Three Opinions Best IgnoredApril 7, 2010
No doubt there will be some debate over education during the election campaign. It should involve scrutiny of the future plans and past records of all the parties. If we are lucky, issues such as the behaviour crisis, the dumbing down of teaching and exams, and the level of paperwork and bureaucracy will be raised.
However, there are three opinions that will make me put my palm to my forehead. They are more likely to be expressed by journalists, “experts” and insufferable middle class people presented as examples of public opinion, than by politicians but they come up again and again. They are:
Opinion 1: The problem with education in England is the power and influence of the teaching unions.
An opinion often expressed by people under the impression that the teaching unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, or by people who get their opinions from Americans on the internet. The claim is that education policy is at best severely constrained, and at worst dictated, by ideologically driven unions.
The problem with this theory is that our teaching unions are crap. Properly crap. There are too many of them and they spend their time fighting each other not influencing policy. The next education secretary could announce that every day he is personally going to beat a teacher to death with a rolled up DCSF circular live on Teachers TV and the only response would be the NUT demanding consideration of the workload implications of death and the NASUWT insisting that, although they welcome the move, it should be reviewed after six months.
Our unions are incapable of working together effectively; incapable of distinguishing between the interests of different types of teacher; incapable of identifying the most important issue (clue: it’s behaviour); incapable of enforcing even those working conditions which the government has agreed to; incapable of identifying issues where action is worthwhile; incapable of organising effective industrial action, and incapable of presenting themselves as responsible stakeholders rather than barking loons to the public.
Sometimes it is claimed that unions block bad teachers from being sacked. Nobody ever gives an example of a union going on strike to protect a bad teacher. Invariably, the only thing unions do to protect bad teachers is supporting their members’ legal rights and protections, i.e. rules that the government have already agreed to. Unless you accept that people should be sacked in defiance of the rules this is hardly a major intervention or an illegitimate influence.
Another claim is that the ridiculous politics of some of the unions affects government policy. Apart from the sheer naivety about how politicians make policy, it also seems to be based on ignorance of the teaching unions. They are not affiliated to the Labour Party. They are not noticeably sympathetic to Labour (beyond the fact that the last Tory government managed to do a spectacularly good job of alienating teachers). Although there is a sizeable leftwing caucus in the NUT it is noted by its hostility to the government and its support for fringe leftwing parties. The policies of the unions are often as silly as the policies of government but they certainly aren’t the same policies. The unions are obsessed with getting rid of exams. The government is obsessed with setting targets based on exam results. The unions are (I’m glad to say) against increases in workload, the government is in favour. The unions are preoccupied with making all schools the same. All the political parties are preoccupied with inventing more and more different types of schools.
Opinion 2: Vocational qualifications should be given parity of esteem.
This is an opinion with a less obvious political bias and is expressed by people (who should know better) from all points on the political spectrum. Simply put, the idea is that so many school leavers are unemployable, not because of their lack of academic skills or poor attitude, but that they haven’t spent enough time doing courses to prepare them for the world of work. When it is observed that to a large extent people don’t want to do vocational courses, and employers don’t actually want to employ people who have done the courses, then it is claimed that this is due to snobbery, and that the problem is simply a lack of esteem being given to the courses rather than any inherent problem with the vocational courses.
Of course, there is no problem with esteem for vocational courses simply as a result of them being vocational. If your vocational training happened to be the professional training of a doctor or lawyer (I’d better not mention teachers here) then people have plenty of esteem for your skills and training. This is because, although vocational, these are as challenging as (or more challenging than) most purely academic options. People have no problem with showing respect for vocational options where they are as demanding as the academic options. Similarly, nobody thinks a degree in engineering (despite its strong vocational elements) is somehow inferior to a degree in feminist theory, or for that matter that a GCSE in drama is better than a City and Guilds in structural engineering.
The problem is that esteem is related to difficulty and rigour. Where “vocational” simply specifies “useful for employment” then it carries no stigma. However, the lack of esteem for vocational qualifications has a different origin. It comes from the idea that instead of some people being smarter than others, there are “academic” people and “vocational people”. Now while it is true that some people’s intelligence might be shown more easily in a practical activity than a written one, or vice versa, there simply isn’t a general divide. Somebody who is academically weak is not especially likely to be good at practical activities. Somebody who is good at practical activities and making things with their hands is not especially likely to be poor at academic work. Perhaps there are two types of intelligence here (likely), perhaps they are independent of each other (unlikely, but certainly there are plenty of people who show one without the other) but what is most certainly not the case is that they are negatively correlated. Failure at academic qualifications does not suggest that success at vocational ones is likely. Vocational qualifications aimed at those incapable of academic qualifications cannot simply be an “alternative pathway” deserving of equal status, they will always be a mark of academic weakness. You cannot avoid this. The only way for vocational qualifications to have status is to be in addition, not instead of, academic ones. Vocational qualifications cannot be for those who lack academic smarts, simply because the key academic skills of reading, writing, calculating and thinking are also highly desirable vocational skills.
Simply put, vocational qualifications cannot be dumbed-down qualifications aimed at other people’s children, and still be of equal status with academic qualifications. They can be equally demanding and equally high status. They can be different in the extent of their demands and be of different status. Vocational qualifications can’t be inferior but equal.
Opinion 3: There is too much rote memorisation in schools.
It is a standard line for those who simply don’t have a clue about what is happening in schools, but do have a general inclination to dumb down, to complain that schools are biased towards memorising content rather than concentrating on understanding, and thinking skills (or worse, social skills and self-esteem). Of course, this is based on an old classic. Anyone who actually looks at the issue properly, whether from the point of view of philosophy or psychology, soon realises that you cannot separate knowledge from understanding in this way and simply teach one without the other. You understand more, and think more effectively about a topic the more you remember about it; you remember more about a topic the more you think about it. There aren’t really generic thinking skills that apply regardless of topic, and no amount of new technology can avoid the need for knowledge. You cannot become good at adding and subtracting fractions without knowing your times tables; you cannot analyse historical events without knowing the facts about what happened when.
Now this argument about knowledge and understanding is all background (I’m sure I’ve covered it before and I’m sure I will cover it again.) My specific concern is with the ludicrous claim that, even after decades of dumbing down, child-centred learning and all the rest, schools still focus on learning by rote. Partly, this is simply the favourite myth of the educational radical who, in order to hide the failure of progressive education, claims it has never been tried. To these people schools are still basically Victorian, and the appalling results of our schools system simply reflect this, rather than a reality of, except for one or two brief interruptions, decades of progressive teaching methods.
“Ah”, they cry: “How can the system be based on anything other than rote memorisation when you look at all the exams kids have to do now and all the time they spend cramming for them?”
“Bollocks!” I cry back.
Something that never seems to enter this debate is the fact that the tide has turned against actual exams in the last decade or so. Far from students being examined more than ever, Key Stage 3 exams have been abolished, and the number of GCSEs has been drastically reduced by the introduction of worthless, coursework based vocational qualifications which are never examined. The demands of the examination system have never been lower.
More importantly, those exams that exist are not focussed on memorisation, far from it. SATs are designed to be tests of thinking skills and understanding, not rote memorisation. GCSEs are now going the same way with the introduction of “functional skills”. The reason kids spend so much time preparing for exams is not in order to get them to memorise more knowledge, but because the exams don’t test knowledge well and so end up testing exam technique instead. If you could do well on the exams simply by learning a body of knowledge, schools would spend more time teaching knowledge and less time preparing for examinations. The culture of exam training is opposed to a culture of rote memorisation, not part of it.