. In other words, they will get strenuous training in the week-end, only to go back to their useless, ill-disciplined, sub-educational classrooms during the week. There are a few problems with that scheme.

Should they not be in better run classrooms all the time? We the taxpayers are already ploughing billions of pounds into the educational system. Now we are told that more money has to be added in order to provide certain children with extra lessons. Why not provide as many children as possible with appropriate lessons? Ah, but that would mean handing those vouchers over to the parents and let individual children apply to individual schools with decisions to be taken at that level. Can't have that. The gentleman (and lady) in Whitehall (and town hall) knows best.

What makes this scheme completely unworkable as was its predecessor, the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth, is that it leaves the decision in the hands of the educational establishment. The Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) may be a non-profit education company but I can foresee layers and layers of bureaucracy and quangocracy being created in order to run the scheme.

Then there are the schools themselves. Many of them proved to be recalcitrant in the matter of that National Academy. When I recall the difficulties primary school heads used to raise whenever any parent wanted to know about assisted places, I fail to be surprised. They will not supply names of likely children, unless the parents create mayhem, getting round those instructions somehow.

The whole scheme smacks of socialist planning. Every school will have to provide names of "gifted" children that will make up ten per cent of its pupil numbers. What if there are no ten per cent? What if there are more? What if there are numerous children who are not classified as "gifted" according to those tightly drawn criteria but are bright and able, who would benefit from a rigorous education? And so on, and so on.

In the end, there is only one question: why not accept that centralized, state run (either on national or local level) education has failed in this country? Let the government take on the teaching unions and the festering educational establishment and introduce a full voucher system. Then we shall have education, education, education.


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