The return of ‘Comment of the Week’

WHOEVER “Indy” is, he or she put up a sterling defence of his/her position on education following my “Seeing red” post. In the absence (so far) of a guest blog feature on this site, this represents a pretty comprehensive and thoughtful riposte to some of the more robust comments on the issue:

Simon – I am not actually making the argument you seem to think I am making. I quite agree that there should be parity of esteem between academic and vocational education. But vocational education is not the same as preparing children to do unskilled manual labour. Vocational courses are as highly skilled as many academic courses, just different types of skills.

I have made two basic points – the first that children who do not receive support and encouragement at home need to receive it at school. That is something teachers must be aware of. Children need to be praised as well as criticised. They need the carrot as well as the stick. That point was made in the article but perhaps overshadowed by the other elements. There is a very real danger that if you tell a child often enough that they are a failure that will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Very few of us have an innate self-confidence. Confidence in your own ability to succeed is something that is learned, just as a conviction of your own unworthiness can be learned.

The second point is that it is a fantasy to imagine that the selective education system which existed 40 or 50 years ago would be effective now. Given the changes in the economy and employment market, that approach would in fact be disastrous.

So, yes, there may be elements of modern teaching methods which people find a little bit absurd but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.



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10 responses to “The return of ‘Comment of the Week’

  1. “it is a fantasy to imagine that the selective education system which existed 40 or 50 years ago would be effective now”

    Not a fantasy. A reality. Selection works. If you look at the league tables for schools, a convincing majority at the top are independent schools. Most, but not all are selective.

    Whereas it is not a guarantee of success, it enables clever and not so clever students to concentrate on doing the work without the feckless and indolent around to drag them down.

    These children, who are very lucky, will be taught in an environment that sees achievement and excellence as an asset. They will have more confidence and more social skills and will be less likely to drift into crime and the kind of learned helplessness that you can see pervading the youth of today.

    Both my children were not particularly academic, in fact they are dyslexic, but it took an independent school to take account of this and factor it in to their education. They are high achievers; both have done some extraordinary things and proved their tenacity and their courage.

    In a local comprehensive, they would have sunk without trace, just as I did, and probably have been bullied, just as I was.

    It is a sad fact that there are kids who are so screwed up, all they will do is assault teachers and disrupt lessons. In a school that selects, they can be expelled, as they should be. It is simply not fair that this type of person should be allowed to drag down the rest, just as criminals should be deprived of their freedom.

  2. Johnny Norfolk

    Far to long. Gave up after 6 lines.

  3. Jim Baxter

    True, that particular self-fulfilling prophecy is a danger. Another danger is that children who have specific aptitudes have their potential stifled and their attitude to self-improvement soured by a general curriculum in which they are expected to learn various subjects for which they have little taste or aptitude to a depth beyond that which they believe will ever be useful to them. Why did the Soviet Union have so many chess grandmasters? They sought out children with aptitudes for chess and brought them on. That kind of cultivation, if it’s not actively discouraged, is left largely to the dedication of talented individual teachers in our system, is it not? If you’re unlucky enough to have such an aptitude without meeting such a teacher while you’re at school what then?

    You can say that there aren’t enough jobs, say, for skilled metal-workers these days so our schools had better teach IT and Modern Studies to people who would prefer to work metal. That’s a good way to devalue the purpose of education in the eyes of our young people. It also makes it less likely that many neglected skills will be maintained, revived, and developed by individuals with aptitudes for crafts and skills which curriculum designers, with their focus only on the immediate, have prejudged to be obsolete.

  4. Chris' Wills

    Selective isn’t bad if it plays to peoples strengths, not everyone is academically gifted.
    Some are good with their hands and we’ll always need artisans, more so than politicians or social scientists in fact.
    Some are good at sports.
    Some are good with people.
    Some are artistic.

    Most are a mixture, of course.

    High IQs are all well and good, but probably won’t help you become good at Association Football or PR.

