Decline and Fall…

John Tomsett wrote a post this week bemoaning the reductivist nature of the modern curriculum. He has analysed the similarities between the promotion and content of text books and the wording of exam questions, and found (un?)surprising similarities. This is what happens when you entrust a social ‘good’ like education to the free market: it neatly wraps it up and sells it as a glossy product, ideally watered down so as to appeal to as low a common denominator (and hence as wide a market) as possible. Just look at all those glossy but often vacuous text books. What’s more, a key feature of commercial ‘product’ is that it needs to be predictably and reliably deliverable. Hence we have neat little packages that do what it says on the tin, and never mind the uncertain and messy business of really making sense of the world around us – which is what I naively still believe proper education is about.

The blinkers fell from my own eyes about this some years ago, when the erstwhile ‘AS’ European Studies course was scrapped by Edexcel on the grounds that it wasn’t profitable. Over the years, I took numerous groups of sixth formers to the European Parliament and Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and produced enough enthusiasm that a number went on to take degrees in the subject. Being the only syllabus, the withdrawal signalled the death of the subject at school level. I managed to get the issue mentioned in the Commons in a debate on the scrapping of minority subjects – but according to Hansard the next day, the Honourable Members were too busy showing off their knowledge of Latin to care a hoot. A subsequent letter to the supposedly pro-European then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, produced the response that it was purely a commercial matter for the exam board. So now we know who really makes the decisions, and on what grounds.

Those who wanted to replace education with business-friendly training have got their way – but to their surprise they are finding that it delivers closed minds not open ones. In schools, we now teach not subjects but exams – the main thrust of almost everything that goes on around me daily is the passing of exams, not the developing of insight or –dare I say – wisdom for dealing with the world around us in any wider sense. In my opinion, this marks the slow death-throes of universal academic education in the U.K. – and given the role that that has historically played in maintaining Civilisation, I don’t think it’s completely far-fetched to worry that the implications could stretch far further than that.

Meanwhile, I continue to teach my subject, and refuse to bow to the pressure merely to teach solely to the exam. It gets me into some trouble from time to time – but it seems to work, if one can only cut through to the students. Unfortunately, it takes more and more effort to convince many of them that exam passes are not all it’s about, and we now have generations of new teachers coming into the profession who have never known anything else themselves, either.

I keep waiting for the stegosaurus’ plates finally to appear on my back, but it hasn’t happened yet, so I’ll press on with what I believe to be right, and stand up for ‘educated values’ in the face of all the corporate reductivism. What else can one do if one has a professional conscience?

The real Greek tragedy in this is that by going along with these developments to the extent that it is, the British education system is unwittingly colluding in its own academic credibility-downfall.


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