The title of this blog was famously uttered by Tony Blair when he was trying to persuade a nation that he had our best interests at heart. I’m disinclined here to go into whether or not he did have our best interests at heart. However, as a educationalist myself, or in plain English, a teacher, I do think there are a few things about education and how it is viewed by politicians that are worth pointing out.
First of all, with the long-standing exception of Scotland, the other nations making up the UK have always had the same set of exams, at first O levels and A levels, now GCSE and A level and a level playing field in terms of equality and marking. What happens now devolution is settling into place?
Secondly, the impact on education of political meddling. This has an old and not so honourable history and politicians tend to fiddle in the system to improve their chances of election and to push through a preferred ideology. Is this the purpose of education? Is it the purpose of education to push people into work as wage slaves to pay taxes for politicians to spend on pet projects?
Admittedly, this is a massive subject and one which really needs more debate. If we take a cursory look at Pisa rankings, we see that Scandinavian countries have incredibly high levels of literacy and numeracy. Scandinavians don’t just read and write and do sums at a basic level, they do them really well! Why? Michael Gove is desperate to answer this question because he wants to see the UK right up at the top of international ratings. I suspect his motives may be rather base: he wants to point to the success of his initiatives such as academies (a Labour idea lest we forget) and messing about with GCSEs and the so-called E-Bacc. Really, where do they get these abbreviations?
Mr Gove seems to feel that “Going back to Basics” i.e. O levels will ease the deficit. My opinion is that it’s actually much more simple than constantly messing about with exams, new schemes of work, new exam boards and destroying teachers’ morale and professionalism. In Scandinavia, teachers are respected as professionals; on the whole they are educated to Master’s level and the politicians give them a very broad outline and leave teachers, BECAUSE THEY ARE THE PROFESSIONALS, to implement the outline. The Finnish national curriculum fits underneath my door, whereas the NI Key Stage 3 curriculum (that’s for years 8,9, and 10 only) takes up a large foolscap box folder. Actually, it takes up more room than that, I just can’t be bothered measuring it…
So, why don’t politicians in the UK follow this example of good sense? Doctors are largely left to get on with their jobs, so are lawyers, engineers, ministers of religion, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. Teachers, however, are every politicians and every tabloid editor’s favourite whipping boy, and we are whipped on a very regular basis at the moment. Small wonder there are issues with poor behaviour and classroom management when Ofsted, ETI, politician and the media are lining up to blame us for all of society’s ills from the Fall of Man to last summer’s riots in England.
The answer lies in one of my earlier questions. What is the purpose of education? For me, it’s to teach young people the basic skills they need to find more information, to get a job, to learn to question and think and reason. It’s also about teaching them that learning is a lifelong process and that it’s fun to learn. All of these attributes set young people up for a lifetime of work and pleasure that enable them, indeed all of us, to fully appreciate life and to grab opportunity wherever it appears. Without such a philosophy we become mere wage slaves, toiling to support an ever more remote establishment.
I suspect for Gove and some other politicians education is a tool to be employed to promote their own political agenda. In other words, propaganda. The Jesuits say “give me a boy until he is seven and I will show you the man.” It may be a cliché, but no less true for that. I’d much prefer free-thinking, questioning members of society; I suspect most politicians want voting fodder who don’t question why they are skivvying to support an out-of-touch elite. This applies also to our devolved administrations.
Having queried politicians’ motives for meddling in education, let’s have a look at the impact of devolution. Scotland is a nation with a long tradition of education and learning for its own sake and many years ago took the route of a slightly different exam system which was suited to its specific needs. Here, in Northern Ireland, we took pride in a system of grammar schools which was designed to achieve high test scores at 16 and 18 years of age. We have long ignored the reality that too many school leavers were leaving school with extremely poor levels of literacy and numeracy and no profiency in basic skills. Wales and England have remained shackled as one entity, with political interference and almost weekly changes which have almost destroyed teaching as a career option for well-qualified graduates.
Recently, though, with Mr Gove’s unilateral pronouncements about a return to O levels and the E-Bacc, his counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland have sat up sharply, complaining bitterly about his failure to consult them. While we can’t really expect Plaid Cymru or Sinn Fein to do anything else, it does raise the question of what happens next. Since the last great education reforms of the 1940s which gave rise to the system as we know it, England, Wales and Ulster have followed the same pattern of post-primary education. We’ve moved seamlessly from Junior and Senior Certificate to O and A levels, to GCSEs all in lockstep with each other. This has been great for employers and universities as they had common exams by which to compare applicants.
The last big reform was the introduction of GCSEs in 1988, when we were all ruled by Westminster, but what happens now? Does the DUP allow Sinn Fein to push an all-Ireland education agenda by tying our qualifications to the Republic’s? This despite most of our third level students studying either here at home or in the rest of the UK. Does Plaid Cymru seek to follow Alex Salmond’s idea of only Welsh or Scottish history being of importance in a nationalist context or should we be teaching the broader picture to seek to understand other peoples and cultures? I prefer the latter, because I want an educated electorate able to make rational decisions. How about you?Share on Facebook