    Treating all children the same way is just going to frustrate them all and dumb down.

    Finding out what each is good at is the problem, requires good and dedicated teachers, once that is done then stream to the childs strengths.

    This is the hard part, it took some excellent teachers to motivate me to investigate mathematics and show me its beauty.

    Parents also need to be actively involved and interested, that is a big problem in some parts of society and isn’t helped by the rights without responsibilities attitude fostered by socialist/labour goverments and self styled “intellectuals”.

    It would also help if UK society didn’t applaud those who seem to take pride in not understanding mathematics/engineering/hard sciences or not being able to use a lathe (for Tom, a lathe is a spinning thingy used to manufacture stuff such as cylindrical chair legs) or computer.

    I doubt that anyone has no ability at something, we can’t all be the best at everything but we should all be stretched.
    Stretching will/may result in failure, but we all will face failure at something in our lives, so that is also a valuable learning event.

  5. Barney Waits

    What we do know. Imperial College, London, one of the finest institutions in the world to study the “hard” sciences, now offers a remedial first year course for students top catch up on what they didn’t learn in school.

    I think that says it all. The education system in this country is FUBAR, and all the teachers I once knew are no longer teachers.

    The problem with the “equality” and “fairness” approach is that is not how the real world works. Indeed, when my kids would wail to me “That’s not fair”, I would say “Show me the paper I signed when you were born saying the world *is* fair”.

    The only way to make things “fair” and “equal” is to drag everyone down to the same level, and that would seem to be the main purpose of the education system in the Uk today.

    1. Education means “to lead out”. Not “to produce an economic, tax paying unit”.

    2. The true purpose of education is to enable children to become responsible and free adults.

    Try telling that to Ed Balls.

  6. wrinkled weasel – your point seems to be that schools which select bright pupils get good exam results. That’s not particularly surprising.

    Oh, and I went to such a school and there was plenty of bullying there (some local comprehensive schools were much better). The level of bullying has nothing to do with whether a school is comprehensive or independent. My school was also full of those who thought they were better than everyone else, and the atmosphere created by the school entrenched this belief.

    If we want to create a super-strata of well-educated pupils who feel they are born to lead and hope they will drag the rest of society along with them, old-style selection is the way to go. If we think that a global competition demands the skilling, the imagination and the industry of our entire workforce, we need something different.

  7. wrinkled weasel

    Dear Tim F

    On reflection I think my post was a bit muddled.

    I meant to add that there should be different layers of education that will inspire and delight all kids.

    But it is no good expecting everybody to become a captain of industry or a ballet star.

    There is nothing wrong with the idea of an uber class. It served us rather well during the war and I would rather have that than some of the credulous nitwits who achieve ministerial rank with no more than a 2:2 in women’s studies.

    But in order to deal with the hoi polloi, I suggest a return to old style apprenticeships. Bound apprentices were still around 30 years ago. It had what you would call these days a holistic approach to training.

    You cannot teach someone with an average IQ to fly aircraft, but you can teach them to do something satisfying in which they can take pride.

    I still believe in a meritocracy. What I despise is the idea that everyone can be a rocket scientist, which is patently insane.

    As for independent schools, the one thing they have over the state system is that they are mostly devoid of political interference.

  8. wrinkled weasel

    Talking of guest posts, why not make one of us “Minister for a Day”, a unique opportunity for us mouthy oiks to have a go at looking at policy in a department.

    You role, should you decide to accept it, would be to moderate it from the point of view of the permanent secretary – Sir Humphrey – so that the brief stays in the realms of the do-able.

    It might shut us up and make us realise that it ain’t always that simple and we would all end up being very impressed with you.

  9. You might well have something there, Wrinkled…

  10. ani

    I like the sound of Minister for the day, and relish contributions from some of the posters here who, whilst surely understanding that “it ain’t always that simple” because even they aren’t that bonkers, nevertheless hammer away at Tom relentlessly.
    Step forward guys – you know who you are, and let’s see what you’re made of.

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