Dear Chief Secretary to the Treasury,
I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.
Signed, Liam Byrne

(Outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury. May 2010)

Monday, 11 January 2010

Completing a circle in education?

A trail somehow led me to a post on Fausty's blog about the "The deliberate dumbing down of the world" - it's about education and I highly recommend you take a look for yourself.

I suppose it's hardly surprising that we Rigbys have talked about the state of UK state education more than once, and not only because there are junior members of the family.

We, and the rest of our generation, went through the 'old system' where there was competition to get into the top or, perversely, the bottom, class. There was competition to get into sports teams, competition to get into the choir and so on. If you weren't good enough at something or other you were never chosen for the top team or the top club, but it didn't ever mean you were completely left out, because there were always plenty of other things to do that you were good at.

When we were at school we knew it was hard to get into a top university, and no matter how much money you'd got you still had to pass a very tough entrance exam that only two or three of the very highest performers in the school would sit each year. We were realistic, so we, and most of our friends, set our sights a bit lower down the list of possible places to study when we left school - if that was what we wanted to do. Some decided that more book learning wasn't for them and went off to do apprenticeships or vocational courses at the local college. We and our friends never really thought we were getting 'second best', because we had a fairly healthy dose of being realististic about our prospects.

When we look at what's happening now there are many things we can't understand about the system, but will look at just two in this post.

First. How, with so much money being thrown at education and with a carefully-constructed-by-experts, curriculum, can there be such a high percentage (almost 50%) of school leavers (age16) who fail to reach the standard set by government of in Maths and English. Secondly, we wonder how it's possible for 50% of school leavers to be capable of studying hard enough to be awarded a Bachelor's Degree - something that is meant to indicate a high level of both learning and ability, when there has to be an element of choice in taking up further study, and not all of the 50% who pass Maths and English GCSE will want to go to "Uni".

Education in Britain was once a fairly haphazard affair, funded by either family money or charity. Some children of industrialists, landowners, senior military officers etc were sent away to boarding school where they were not only 'educated' they were also socialised - they learned how to behave in a certain way. Children of working families were expected to earn something as soon as possible, to help make ends meet. They were incredibly lucky if they could go once a week to a Dame School or a Sunday School - where they learned the rudiments of reading, writing, arithmetic and, naturally, religion.

There were the "Grammar Schools" too, often endowed by some philanthropist or other who thought it would be a good idea to put their wealth to good use - it was a sort of payback to their hard-working employees. Children who were chosen to attend these schools (because they were clever) were often the ones who, in later life, ended up one step higher up the ladder than their peers. This opportunity didn't mean they could sit back and relax, they had to work hard to get and keep their place on that ladder because if they were slackers others would be given a nudge upwards - it was competitive, like in a running race.

One thing all children had was a form of discipline, for some it was the school of hard knocks - learn a skill, quickly, or die. For others it was a seemingly easy life - but still often quite brutal if contemporary literature is anything to go by, and one that took them away from their family when they were young.

Now, having had that badly presented mini-history lesson, let's get back to something we Rigbys think. ... We Rigbys think that if people aren't properly literate and properly numerate they can't properly challenge, or question, decisions made on their behalf - and this is how I've tenuously managed to tie this lot in with Fausty's blog piece.

Challenging and questioning decisions was something employers were worried about when Forster's Education Act was passed in 1870. They were worried that if the whole population became literate and numerate there would be nobody willing to be factory workers, road sweepers, 'night soil' collectors, crop planters and harvesters or pickers - because, you see, once you can read you can also choose what to read. Books, newspapers and magazines can be entertaining, but can also help you learn about all sorts of things, things your employer might not want you to learn.

Employers also wanted to be sure their workforce was capable of working hard, for long hours - not easy if you've had your nose buried in a book instead of going to sleep. One sop to employers was the decision to organise long school summer holidays - to make sure harvests were gathered and hops were picked. These weeks weren't ever intended to be used as an excuse to spend a fortnight burning on a beach in Benidorm.

So where's my thought pattern going? I'm trying to point out that it wasn't until 1870 that educational provision was 'organised' in this country.

The 1870 Act meant that children had to go to school, there was no choice and no excuse, and were expected to achieve a recognised level of attainment before their 13th birthday. At 13 they could leave school irrespective of achievement and join the workforce, unless a charity was able to help them out and let them study a bit longer by providing their education.

Local school boards set their own attainment targets, here's an example of what they were expected to achieve to reach the top "Standard VI". (taken from Wikipedia)

Children had to be able to do :-
To read with fluency and expression.
A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.
Proportion and fractions (vulgar and decimal).
Remember that children had to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide using many different number bases all at the same time -because Britain used the old sort of LSD - pounds, shillings and pence - as well as farthings and halfpennies, florins, half crowns and guineas.

