A low level of educational ambition

While A-level grades may be rising, UK education remains as culturally impoverished as the public life that informs it.

Few areas of public policy generate as much debate, heat and controversy as education in the UK. The publication of A-level results for England and Wales today - with yet another record for pass rates and ‘A’ grades - will once again stir complaints over grade inflation, soft subjects and lowered standards. The dreaded phrase ‘dumbing down’ will be wheeled out with calls for schools and colleges to champion maths and physics. Most critics of New Labour’s education policies identify a raising of ‘academic standards’ as the solution to the government’s target-driven excesses. So, would a proposed return to the old, pre-2000 A-level and the abandoning of media studies magically restore an invigorating education system for sixth-formers?

The problem with the current education debate is that both the government and its critics focus too narrowly on specific policies. Of course, some of these criticisms are well-placed. The modularised A-level, and in particular the constant re-takes available during the two-year courses, has led to grade inflation and made it more difficult for universities to distinguish between outstanding students and very good ones (1). The obsession with ‘student-centred’ learning, using IT and websites rather than reading books and writing, and making everything ‘relevant’ to Johnnie Student has succeeded in hollowing out classroom content.

On postgraduate teacher-training courses, subject knowledge and a passion for the subject you are teaching are rather low down on the list of professional priorities. Teachers are re-cast as handout-churning ‘facilitators’ and it is deemed arrogant to assume they have more knowledge than their students. All of these factors have had a damaging impact on the education system, but they are only symptoms of a deeper malaise.

The most corrosive impact on education in the UK is the political elite’s open disdain for high culture. The populist turn over the past 15 years, based on the idea of making society’s culture more relevant and less alienating to ‘ordinary people’, means that today’s generation are more cut off than ever from the realm of ideas. Certainly, there’s very little of substance in contemporary society to which the young can aspire. It’s often unwise to nostalgically hark-back to a ‘golden age’, but it is true to say that the elites’ culture doesn’t reverberate with as much presence and force as it used to.

Growing up, as I did, in the 1970s and 1980s, BBC2 television would introduce new generations to obscure arthouse cinema, programmes celebrating George Orwell and Graham Greene, and compelling political documentaries. Against a backdrop of raging conflict in society, the adult world we were entering seemed rich, complex and engagingly serious. It also became obvious that in order to make an impact on that world, acquiring knowledge and an understanding of society was mandatory.

In this sense, further and higher education was self-selecting – as it should be. It was also free from governmental pressures of recruitment, retainment and pass-rate targets. A-levels and, often, university represented a space in which motivated young people could explore ideas. This was why studying A-level English literature was de rigeur for any self-respecting, pretentious sixth-form student.

The diminishing of high culture in society, and the rise of instrumentalist policy, means that English literature doesn’t have the same appeal as it used to. Indeed, from my experience, many students struggle with or drop out from studying English today in the way many have traditionally struggled with studying a foreign language.

In a society that’s estranged from English literature, it’s no surprise that for many students today, the subject appears either bewildering or not very relevant. What’s compounded this problem is how the teaching profession have nearly given up instilling advanced literary skills into students. The education system spends more time identifying ‘medical’ reasons as to why some students have poor handwriting or difficulty in writing cogent sentences than ensuring legibility and literacy. Giving such students extra time in exams or a laptop in class is a poor substitute for teaching students how to write well.

One commonly proffered solution is to give schools an incentive (more league table points, for instance) to produce maths and physics students. But this won’t work. Firstly, a technical quick-fix is again an inadequate compensation for a climate that is deeply suspicious about science. There is also the danger that such subjects will be used to strengthen the instrumentalist ethos that’s already damaging education more broadly. Besides, there has actually been an increase in the uptake of physics and maths A-levels in recent years as competition for good university places intensifies. Ironically then, such subjects aren’t studied for their own sake, for the sake of knowledge, but rather for some clearly defined goal. Is this the purpose of education in the twenty-first century?

Unfortunately, over the past decade, education has increasingly been subordinated to non-educational ends. It has become an instrument for any number of policy objectives. In particular, there’s the deluded idea that giving everybody degrees will automatically lift students from poor backgrounds out of poverty and magically solve the problem of ‘social exclusion’.

The re-formulated A-levels in 2000 were part of this process of ‘helping’ students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Conservative shadow education secretary Michael Gove was right when he said recently that ‘teaching to the test’ has actually put such students at a disadvantage as they lack the all-round knowledge to impress in university interviews (2). One of the current complaints from the top universities is that students are blank when it comes to broader social and historical knowledge. This is also why the demand that students need to ‘learn how to think’ is also a dead end. Evaluating ideas can only properly develop once a student has acquired a decent amount of knowledge. The present culture of handouts and websites is singularly unsuited to developing that.

All this draws attention to what a liberal education should be about: providing an arena where students simply learn for learning’s sake. It shouldn’t have to have external goals or targets or practical relevance for it to have any worth. Education is above all a mechanism through which the next generation develops intellectually and morally to become active citizens. And this is where the real problem arises. For individuals to act as citizens there must be a public life worth engaging with. There must be a clear sense and purpose about the particular society an individual is living in. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim maintained that the purpose of education is that it acts as a bridge between young people and the society they’re living in.

But today this begs the question: if UK society doesn’t have a clear idea of what it stands for, and if public life barely exists in any meaningful way, can education play its traditional role? Certainly, the idea of learning for learning’s sake doesn’t register in the government’s vocabulary and it certainly doesn’t have any ideas of substance to project through the education system. This is why instrumentalism and targets are so central within the education system now – they fill the vacuum where ideas, and an idea of what society is, should be (3).

It’s worth pointing out that, long before New Labour started pushing education on ‘socially excluded’ ordinary people, there has been a culture of autodidacticism amongst the working masses. This reflected how citizenship and public life had real meaning in the UK. And in order to participate and shape the public arena, obtaining an education, more often than not by yourself, was crucial. A society that is bereft of an active political and public life doesn’t have the same gravitational pull today. There is little to make one want to learn, little of substance in the public sphere to get to grips with. This is compounded by the fact that the elites have become ever more weak-kneed when it comes to promoting high culture. For younger generations, there is very little of any depth for them to engage with and develop further.

Nevertheless, young people are naturally curious about the society they live in. At its best a liberal, humanities-based education nurtures that curiosity, inspires interests, and furnishes the young with a sense of their purpose in society. In other words, a good education provides the intellectual fuel for agency and enlarges a sense of what is possible. Unfortunately, until there is a clear idea of what society stands for, and whether it is conceivable for individuals to shape society, education of any real worth will continue to diminish. No amount of record-breaking A-level passes can disguise that.

Neil Davenport is a writer and teaches A-level politics and sociology in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi argued that education has been hijacked by single-issue campaign groups with little concern for pedagogy. Neil Davenport said A-levels were selling students short. Elsewhere, he argued that the establishment are making learning uncool. Jennie Bristow argued for scrapping endless exam reforms and bringing back education instead. And Michele Ledda felt that children ought be challenged by subjects. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) See Fool’s Gold Standard, by Neil Davenport, 27 August 2004

(2) See Going ‘soft’ on learning, by Tim Black, 18 August 2009

(3) See Free thinking not allowed, by Neil Davenport, 30 March 2006


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