In state secondary schools across the world a high level of demotivation is often observable among those in (roughly) the bottom half of the ability range. All those who have been close to the reality of British secondary schools are aware of disorder in the classroom and truancy: many NEETS, free of the obligation to attend, flee anything that looks like school even though it is supposed to be in their interests to continue. Employers bewail the attitude of applicants for employment, and the word ‘unemployable’ is heard. How can the unimaginable sums spent on state education have led to this?
The basic principle of Secondary Education is that it is academic, which is to say non-vocational. It is held to be liberating to enable all pupils of whatever background to consider the best that has been thought and said so that they may be able to aspire to a university education, proceeding into any occupation after that with a well-stocked, ‘trained’ mind. Supplying the universities was the raison d’etre of the public schools and the grammar schools which copied them. It was assumed without much thought that the curriculum in secondary schools must therefore be a miniature version of the curriculum of a university. Grammar Schools therefore looked like Public Schools, and so did Secondary Moderns but with less ivy on the walls. The view that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal’, led to the replacement of Secondary Moderns by Comprehensives, it being assumed, perhaps, that the oikish behaviour in them was the result of fear of being looked down on in the golf club. Comprehensives would be ‘Grammar Schools for All’.
The academic curriculum made a certain amount of sense in the public schools in terms of careers as colonial administrators or the management of family estates, and in the grammar schools as providing an escape ladder from the grim prospect of working class life. In Wales, for example, education was worshipped as the way out of the pits. With the added encouragement of being beaten for non-compliance, the laborious trek round what John Dewey called ‘the spoils of mind’s former conquests’ proceeded.
Grammar Schools and Public Schools often had/have Old Boys’ Associations. Friendship, sporting triumphs and shared suffering led to considerable nostalgia for ‘the happiest days of your life’ and high membership of these institutions. Memories of sporting triumphs and japes against the teachers are re-lived by the well-heeled bourgeois the alumni have become. Even though the Wars of the Roses and Quadratic equations were not particularly exciting, they were accepted as part of the rite of passage. Very few Secondary Moderns or Comprehensives have such organisations. Llanelli Grammar School, a beacon of educational achievement before comprehensivisation, became a bear garden inside a term as the old grammar school staff went to work on the lower half of the ability range with their tried and trusted methods. Instead of being a secure environment in which children could thrive, fear stalked the playgrounds, corridors and classrooms of such schools. Subjects which required continuous effort in school and at home, such as Modern Languages, collapsed. Teachers were assaulted and schools destroyed in arson attacks. When the pupils left, they did not found Old Boys’ Associations.
There was, and remains, perplexity. At their cocktail parties the university men were telling the politicians that all pupils were equally educable, and in their offices their accountants were telling
them how much cheaper it was to have one school management instead of three. At meetings with the unions they learned that you would have to have big comprehensives if you were to have ‘a viable 6th Form’. There was no-one to warn them what would happen if you rammed academic education down the throats of the lower ability range in huge schools, because it was uncharted territory. Disasters like the one at Llanelli were repeated all over the country. By the 1980s the situation was so dire that teachers had to be sworn to secrecy by their contracts. The politicians had played the education card which was so vital to their electoral prospects, but it had backfired.
The opinion grew that ‘progressivism’ was to blame. The children were burning the schools down because they could not read because they had not been taught using ‘phonics’, or because they couldn’t do maths because they hadn’t been taught their tables. They couldn’t do History or English because, sitting in groups in the progressive way, they grinned at each other instead of listening to the teacher. They were furious that they were not getting into Oxford. All the administrators belonged to Old Boys’ associations of schools of fond memory. The new schools should be more like them, and then they would work. In the case of one Oxonian administrator, it was an Old Girls’ Association, and hence the National Curriculum of 1990, which fixed the academic curriculum of Grantham Grammar School in concrete for the entire country. Soon half the cohort would be going to university, and even the toilet cleaners would be going to Opera.
21 years later riots spread across the country.
GCSE results in 2015 show vast numbers of London schoolchildren not managing 5 GCE grade Cs. A Freedom of Information request would show a shocked public what a morass of misinformation filled the heads of these children. This they carry into a strange different world of work or unemployment. Someone might ask whether the system is giving value for money.
