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delirium happy

Just keep on trying till you run out of cake

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Education, education, education
delirium happy
The current British government came to power in 1997 with a manifesto pledge to focus on education. 8 years and two elections later, they're still in power, and our education system still seems to be a shambles. It's not that they haven't done anything about it. Far from it. They've made a whole host of changes -- some of which I like and some of which I don't -- but they always seem to be in the process of doing something else. One of the recent debates and controversies finds me conflicted in my opinions.

See, from 1944 until 1976, British state education operated under the grammar school system. In this system, all children took an exam upon leaving primary education (the eleven plus exam) and those who did well went off to grammar schools, and those who did badly went off to secondary modern schools (and a small minority going to technical schools). The idea behind this was that the grammar schools could be all academic and intellectual, whereas the secondary moderns could teach vocational skills which would be more useful to the people therein. What actually happened was that all the funding and all the good teachers went to grammar schools, so the grammar school kids got a good education and went on to get a good job, whereas the secondary modern kids got a thoroughly crappy education and wound up in shitty jobs.

So this system got replaced by the comprehensive system. Schools would accept pupils of any ability, and everyone would go to their local school, and the inequality of the old system would be gone for ever, replaced by an egalitarian paradise. Only not. Schools in rich middle class areas tend to do better and attrac better teachers than those in poor working class areas. Good schools end up being over-subscribed, and have to turn people down. Parents who are rich enough will deliberately move house to be near to a good school. And it's all one big mess.

(Anyone with more familiarity with British politics or history than I, feel free to correct me if I'm worng on any details here. I'm nowhere near an expert, but wanted to provided some background for the foreigners and the apolitical who may be reading this.)

One of the issues in British politics recently is that of whether state schools should be allowed to have selection policies based on academic achievement, and this is where I find myself deeply conflicted. On the one hand, I find myself thinking that a "one size fits all" approach to education cannot possibly work to anyone's advantage and to think that it could is all sorts of folly.

Personally, I feel that I was failed by this country's education system. As it happens, I went to a provate school that did (and still does) use entrance exams and have academic-based selection criteria. Even so, two of the biggest lessons that I learned during my time at school were hardly positive ones. I learned that people would resent me and be unpleasant to me because I am smart, and I learned that I could get away with doing little or no work and still be better than most other people. I can only presume this effect would have been that much worse if I'd been at a comprehensive school.

Equally, I'm sure that there are people in the bottom few percentile of academic ability who are equally failed by the system and find much of what is taught to be too hard. People are not the same. People's education needs are not the same, and they should be taught differently. No group is better or worse, they're just different. A comprehensive system, if done properly, may do well for those near the centre of the gaussian, but will always fail the people on either tail.

So really, what I want is for education to be targetted at the needs of the individual, and for separate streams and institutions to run as necessary. However, the big problem with this is that I can't see any way that this could work without encountering the "separate but equal" type of problems endemic to the grammar school system, which is intollerable.

I'm curious as to what you people think about this, mainly because I'm hoping that one of you will be able to offer me some sort of insight that will help me to clarify my own position. I don't like feeling unsure on these issues, as it means I don't know which political party to mistrust the least.

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Equally, I'm sure that there are people in the bottom few percentile of academic ability who are equally failed by the system and find much of what is taught to be too hard.

Just to confuse the matter, academic ability doesn't fit into academic achievement on a simple correlation like that. Some people who might do well in school might end up not really understanding what they were taught, for example.

And comprehensive education can fail people just by being... well... comprehensive. With all the emphasis on the US on "go to college, get a good job that way", only a very few people are realizing that the real way to make money is to be a plumber or a mechanic or something - hell, even a sanitation worker is fairly well-off, simply because so few people are willing to take the job (and also because they've got a strong union....)! So people who really would be better served by, say, learning to work with their hands and get a good job they like are instead being pushed into sitting through schooling they aren't interested in for an overcrowded job market they won't be able to compete in.

People like to say that education is everything, but truth is, some things are more important.

Agreed on pretty much all points. Our government is currently trying to increase the number of people who attend university. And while I thoroughly support the idea that everyone should be able to go to university if they wish to, I relaly don't think that it's a good idea. As far as I can tell, the main effects of this policy are to lower the quality of university education, as classes are filled by people who really don't care about the subject they're studying, to make degrees worth much less in the job market (which is possibly a good thing, in some ways), and to create vast swathes of young people going into the world of work with crippling debts.

My own personal conspiracy theory is that the main purpose of this is to lessen the number of young people going into work, allowing the older generation to work longer, just lessening the pension crisis slightly, without raising unemployment statistics.

And the whole "teaching people how to pass tests" thing drives me insane. I suppose that it's indicative of some of the useless stupid hoops that everyone has to jump thorugh in later life, but it does seem to pretty much defeat the whole purpose of education.