Back then things were measured in acres, miles, rods, poles, perches, chains, furlongs, yards, feet and inches - including fractions of inches, not like today's easy decimal number, and calculations were generally done either mentally or on paper because pocket calculators hadn't been invented.

In case some of you think that standard is too low then take a look at what they had to do to achieve "Standard III" :-
A short paragraph from a more advanced reading book.
A sentence slowly dictated once by a few words at a time, from
the same book
Long division and compound rules (money).
These weren't 'age' standards, they were terminal qualifications - a bit like grade school in the States, but back then children could leave school at 10 provided they achieved standard VI, otherwise they had to stay there until the age of 13. If you think about it, this gave an incentive to learn, because it meant they could leave school and begin to either make their own way in the world or contribute towards the family finances - and get more to eat.

Were these terrible times, or was education a way out of poverty?

Life was hard then, much harder than many of us could imagine. At school little children were forced to learn difficult things - but you know, if the Rigby forebears are anything to go by, they were proud of their achievements, and the results of their learning are a delight to behold, because they weren't only taught to read, write and do maths. Things were terribly sexist - girls were also taught how to cook and to sew. One of Mrs R's female ancestors made, by hand, a truly astonishingly intricately detailed Christening Gown that's still in use today and one of her male ancestors made some lovely pieces of furniture, which are also in use - unlike some of the modern mass-produced flatpack tat that's only a few years old.

We know from research that at least one of the forebears left home at the tender age of 13 to work as a live-in maid, another went off to be an apprentice to a cabbie and lived in crowded accommodation that would be condemned as unfit by modern social workers - but he survived and went to fight the Boers.

Life was tough, life was hard, yet these two people were proud of what they achieved, and to the end of their lives they loved reading and wrote using the most exquisitely executed copperplate script, with never a spelling mistake - we know because we've seen it.

This, then, is the sort of education that was provided to grandparents, great-grandparents or possibly great, great-grandparents of those alive today - they were given the most basic of learning skills, those of literacy and numeracy, as well as life skills.

Prior to that, from marriage records dated as recently as 1880, few Rigby brides or grooms could sign their name. (Remember, it was the children who went to school from 1870, not the grown-ups - they were working too hard to make sure nobody starved.) These adults proudly made an X on the marriage register - two strokes to show it was a deliberate action rather than a slip of the pen, which is why it's still used on ballot forms.

Can it be that these people were more literate and numerate than their descendants? Well, no, maybe not, because there are statistics and graphs that say so - although they're international stats referring only to literacy. (At the moment Mrs R can't find one that only relates to UK so it'll have to do, otherwise this post will continue to languish in the drafts folder, and it's been there long enough!)

The graph has been drawn using data from UNESCO.

Okay, now you've relaxed by looking at a picture, let's get back to the writing. ...

It wasn't until fairly recently that a UK government decided to get itself deeply involved in education, and in 1988 drew up a prescriptive curriculum that would apply to all state schools. Government also created a national body to set and oversee terminal exams - taking this role away from universities. But they couldn't tell the private sector what to do, because it was, errm, private, not state, run.

To begin with the National Curriculum was a fairly sketchy sort of thing involving just Maths and English, but it's evolved over time to become a mighty beast, with teachers being told not only what to teach but also how to teach - and they can be subjected to intense criticism if their observed and assessed teaching fails to match the proscribed pattern specifically designed to ensure 'students' are interested. It's also designed to guarantee outcome/achievement.

So, when you take all the man hours involved in putting together this approach to both learning and teaching, it seems very odd to read a (now quite old) news item reporting that Tesco's boss, Terry Leahy, criticised school outcomes as being "woefully low".

Unfortunately for Mr Leahy and his fellow supermarket bosses it's a bit of a joke (round here at least) about the, ahem, 'required qualifications' of some checkout staff - especially the ones who get confused if a customer hands them £21.27 to pay for something costing £16.27. (Hint - you get a fiver change!) But joking aside, we Rigbys think that if Mr Leahy believes standards are low then there must indeed be something to worry about.

We thought his comments needed a bit more investigating and at the time we looked and read and talked quite a bit - but we didn't come to any serious conclusions except that "they" (whoever they may be) want too much out of schools, and are ignoring the most basic of skills in a rush to be seen to be trying to sort out the social ills of the country such as teenage pregnancies, obesity, drug abuse and those most evil things - smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, and all via the National Curriculum. Doing all this dilutes the time left for things like history and geography, which some children hate, but are still important to know how to relate to the rest of the world.

Here's a story.

When our little Rigbys were small we used to take them to all sorts of places, including farms and zoos. Once we were lucky enough to see a lamb being born. It led to a lot of questions. The odd thing was that when they got older they seemed to have forgotten almost everything they had learned then, couldn't even remember seeing a brand new lamb let alone how it got inside the ewe in the first place! We can't imagine that our children are particularly strange or unusual, it's just that they unconsciously filed away some of the things they saw, and some of the things they learned on our days out, because that knowledge was irrelevant to their lives at the time and more important things came along.

