Gulags with Whiteboards

The long summer break provides, I am unashamed to say, the one opportunity in the year to empty my head (almost) completely of matters educational. Far from being a desertion of duty, I view it as a necessary period of ‘recharging’ prior to re-engaging in September, hopefully with a fresh mind and renewed vigour. And as my wife said yesterday, this is the only time in the year when we get what many would consider to be ‘normal’ evenings.

Therefore I have not been watching the BBC’s Are Our Kids Tough Enough? which has reportedly placed Chinese teachers and methods in front of British pupils. But the reviews suggest that the Chinese teachers have been challenged by the lack ingrained cultural deference for education when it comes to behaviour. And a letter in yesterday’s Independent (here, seventh letter) also questioned the wisdom of the Chinese approach. The writer had taught in China for eight years and described the system there as ‘Gulags with Whiteboards’, complete with bullying and humiliation of children deemed not to be performing sufficiently highly. He returned to the U.K. when his own children reached school age, rather than put them through the Chinese experience.

And yet this is the system that is being held up as a model to British educators by some commentators. Indeed, my own experience is that the British system is well on the way to emulating it, despite reports also filtering out that the Chinese themselves are desperate about the effects that the regime is having on their young people. A colleague of mine who has also worked in China described the children as ‘mindless drones’ by the end of their schooling. As I said, we seem well on the way down the same route. (The same newspaper recently reported a survey showing that young people exhibit decreasing concern for the freedom of speech, for example).

My summer reading has continued to convince me that the human condition is both more unknowable and more quixotic than most realise; we need an education system that works with human foible not against it. I spent a week of my holiday staying with one of my own teachers in western France. Naturally teaching was discussed – and the reaction of this deeply humane man, now in his eighties, to my anecdotes was instructive: “Where is the human touch?”

The mental distance from which I presently write makes it seem all the more misguided that we appear intent on shaping people to the education (or is it economic?) system rather than the other way round.


3 thoughts on “Gulags with Whiteboards

  1. Wise words, as always. When viewing the usual sterile talking points about education, I cannot help but think of these words from The Mikado: “…who praises with enthusiastic tone / Every century but this one / And every country but his own” . . .

    • Thanks good Sir! Sometimes the things where we actually do have an advantage are those which we most take for granted. However, I do think that we can learn from others too – this is no more ‘the best of all possible worlds’ than anywhere else. What is very instructive is to see who holds which countries up as good examples!

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