Going ‘soft’ on learning

While Michael Gove has attacked the way children are pushed toward easier subjects, the real problem is a society that has devalued education.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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August is perhaps the most predictable month in the British calendar. Bored kids. Crap weather. And, most tediously of all, a moan about how exams have become so easy, a child could pass them. Which they often do, in great, grinning numbers.

This year, with A-level results not due out until Thursday, shadow schools secretary Michael Gove got his criticism in early. Speaking on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, his principal complaint was that some subjects are far easier than others. Which would be fine except that they are accorded the same worth in terms of the grades given. An ‘A’ grade in A-level business studies or A-level dance is apparently the same as an ‘A’ grade in A-level maths or physics. Or at least, it’s the same in terms of the points awarded to the school in the government’s league tables. So, from the school’s perspective, why bother pushing kids towards the tougher subjects when high grades are more easily achieved in dead easy ones?

This, Gove argues in a piece in the Evening Standard published yesterday, means that ‘weaker schools in poorer areas lead pupils to softer subjects in an effort to boost the school’s ranking’. Unfortunately, for those pupils with ‘A’s in psychology or music technology, universities don’t recognise them as being equivalent to similar grades in more traditional subjects, and they certainly don’t recognise them on a par with an ‘A’ in a difficult subject like French. School managements may win here, the rankings of their schools boosted, but students definitely lose out.

Gove’s criticism is well aimed. A target-driven culture in UK schools has seen education subordinated to league tables and ranking points. Gove’s solution, however, is little more than a technical fudge. He proposes that high grades in hard subjects ought to be worth more league ranking points than high grades in the so-called soft subjects. In response, John Dunford of the Association of School and College Leaders simply turns the problem on its head: ‘There has long been evidence that A-levels are not all of equal difficulty and I have been saying this for many years, in particular about modern languages at both GCSE and A-level. However, the answer is not to treat “hard” and “soft” A-levels separately, but to ensure that the marking and grading recognises the relative difficulty.’ There you have it: either make soft subjects hard, or make hard subjects more valuable.

What this ignores is the ongoing crisis of education to which the annual round of dumbing-down angst is testament. Politicians and educationalists can fiddle as much they like with marking standards or league-table points-systems, but the question hanging over them, unspoken and ignored, is: ‘What is education for?’

Peter Hyman, former political strategist to Tony Blair and now deputy headteacher of a London comprehensive school, is at least alive to the problem. ‘There is almost an unspoken deal’, he wrote in the Observer: ‘we’ll spoonfeed you the required nuggets of information to pass your exams if you behave and do your homework on time’. What is ignored in all this is what pupils are actually learning. Too often, he argues, New Labour ignored this, and made education little more than a means to achieving a policy end, like community cohesion, for example.

Unfortunately, his demand that education ought to make children think is just as vacuous. And in many ways, it is no less instrumental than the demand that schools ought to be teaching children about relationships, healthy eating, or recycling. Teachers, he writes, ‘need to focus on students acquiring a way of thinking, a series of transferable techniques, that can be used in a range of situations’. He mentions critical thinking, analysis, public speaking, reflection, leadership, independence and, almost quixotically, a love of reading.

This all sounds great as part of management training course, but should have little role in the school curriculum. You can’t teach thinking, as an end in itself; it is something that develops in relation to the study of a specific subject. One doesn’t learn to think critically in the abstract, but in relation to the matter at hand, be it King Lear or trigonometry.

Not that addressing the crisis of education is easy. Indeed, the question of what education is for, of what a society wants its young to learn and to value is an ongoing, intrinsic part of education itself. The value of a subject is not set in educational stone. It is subject to the vacillations of social history. The classics, for example, were once a staple of education, albeit for a privileged minority, yet now the study of Latin, let alone ancient Greek, lies in Parthenon-like ruins.

English, on the other hand, now seen as a key subject by advocates of hard subjects, was deemed fit only for girls a century ago. It would take advocates like FR Leavis to show why the study of English literature might be edifiying, that the work of Henry James or Jane Austen might contain within it something a society aspiring beyond mere business or economic concerns might value. Likewise, the travails of science education in schools, with ever-dwindling numbers opting for physics over media studies, derives as much from the low esteem in which science is held in society at large than it does the relative difficulty of the subject.

The problem of education is not simply educational; it is just as much a political problem. It is a question of what a society values. The ascendancy of the much-maligned media studies is not the problem, it’s just a symptom.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Back in 2004, school leaver Jack Jordan reflected on the annual furore over A-level results and examiner 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. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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