So we thought it was a bit strange that all the educational specialists - who should know about child psychology and child development - want little children to learn about sexuality, contraception and so on when they're only half way through primary school, when they could probably better spend their time reading and writing and getting a bit of general knowledge, so they don't have to wait until taking their GCSE Science before they learn that you can use a telescope to look at the moon. (edit : and note James Higham's piece reporting that the in UK an exam board warded C grades in one [Science] paper to pupils getting just 20 per cent of questions correct)  If the primaries concentrated on these basics then maybe, just maybe, the 'students' would do a bit of learning on their own, on the side, when they're not at school, and maybe, just maybe, they might end up with better GCSE results.

Another aside - Mrs R wonders who wrote the Wikipedia entry about Education in England, because in the box on the right hand side there's nothing about GCSEs and nothing about AS or A levels, merely "Secondary Diploma" or "post Secondary Diploma" - the former of which Mrs R had thought was a vocational qualification for the less academic rather than the 'gold standard' of achievement at age 18 - but maybe she's wrong, because things do seem to be being changed while she isn't looking!

What Mrs R isn't wrong about is something written in both Bishop Hill's and StraightShooter's blogs about charities linked with education in India. It would seem that the poorest of the poor are willing to make themselves even poorer by paying for their children's education,they do it because :-
... a survey of state schools found that "in only half was there any teaching activity at all"
And what happens next, in India? - [Oxfam] charity had then concluded that universal state provision was the correct way forward.

Hmm, it's interesting to note that as long ago as 2005 the Times was reporting that same sort of thing was going on in Africa. :-
Poor African children benefit more from independent schools than government ones for a fraction of the cost, says James Tooley. Why are aid groups and pop stars against them?
Take a little while to read the whole article, go on, I dare you!

Then compare it and the India stuff with what's happening in UK, where government seems to be using schools attended by other politicians as a political weapon - calling anybody whose parents had chosen to send them to Eton "toffs". Yet many of those name-calling politicians have themselves benefitted from private education (there's a list somewhere or other) and are ensuring their offspring do the same. (edit: The list is here)

It seems that some in government might not like to be seen to like private schools, even though they use them themselves, because the latest ploy is to give private schools a set of targets to achieve (or else be failed/closed by Ofsted) - including equality of outcome in sport and after school activities - presumably to make sure more white boys become excellent 100 metre sprinters, more short kids have a go at pole vaulting or high jump and maybe more girls get to do boxing. Who knows what it's all about, I'm just guessing because I haven't seen these targets listed anywhere.

Anyhow, I reckon it'll just mean more lists for the statisticians to moan about. Targets of that sort suggest that children can be forced into a certain role or activity to suit the grown-ups who decided the quota, but kids aren't like that. Children like to make their own choices and, irrespective of their physical or ethnic profile, will all too happily ignore what the grown-ups want them to do outside the classroom. Maybe somebody ought to tell the bean counters about horses and water.

Here in Britain we have state sector 'students' failing to meet literacy and numeracy targets at 16, but these same 'students' are to be taught about sexuality, contraceptives and parenting.

To get rid of the NEET section of the 16-18 population they're all being forced to stay in full time education until they're old enough to vote, even if they can't read and don't want to be at school or sixth form college.

At 18 50% of them are expected to go off to university and earn a degree that will saddle them with a debt of at least £21k (before interest) - a debt owed to just one state-run company, a company that sets it's own repayment terms and has first claim on a wage-earner's salary.

Add to this sorry mix a dose of dependence on government for almost everything, from advice about what to have for breakfast to what to do with your spare time, and we suddenly end up with a new population of adults that's almost incapable of independent thought and action - and they know no different because they think it's always been done that way, and they know they're right because they know more than the wrinklies.

Is this, perhaps, a worldwide phenomenon, as Fausty's blog suggests? Mrs R hopes not, even though she could, with a bit of effort, find out what's happening - because she can read, and because she wants to read.

Funny thing is that those old industrialists in 1870 might have got it right - but it wasn't they who ended up with a proportion of the British population that doesn't want to do menial things, it took over 100 years for that to happen and we now have to import workers who are willing to clean our toilets, pick our fruit and dig up our vegetables - and it doesn't seem to be because we have a well-educated population either, it might even be because some don't value education.

Maybe we're seeing the education system almost completing a circle too, with provision dependent on personal wealth or charity - but this time it's government that gives the money to the charities and dictates the terms, not well-meaning philanthropists.


... and a complete aside, does anybody have any idea who invented the term sheeple?


Fausty said...

An excellent, informative piece, Mrs R. Bookmarked and saved.

Many thanks for linking.

Garth Godsman said...

Thanks for the link Mrs R. You're always welcome to do so freely, whether you agree or think I'm talking out of my bottom :)

I will be having a more thorough look at your blog now too!