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"Trust" probably wasn't the best choice of words. In this context, I supposse that I meant "trust to do what I believe will improve the country", rather than "trust to be honest and do what they believe will improve the country". Which is something of a stretch.

And don't worry about the yesterday's comment; it's a touchy subject for me, so I'd not be surprised if I was over-sensitive on it.

The "comprehensive system" doesn't sound all that different from the U.S. system. I was fortunate enough to have parents who could pay a premium for a home in an area with a very good local school, and I got a decent education there. The thing that's most interesting to me about this post is the solution that has been proposed, as I take it-- selection policies. That would never happen here, though I'm not so sure I think it's an awful idea. Another thing I've realized is that nobody has a good time in high school, no matter where they go. When I first got to Harvard I thought I would be totally behind because I didn't go to a fancy prep school, but I wasn't. And when I ask my friends who went to the best prep schools in the country how they felt about their educations, I heard exactly the same complaints that I've made about my own.

Let me start by arguing from anecdote, then advancing to generality. My state comp was a 12-form entry, large enough to have two effectively separate streams - the academics and the artisans would only share classes for PE and "social education". The downside: something of a them-and-us mentality amongst the staff as well as the pupils.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the grammar / sec-modern system was its rigidity. Once the die had been cast at 11, it was too difficult to transfer from one side to the other. The existing comprehensive system offers the advantage of more easy movement, but at the expense of a focussed education on those who would benefit most.

Comprehensive education is based on a slightly curious argument, that the most efficient outcome for society is to pretend to offer equality for all, but never to do so. The most rational approach is to target resources where they will have the greatest effect on society as a whole. That's at the fringes of literacy and numeracy, and at the people who are able to think for a living. It's not at the boundary between C and D-grade GCsSE, which must surely be somewhere around the median achievement of the cohort.

It's hard to propose a solution for all seasons, because what worked in a large-C Conservative area like mine probably won't work in a stereotypical inner city. So, this is a back-of-the-envelope idea, insert lots of hand-waving, rhetorical flushes, and leaping about to disguise the paucity of idea.

The broad-brush approach I'd suggest would be to loosely split children into three groups. Those who would best be served by an academic education will get an academic education, concentrating on exams and universities and such; those whose talents lie outside academia will get a primarily practical, skills-based education; and those in between will get a more equal mix of both.

I leave the definition of how many places should fall into each category for the politicians and educationalists, for these are matters both political and educational. Nor do I have any serious suggestion how one would attract the best teachers to the Artisan schools - smaller classes? More money? Revolving contracts - teachers move schools every few years?

For practical implementation, I would suggest that youngsters go through primary school - or perhaps to the age of 10 - as a single cohort. By that time, it should be reasonably easy to see who will fit towards the tails of the distribution, and scythe them off. A further split might take place over the next few years, and might be considered permanent upon entry to the Third Form.

Except in the largest of cities, the practicalities suggest the 11-13 year olds should be streamed within existing schools, rather than physically separated. This also makes it easier to change the track of youngsters - or even to conceal the decision from them. There are pros and cons of physical separation after 13, and this should perhaps for left to each local area to decide.

Of course, you can't have education without qualifications, so let the Artisan schools offer mostly Artisan qualifications; let the Academic schools offer mostly Academic qualifications; and let the Schools In The Middle That Need A Snappy Name offer a mix of Academic and Artisan qualifications.

But this begs a bigger question - what the blazes is education for? Training people for the skills they'll need? Training people for the skills society wants them to have, which could easily be a different thing? Is it for the advancement of the individual, or of society, or both, or neither? Address this question, then sort out the details.

Interesting thoughts. I'm not entirely sure that I agree with most of it, but it does definitely make sense, so I don't really have much to offer in the way of reply to it. However, there is one bit that I do feel compelled to comment on:

The most rational approach is to target resources where they will have the greatest effect on society as a whole.

This is possibly true in an entirely detached sort of way, but it's also very dangerous, because it's the same sort of logic that leads to minorities being neglected entirely. As an ideal, I think that the goal always has to be to try to target and benefit everyone, without exception. Of course, in reality, resources are finite and compromises have to be made in the name of pragmatism. But I do think it's important to always try to keep the ideal in mind.

And then there's your question in the last paragraph, and blimey, that is a biggie. I'll have to think on that one. I may or may not end up posting thoughts on it in a searate entry, depending on whether I manage to reach any conclusions, and how interesting they turn out to be.

One of my major concerns about selection at secondary school entrance is that 11 is just to early to tell which pupils will flower academically and which won't. If you don't really get it until you're thirteen but are then stuck in a secondary modern school then it really sucks to be you.

My personal preference is for streaming - that way you can be at different levels in different subjects and at different ages and still hopefully get lessons tailored fairly close to your level of ability. The downside here is that it only really works to best effect in larger schools.

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