would agree that education is a crucially important government
responsibility. All main political
parties agree that there should be more social mobility and the best way to
encourage social mobility is through education.
So the educational system provided by government and experienced by our
children and young people is worthy of the serious consideration and critical
article suggests that, from the 1960s, the definition of education, its
function, its objectives and the means of fulfilling those objectives have
become hopelessly confused in Britain.
by trying to define what we need from an educational system. We want citizens
who are capable of contributing to society through work and, as far as
possible, who can fulfil their potential in any field of their choice on
condition it is of benefit to themselves and society. We also want citizens who
are responsible, capable of self-discipline, benevolent, creative and possessed
of many other laudable attributes, and education certainly has a part to play
in instilling these qualities but it is the first two objectives –
self-fulfilled individuals who can contribute to society through work – that we
would argue are the primary goals of an educational system.
to contribute fully in an advanced society they need three skills that are
prerequisites of acquiring a good education.
They are in fact part of the education process but we call them
prerequisites because, without them, the rest of the educational process will
be hobbled and will falter. These three
(or the ability to reason)
It may be
useful to define these terms. By
literacy we mean the ability to express yourself in words (oral or written) in
such a way that you are able to make your words mean what you want them to mean
- and nothing else. By numeracy, we
mean the ability to perform elementary mathematical tasks and to have a good
grasp of the mathematical processes that are involved. By logic, we mean the ability to see the
connection between propositions, to identify causes and their effect and to
definitions are short and crude but we hope they are clear enough for some
readers at least to realise that our present educational system is not
providing these skills at anything like the level of competence that a modern
competitive society requires. Indeed, the educational establishment has
systematically undermined efforts to maintain standards of literacy, numeracy
and reasoning over the last fifty years to such an extent and with such success
that some of those reading this article may not recognise the problem at all.
How has the
educational establishment wrought this damage?
Well, it began with the benign but truly idiotic idea that children
should be left to learn at their own pace by experimentation and exploration. It is unfair to dismiss the Plowden Report
of 1967 as nonsense. Most of its
recommendations were very sensible and even its advocacy of child-centred learning
had some merit but to the extent that it was subsequently used to justify the
it was no longer necessary to insist on proper standards of literacy
if you could use a calculator, that was all the mathematics you needed
what you felt about things, even if your feelings were entirely inconsistent,
was more important than their obvious inconsistency
it has done
enormous, but hopefully not irreparable, damage to our educational system.
we are not arguing that the skills of literacy, numeracy and reasoning have
been lost. There are many young people
who have acquired them as well as anyone in the past. But, in the main, they have acquired them
despite, not because of, the educational system.
educational system has abandoned learning by rote, whereby young children used
to internalise and, in modern parlance, take ownership of, such basic elements
of knowledge as the times tables, the capitals of the world, the elements of
grammar. It now seems children can pass even A level in English literature
without being able to recite even one poem from memory. Deprived of a calculator, many GCSE maths
students are helpless and hopeless.
And, as for reasoning, the rubric of the multi-cultural society - that we
should respect all cultures, even if the values of those cultures contradict
our own - has stifled debate, constructive or otherwise, and often has silenced
argue about whether children should commit poems to memory but surely there can
be no disputing the need for all children in this country to acquire competence
in English, basic mathematics and the principles of reasoning.
It is a
disgrace that large numbers of young people leave school after 12 years of
formal education without these basic competencies. What on earth are our schools doing? What are our teachers doing? Is it their purpose to turn out hundreds of
thousands of unemployable young citizens who will struggle with life as well as
the workplace because they are functionally illiterate and innumerate?
must start with the teachers. We have to
accept that, since many teachers have been through the misguided educational
system which is the problem, they will be ill-equipped to find solutions. Indeed they will almost certainly resist the
radical changes needed. Nevertheless, if
our society is to compete effectively in a post-industrial world, we have to do
something. We need to set much higher
standards for those teaching in primary and secondary schools. We need to reinstate teaching as a highly
respected profession, not as the place those with a poor degree even by today’s
debased standards and who can’t get any other job turn to as a last
resort. Teacher training colleges should
ensure all candidates for the teaching profession are themselves competent in
literacy, numeracy and reasoning before they do anything else. We cannot have teachers with the lowest pass
mark in maths GCSE trying to teach the next generation the basics of maths when
it is fairly obvious they have failed to grasp the principles themselves. We cannot have head teachers who cannot spell
and who find it difficult to put together a grammatical sentence.
there are many well-educated, competent and dedicated teachers. But there are also many who are not and,
whatever the ratio of good to bad teachers, the outcome, large numbers of
functionally illiterate and innumerate young adults, is irrefutable evidence of
a major problem.
decided that, even if it took the full 12 years of formal education to the
exclusion of all other academic subjects, every child in this country would
leave school able to read and write, perform simple mathematical tasks and
grasp an argument, we would have greatly improved their life chances and
produced a much better labour pool for today’s employers. Of course most children, if properly taught,
will not need 12 years to reach the required level of competence in these basic
skills. Five years should be sufficient
for most. For them, the curriculum
could then broaden out.
For any who
have not achieved competence in the basic skills, there would still be seven
years to sort out these residual problems.