Children need education, not qualifications

Schooling has a crucial, humanist task: to introduce pupils to the accumulated learning of humanity.

Every summer - during a notoriously slow period for news in Britain - we are invariably treated to a flurry of media headlines either celebrating or denigrating the latest school exam results. This is often accompanied by a ‘debate’ on whether standards have gone up, down or stagnated. This, in turn, is followed closely by a discussion on who’s to blame or what current educational fad can be extolled for having worked wonders.

Jerry Jarvis, former chief of Edexcel, one of the UK’s main exam boards, writes in his book, Cheats, Choices and Dumbing Down, that it is a cause for concern that the education system has lost public confidence (which is possibly true). The reason he gives is that in replacing ranking order in exams – that is, with awarding an A grade to the top 10 per cent of students, B to the next 15 per cents and so on – with universal standards, no one can be sure that students getting an A or A* really are, academically, among the best.

The nature of, and trust in, examinations and tests are important considerations because they have an important place in education. Teachers need tests to see how well pupils understand the subject, universities need exams to be as certain as possible that students embarking upon a course of study are less likely to flounder and, to a lesser degree, employers can refer to them as general indicators of certain qualities and traits required for work.

Jarvis’s claim that there is less public confidence in exams today may well be true, but it is only part of the picture when assessing the state of education. When examinations, which can only partially capture pupils’ understanding of a subject, become the sole content of education, then problems are bound to follow. Grade inflation is an open secret in a situation where teachers and schools are deemed failures if, year-on-year or term-on-term, ‘progress’ is not evidenced.

And if the public has lost confidence, it is not – as Jarvis suggests – because we don’t understand ranking versus standards in exams. It is more likely to be because many parents cannot understand why after a year at school their child is likely to have only a few tatty books with very little written in them, tons of loose sheets annotated with random information and reports that say their child is ‘making good progress towards the next level’. Or perhaps it is because they have accepted the idea that a school’s first duty is to cater to the needs of each individual child to make them feel happy, esteemed. This is an impossible task and, if accepted, creates a fertile ground for mutual resentment and tension between teachers and parents.

The problem with trying to decide if standards have changed for better or worse is that this assumes that education itself has remained a constant, and so our attention is drawn to the way we do our measuring and assessing, and whether the benefits of ranking outweigh perceived possible harm to students’ self-esteem rather than actually looking at what is happening. Unfortunately, this does mean acknowledging that the most important question for those concerned with education in Britain is not whether standards have fallen or not, but rather is there education at all in any meaningful sense.

If the public role of education is widely accepted as being to serve the needs of industry, or to ensure that the younger generation are socialised in ‘an appropriate way’, or as a direct conduit to a better job (or any job), or as something to do while jobs are thin on the ground, then something crucial is lost. What should be defended is the idea of education being a unique period in a person’s life when they are introduced to a range of subjects, based upon knowledge that has been developed over many years, by many people from different societies. When this aim is central in education, we are doing more than giving pupils instrumental skills and information. We are affirming to the young an idea of the world, and people in it, as having more to them than can be apparent at any one time or through personal experience alone. This is where the true humanistic and humanising aspect of education lies, not in getting more meaningless paper qualifications or having more initiatives on the ‘social and emotional aspects of learning’, as Dennis Hayes has noted elsewhere on spiked.

During the ages of compulsory education, from ages five to 16, such an introduction to subjects can only be done sketchily – it can only be an outline, and it doesn’t mean there is no place for non-academic pursuits. And, of course, few pupils will enjoy, or be good at, all the subjects presented to them. But if taken seriously by society, it will mean that if and when a student decides to go to university, they will go because a particular subject has inspired a curiosity that they have decided is worth pursuing. It will also probably mean that when they get to university they will not need extra catch-up lessons on how to write an essay.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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