Sir Michael Wilshaw recently commented on the lack of scholarship in our schools, claiming that it is robbing pupils of a culture of learning. As usual, he blamed the teaching profession for betraying the enthusiasm of eleven year olds for learning. Well, I do see enthusiastic children of that age, but it is far from being all of them, and Wilshaw had much less to say about all of the other aspects of society, such as wall-to-wall dumbed-down media and hyper-materialistic advertising for stealing any sense of non-material curiosity children might show about the world.

Unfortunately, he does also seem to have a point about the education system too, though. As some of the responses to my previous post showed, the mere mention of selective education has guaranteed me a negative reception, even though I was at pains to emphasise that I wasn’t actually mounting a defence of it.

But if I were to defend selective schools, it would be not on account of their impact (or lack of it) on social mobility, or even their academic standards per se, but their subjective ethos of scholarship, which has been evident in all except one that I have visited. No doubt much to their frustration, scholarship is something that the bean-counters simply can’t measure, and even Wilshaw seems to think it is simply a matter of getting organised for lessons.

It may be an old-fashioned concept but scholarship is, I suggest, a major factor in the success of individual pupils – and I think that does not have to be dependent on ability either. It is also something  that the non-selective state sector remains largely innocent of, not least because of those overtones of elitism that so inflame many in such schools. It is not even a matter of utilitarian hard work – there is plenty of that around for sure – but it describes a state of mind, and perhaps the relationship that one has with one’s learning. To me, it embodies the essential humility of the learner, of an acceptance of one’s ignorance and need to learn that is quite at odds with the over-confident, consumerist approach of the majority of today’s pupils – and their parents.

And I’m not sure how much there is within the teaching profession any more either. With a few honourable exceptions, it is quite rare (in my experience) to hear teachers discussing their own academic disciplines for the sheer learned pleasure of doing so. Maybe they save it all for their lives away from the classroom. What’s more it doesn’t seem to be getting any better; those of us who consider that we are first and foremost teachers of our subjects still seem to be losing the argument against those who see education as a form of technocratic social or economic engineering.

I am really not sure that this is simply the teaching profession suppressing its more noble instincts under the onslaught of an extrinsically-motivated political barrage. The depths of this were plumbed today in a meeting called to evaluate the options for a change of G.C.S.E. specification. The preferred option was reviewed purely in terms of how its adoption could improve the pupils’ chances of scoring top grades, in some cases by effectively making the tasks they face more straightforward. In particular it was apparently viewed as an advantage to cut down the amount of extended writing required of pupils. The actual subject content of the specification barely got a mention, and the customer-facing performance of the exam board seemed to be of more importance than what was actually going to be (supposedly) taught. What’s more, increasing amounts of time and effort in the classroom seem to be going on explicit exam strategising rather than real subject learning, again reducing any potential academic scholarship to nothing more than the superficial means to an end. The scope for those of us who would rather do it differently is reducing all the time, too.

I hope this is an isolated example, but if we really have got to the point that subject knowledge has been reduced to being merely the sound-bites that we feed pupils in order that they may secure exam grades, then education in this country is, in academic terms further past the point of no return that even I feared. Those who ought to be upholding academic standards seem intent on doing precisely the opposite.

Scholarship indeed.


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