To those with it, it can seem the most valuable thing in the world, but to those without it, it can often seem completely unnecessary. I’m writing about education. Currently in Britain, statistics record that only 50-60% of students achieve the 5 A*-C grades deemed necessary for continued education or basic employment outside of apprenticeships.1 Is it me, or is this statistic diabolical? How is it that over 40% of all children leaving secondary schools are deemed unfit for basic employment or continued academic achievement – and this in the nation supposedly ranked 6th2 in the world for its quality of education?
I don’t mean to pick on Britain – many other countries are performing similarly. The US’ system can only be described as atrocious considering how much money they spend on it, but how they remain such an economic powerhouse (although perhaps this is slipping) is a subject for another discussion (though a brief summary might mention devices such as the H1B visa for talented immigrants allow the US to benefit from other countries’ superior educational infrastructure).3 However, education is not universally bad, and there are lessons to be learnt from countries that appear to be doing it right. These countries, it would seem, are Finland and South Korea.4
When taking a glance at these countries, the most obvious difference is sheerly their attitude towards education. For example, they spend money paying for good teachers. I would argue that it’s probably not the case that “those who can’t, teach”, but it’s certainly the case that in many nations the incentives simply aren’t there to encourage the talented to teach when industry will give them a better deal. What they get instead are teachers who are very regularly mediocre, or worse. A recent Dispatches documentary from Channel 45 uncovered the shocking inability of British primary school maths teachers to calculate basic sums. It was no wonder that the children had a poor grasp of the fundamentals when the teachers did too, and being that maths is cumulative and that one can’t grasp its advanced topics without a solid foundation of the basic ones, it ends with children becoming perpetual underachievers in the subject.
More than this, though; some teachers admitted that they didn’t even particularly like the subject. It strikes me that this lack of enthusiasm for education is the most dreaded gift a teacher can impart to a student. Even if the teacher’s knowledge is poor, if the child is instilled with an enthusiasm for education, they will be set along a course of automatic self-correction. School can’t last forever, after all, and I hope most would agree that learning should be a life-long endeavour.
We are also deluding ourselves to a certain degree about the functions of compulsory school education. If it were imposed on any other group, it would be the contemporary moral issue of the age. Functionally, the school is a de facto prison – at least during the day. The teacher’s role is both that of instructor and warden. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this (though I think it could be improved – more on this later), but we don’t like to admit it. The purpose of childhood education is not merely to educate, but also to confine children so that they may be looked after whilst the parents are free to spur on the economy. The school is the result of the question of how it is most economical to both teach children and keep them out of the way of their parents during the day. The answer is that it is most economical to keep them all cooped up in one place.
The fact that a child has no choice in the matter is easily glossed over with the standard utilitarian justification that it’s for their own good. It would seem to me that this justification only suffices so long as it actually is for their own good, which means not that the system doesn’t benefit them in some ways (certainly it does), but that there’s not something else we’re preventing them from doing that’s actually better for them.
Contemporary teachers will also tell you that being a teacher has become less and less about teaching, and more about jumping through bureaucratic hoops – what would seem to be the result of shady economic objectives such as creating more jobs. This has over time led to a considerable rise in the amount of paperwork and administrative activities a teacher has, preventing them from imparting their knowledge, and essentially hindering them from enjoying the process. This, combined with the reductions of financial and other incentives to teach, has culminated in the modern teacher’s apparent ambivalence for their everyday work. It’s decidedly not a recipe for inspiring children.
The most important aspect of education is the instilment of the desire to learn. In my eyes, any school that is not doing this competently requires serious attention, and a system which routinely fails at it I can only describe as impotent. Others may disagree, depending on their political taste, and they might argue that the primary role of the educational system is to create good workers capable of enriching the economy. To this I would say that there are more ways to generate wealth than there are ones which are economically rewarding. If we followed a system whose primary ambition was to create good workers, we would perhaps have a strong and able workforce, but only to the detriment of those aspects of society which do not easily submit themselves to economic justification. This approach would be too narrow, and by its nature would tend to create a populace whose intellectual tunnel-vision hoodwinked them into static conservatism and an inability to adapt to change – each person biased towards the status quo to their society’s ultimate disadvantage. This effect has already been seen for example in the Edo period of Japan, where narrow-minded educational practices led to an intellectually immobile society, hesitant to adapt until their whole social structure became unviable and became uprooted in the Meiji Restoration of 1868.6
Instead, this instilment of the desire for education offers to society the same benefit of course-correction that it offers the student who has been taught poor maths fundamentals. Such an approach even-handedly seeks to better those aspects of society that receive poor economic rewards (which, I suspect, will also in the near future include the creation of books and music, whose traditional profit models are now being obsoleted by technology), whilst also seeking to create a knowledgeable, skilled workforce with broader expertise.
How to achieve this is an uncertain question, but what we can observe are those rare institutions that appear radical to modern eyes, yet nevertheless achieve exemplary results. Perhaps the most famous of these institutions is Summerhill,7, based in Suffolk, England. It has had a particularly turbulent relationship with the British Government because of its unorthodox policies, which include the freedom to not attend classes if the student so wishes. However, according to the latest inspection report,8 the school achieved ratings of exceptional in most areas and good in others.
Summerhill is democratically governed by both students and teachers. There is no equivalent of the ‘warden-inmate’ relationship as found in other schools. Students are encouraged to follow their interests and learn what they want to learn, not just what the state believes they should (or shouldn’t), which has the greatest consequence of not forcing those struggling students into a pace that ill-fits them, and of allowing those gifted students to achieve more than their government deems them capable of. Principally, Summerhill’s philosophy incorporates the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, not vice versa. Radical indeed.
I find it very encouraging that places like Summerhill exist, offering as plain as day a solution to the problem of how we could better reform our educational system. How long it takes us to take notice, however, is a different question entirely; Summerhill, after all, has been running since 1921.
I hope I will be able to witness more schools like Summerhill emerging as people’s ideas about the function of the education evolve, and technology makes it ever easier for children and adults alike to learn at their own speeds. I expect that as forces converge, a change in attitude towards education will be inevitable, and the idea that the role of education is to produce industrious workers will fade out of focus. Education will be promoted more and more as valuable even where its utility is not immediately obvious, and the barriers preventing those from poor backgrounds from achieving their potential will continue to diminish. What we will be left with is a society interested in education for its own sake – at least, this would be preferable to Brave New World.
The latest figures available were published October 2012 by the Department of Education:
58.6 per cent achieved 5 or more GCSEs at grade A* to C or equivalent including English and mathematics GCSEs or iGCSEs, a decrease of 0.4 percentage points from 2010/11 (Table 1a, Chart 1).
According to the US immigration information website, Path2usa, “The H1B visa is issued for a speciality occupation, requires theoretical and practical application of a body of specialized knowledge and requires the visa holder to have at least a Bachelors degree or its equivalent.” The site also says (about the year 2009), “This has been the first time in the history of H1B visa petitions. Last year the quota of 65,000 was filled within days and a lottery system was followed to deal with the high number of applications.” ↩
Finland is ranked first and South Korea second on the Pearson education league table referenced above, but the only salient point here is that they rank above countries with more conventional systems of education – conventional, at least, in the eyes of Britain and America. ↩
It would be naïve to say that isolation and restricted education were the only factors involved, but understandably they were major components. One of the most pertinent differences between education in feudal Japan and education in the modern era, however, is that while the Japanese formally restricted what their people could learn about, modern populations are often less in danger from their governments than they are from apathy – though the thoughtful reader might suggest there is still a link between these two. ↩