Does this 70-year rolling disaster have to continue? I propose a curriculum whose first priority is to equip all children with saleable life skills. They must all be able to read, write, buy, sell, cook, clean and fix things. Beginning with the infants we would see little change, because looking after your things and getting on with others is pretty basic. However we would make a determined effort to send children home at the end of the day with some small addition to their capacity to help with simple household tasks, be it tying their own shoes or being able to lay the table. The children and their parents would be learning that school makes sense. It will be expected that stories will be read, and they will be carefully selected to widen horizons and evoke magical delight. Some will be historical. There will be play and learning to read and write, using all the computing aids but also acquiring clear legible handwriting.
As the children go forward they can be introduced to more complex tasks, particularly cooking and cleaning. At every stage as much explanation of the science and technology associated with the tasks should be given. I have seen two six year olds (one the driver and the other the guard) drive a 9-inch gauge steam train full of adults safely round a mile of track in perfect confidence and safety. Where there are technical terms associated with these processes, they should be used. Once again, it would be ideal if every day the child went home he was able to demonstrate skill and understanding which enabled him to better contribute to the household management. Education would be being done, and being seen to be done. A great day when the child explains to Mum some chemistry behind a cooking process which she did not know! We assume that the teachers, too, are having plenty of opportunity to see which of their charges shows a quickness to grasp ideas.
Imagination will be needed to handle the buying and selling, almost taboo in our left of centre, university dominated school environments today. We must stop thinking of commercial enterprise as
hardly different from crime. Basic concepts of price, value, buying and selling can be taught. Stories which are read can make a point of including the effects of improvident money management. The stock market can be followed. Household budgets can be studied. Another great moment when the child is able to persuade a parent to make a different choice in the supermarket on well-argued grounds. Along with all these things comes computation, and experience with representing mathematical operations. Children will learn their tables and how to use spreadsheets. Once again, the teachers will be on the lookout for those who grasp number quickly. A regular darts league can be watched for those whose mental arithmetic shows itself in quick subtractions from 501.
‘Fixing’ will involve dismantling and remaking machinery, and this will lead on to the basic physics represented in machines, and what can, and what cannot be fixed at home. Fixing will also involve understanding the safe and effective use of manual and mechanical tools. Stories about great scientists and inventors will be read. They can learn to fix a musical instrument by learning to tune it, and then play it. They can learn how to wash sports kit, and play in it. They can learn about the care of animals and observe the life cycle of animals and plants. At home they take the burdens of managing pets off parents.
The learning of these things is not a matter for children and parents alone. The state will insist that children learn what they need, and very serious consequences will follow non-compliance. Tasks must be done and re-done until mastered.
By the age of 12 children will be competent in many skills, and aware of the principles underlying them; they should be well informed about the major facts of geography and history. They will have dipped toes into all the major branches of knowledge, and the highly talented will have identified themselves clearly.
At 12 there must be a major decision. It should be plainly put to the children that they now have an entitlement to a number of hours of state funded educational left. They may choose to go on to a school resembling a grammar school and formally study in the traditional way. That school would resemble a modern comprehensive with the difference that the pupils would all be volunteers instead of conscripts. Or they may go another way of their own choosing and keep the balance of their entitlement to be redeemed in what would be called an FE environment. Equipped with an array of useful practical and business knowledge, some might at once join or start up businesses. There would be immediate higher technical options resembling apprenticeships and nurse training. Employment laws would have to be altered. Job opportunities in accompanying and helping old people would be among many available. There would be routine touching of base with counsellors to see how things were going. There would be an ‘opt-back-in’ provision and a no-fault NEET option, though of course brains would be wracked to keep that option to small proportions. Even the NEETS would be better equipped to survive in their bed sits (a touchstone for my system).
If this were actually done, how would the situation evolve. I don’t think there would be a mass exodus at 12. In the first place school should have been a positive experience encouraging the feeling that ‘secondary’ education was a new, exciting and prestigious adventure. I would expect hardly any drop out from the upper third of the cohort. In the middle third I would expect to see much creative thinking by children, families and advisers to choose the best way forward. In the bottom third the same creative thinking will focus between actual employment and further technical training in various proportions. The secondary schools will reduce in size, and although it would be nice to think that the same staff will be employed with more reasonable workloads I suspect there would be redundancies. There would be savings to be made among the truant hunters and the vandalism repairers. Allowing ex-pupils to retain their allegiance for the six or seven years remaining would enable the opters out to
continue to attend social functions, take part in dramatic and musical performances and represent school teams. The school would no longer be a collecting point for gangs, because the badly disposed would have no reason to go there. The atmosphere of a war zone would disappear. Gang members might still gather on street corners at night, but the sense of uselessness and resentment created by school would be absent.
Rather like the first congestion charge, a change like this would be a huge gamble for whoever took it,
by Dai James