Friday, 6 May 2016

We Don't Need No Education

The action of the parents who kept their young children away from primary school on Monday in protest against what they believe are unnecessarily early Standard Assessment Tests caused me to ponder their case. I listened to a Government Minister defend the tests as necessary to measure not only pupil progress but also the effectiveness of the teaching system, yet he refused to voice an opinion on whether a less rigid approach is better for very young pupils. I suppose he has his targets to meet, which gives us a clue as to why we should be wary of governments' motivations when it comes to our children's educational regime: they will be inclined to perpetuate the social structure that keeps them in power. Exams must be passed and certificates issued so that employers can choose who to employ.

Government policies on education change and evolve, but we should never assume that a national curriculum is designed to be in the best interests of the individual. Pink Floyd, who are not education professionals, made the point with their metaphorical line "just another brick in the wall". Ideally we would be taught to ask questions as well as answer them. John Stuart Mill (1806—1873) was home-schooled by his father who introduced him to as many educated people as he could muster and urged him to question everything they said: and the result? – a radical thinker and social reformer, so far ahead of his time that he was in trouble by the age of 17, jailed for promoting obscenity because he had published a pamphlet describing and advocating forms of contraception.

J.S. Mill was, of course, socially privileged: such home-schooling was and is impractical for most people. Private schools offer parents a compromise in the form of a high teacher-pupil ratio, but only the wealthy need apply. The promise of private education is that more time and resources are devoted to the development of a child's character. Character development is essential: failure to qualify academically is not necessarily a disadvantage if you have acquired resilience, confidence and a variety of interests in the course of your education. You could make a living (assuming you need to) out of whatever talents you possess and whatever social contacts you can muster. The current Education Secretary has publicly acknowledged the importance of character education, but resources are stretched thin and the emphasis remains on passing exams.

There are, however, two high-profile careers for which you don't have to pass any exams at all. One of them is business, the other is politics. In fact, too much schooling can inhibit progress in these fields (through starting late and allowing the intrusion of inconvenient academic habits such as fence-sitting). And there is one skill common to success in both business and politics for which certificates are not available: self-promotion. Donald Trump is a case in point. But he has another crucial element in his favour. It has been demonstrated that the biggest single factor determining success in business is fortuitous timing: Uber and AirBnB both hit their stride at the height of the last recession, when people needed to generate income from their spare rooms and from their cars. Politicians likewise rise on the tide of demand and, as the equity-gulf between rich and poor has disenfranchised millions of Americans Trump has found a ready audience – dislodged "bricks in the wall" – eager for him to solve their economic woes and "make America great again". How will he do that? He refuses to answer that question – presumably because he doesn't know the answer. Qualifications, evidently, are not required for the job of leader of the world's most powerful nation.

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