Sunday, September 20, 2015

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Fleeting Innocence

Last week, throughout England, children resumed their schooling. Mine include a ‘sixth-former’, anxious at the onset of her crucial pre-university year, and two young boys, one with an imminent ‘11+’ exam (but whose mind is still somewhere on the cricket field), the other full of beans, having won a summer library competition.

I asked the ten-year-old: ‘When you’re older, what do you think will be your fondest memories of schooldays?’

He replied: ‘Walking to and from school with you.’

I was touched by the sentiment. What father wouldn’t be? As he disappeared through the school gates with his brother, I dwelled for a moment on the fact that I know what lies along his educational tracks between now and adulthood, whereas he and his brother are oblivious. Better that way: insight might bring with it disillusionment.

My elder son, like most of his friends, has received fairly intense tutoring for the 11+ test. He knows his preferred school, having toured it and played both football and cricket on its picturesque sports fields. He accepts the challenge laid down to him: pass the exam, and a highly-reputable, 500-year-old grammar school awaits his arrival. What he also accepts, without question, is the archaic 11+ rule which states that his educational future is to be influenced significantly by a one-off standard assessment at the arbitrary age of eleven.

Anyone with the slightest capacity for critical thinking would recognize the absurdity of such a simplistic system. In the 1960s, prominent educationalists acknowledged the potential for irreversible injustice, which often verged on random. Vast swathes of school pupils were either lucky or callously short-changed. So politicians tried to fix it – and made matters worse. The introduction of so-called ‘comprehensive’ schools more or less coincided with the beginning of my own school years. The new ethos was different, diametrically so, but even less rational than its predecessor. Classes were purposefully formed of pupils of ‘mixed abilities’. In other words, a poor soul who was floored by basic arithmetic might find himself (literally) rubbing shoulders with a mathematical genius. Inherent was the discredited Freudian premise that children were ‘clean slates’ with similar innate potential. Separating children on grounds of intellectual aptitude was considered wrong-headed and cruel, as was the self-evident truth that natural abilities were unequally bestowed (Figure 86.1).

Figure 86.1: The 1960s solution to educational injustice

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What would be wrong, I used to wonder, with children attending the same local school, but where streaming according to ability, in every subject where practicable, was carried out early on, while leaving room for movement between groups in recognition of varying individual rates of development? For example, consider a pupil who is brilliant at Languages but hopeless at Science. He would be failed by both the segregationist and comprehensive approaches; and so he was.

Predictably, the results were, to be polite, underwhelming. One generation of educationalists lived to destroy all that previous ones had died to create. Bright children were held back; their struggling classmates floundered; and those in the middle were denied the attention to which they were entitled. For half a century now, the educational landscape has become littered with the smouldering wreckage of brainless pedagogical schemes whose implementation should have been curtailed by basic common sense and observation.

Meanwhile, my seventeen-year-old daughter has a different set of conundrums to tackle. What to do next year? University is the obvious choice, despite many modern degrees being practically worthless to employers. Furthermore, after three years, she would leave with a £40,000 debt statement stapled to her degree scroll. Worse still, securing the means to pay down said debt is becoming more difficult by the year. As the country’s population continues to explode (Figure 86.2) – a staggering 350,000 increase last year alone – so does the inevitable competition for gainful employment.

Figure 86.2: It seems strange to me that while environmentalists dutifully promote the concept of sustainability, they remain largely silent on the crucial subject of rampant population growth. Our children will pay the price of their neglect.

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A couple of hours from now, I shall set off on foot to meet my two young scallywags at the school gates. They will walk home smiling, banging on about cricket, turning over small rocks in search of worms and woodlice, and claiming to have already forgotten what they had just done in the classroom. May their naïve smiles last a while longer.

Copyright © 2015 Paul Spradbery