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10 October 2020

The Swiss Cheese of English Education

Tag(s): Education, Languages & Culture
There is no doubt that children and young people have suffered very badly from the terrible management of the pandemic by the authorities and their lives may be scarred forever. There isn’t a student in the whole country who doesn’t think that Gavin Williamson should resign as Secretary of State for Education. But I don’t think the problems have just occurred this year stemming from the health crisis and the panicking government’s reaction to it. I think there are deeper problems that have gone on for decades.

I have been both a governor of a comprehensive girls’ school and a University and have a passion for education. But I wonder if in either capacity I paid enough attention to the curriculum. Increasingly I’m becoming aware of how the standard curriculum the people of my generation enjoyed is being punctured with holes. I blogged on the problem of Mathematics in 2014 when I attended a session at the school on the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) for girls.[i] I had recently read the following letter in a newspaper:

“The reason for the shortage of engineers and scientists in Britain is that applied maths was replaced by pure maths at secondary level in the 1970s.

Applied maths uses maths to solve problems. It is essential to teaching and learning engineering and the sciences. Pure maths is the study of mathematical conundrums, with no practical application.

This short-sighted policy destroyed Britain’s engineering and scientific expertise, and has produced two generations of mathematically illiterate adults. The skill shortages have had to be made up by migrant workers.

Applied maths should be reintroduced at secondary level and pure maths offered only at A-level and above.

from Peter Wedderburn-Ogilvy, Froxfield, Hampshire”

I used the occasion of my visit to question both the headmistress and one of the maths teachers as to whether this was true and they both confirmed it. Only 10% of people in the UK have a qualification in a technical subject compared with 20% in Germany and this is one of the biggest reasons why Germany has pulled so far ahead of the UK in economic development and prosperity.

Just this week I have become aware of other areas which are being punctured routinely by our educational establishment. I am a regular reader of The Oldie[ii], an excellent publication which I thoroughly recommend not only for those of us who qualify as oldies. Perhaps being an oldie gives one a sense of perspective as one can make comparisons more easily across the generations.

In the current issue there are two articles that refer to the problem. The first is by Charles Spencer, brother to Princess Diana, who is also a distinguished historian in his own right. In the article he refers to the White Ship disaster in which Prince William, grandson of William the Conqueror, drowned in a ship and as he was Henry I’s heir this led to civil war. I quote from the article:

I was born in 1964 and Our Island Story, for all its factual creakiness, was still being used in the classroom by teachers eager to ignite a passion for the past. The White Ship was one of my favourite tales, and I assumed it was known to all….

I was asked to speak to an international group of history enthusiasts on a tour learning about the queens of England…. I realised that so many of the personalities I would talk about would be well known to them - Boudicca, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth I. I mixed in a few of the more obscure queens, including the consorts of James I and James II,  but realised I still needed to add to the brew. I reached for the White Ship, which ended the direct male line stemming from William the Conqueror leaving Henry I determined to be succeeded by his daughter Matilda, the ‘nearly queen’.

It provoked an extraordinary reaction: during the Matilda section of my talk, the audience changed from the polite nods at the bulk of my speech to genuine interest in the drama I unfurled for them. It was new to almost all of them.

A few months later, I repeated the talk, and provoked the same reaction. I realised that I was from the last generation who had been taught this period of history as a standard part of my education.

Since then history has spiralled down from a guaranteed part of each pupil’s curriculum to a minor discipline that is quickly optional. For history teachers to remain in the job they have to dish up Henry VIII and Hitler.

With my last book, on Charles II’s great escape at the end of the Civil War – hiding in his oak tree, and all – I offered to give a talk about it at a boarding school with which I have a family link. ‘Please do!’  said the wonderfully upbeat head of history; but we don’t actually teach the Stuarts…’

We don’t actually teach the Stuarts! It is extraordinary. Just as the Tudors represented a major change in English society with the Reformation representing a fundamental break from Rome just as big as Brexit today, so the Stuarts represented an equally significant development when the imported Scottish Kings tested Magna Carta which had established  that even the King was subject to law and this led to the execution of the second of them,  then the restoration of the third and finally leading to the great revolution of 1689 which established as much as any event the constitutional apparatus with which we still live. This has secured 300 years of peace and growing prosperity. It is a calamity that today’s children grow up with no understanding of these basic facts and may be one of the reasons why democracy today is in such peril.

But then in the same issue of The Oldie by some extraordinary coincidence there was another reference to an important subject disappearing from the curriculum, this time poetry. Here Roger Lewis recalls the poems he learnt at his Welsh comprehensive and asks what will today’s children have to look back on?

“They’ve not been taught to appreciate our sensual and intuitive language, the sentences and phrases that have, as DH Lawrence said, their own ‘blood of emotion and instinct running through them, like fire in a ruby.’

From next year poetry will be dropped as a compulsory topic for GCSE pupils. English literature is ‘out of tune with the times’, according to Ofqual, which is not an Arabic word but the disgusting-sounding Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation, which failed to distinguish itself in the A-level charade.

Local authority budgets for public libraries were slashed by £30 million in 2017/18 alone. Libraries that haven’t closed completely –their stock flogged on Amazon for 1p a book – have become 'community hubs' where you can pick up leaflets on cycle trails or mobile chiropodists. Apart from large-print editions of Maeve Binchy, the written word is not given much of a look-in any longer.

Why has this philistinism, which amounts to Nazi book-burning, happened.  Larkin wrote poems ‘to preserve things I have seen… Both myself and for others, I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I’m trying to keep from oblivion for its own stake.’

Betjeman wrote to capture the little, forgotten, obscure instances in the British scene: gas lamps, railway stations, fish knives, bungalows, sponge cakes, wet shoes – the surface of things that reveal a way of life.

The instinct to preserve is now anathema. The past not only means nothing; it has to be reprehended. (‘You do well …to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed,’ said Goebbels.) Men prior to the millennium, runs the orthodoxy, were wicked and despotic; women oppressed, not permitted to vote or be lesbians if they felt like it – everything was a series of negatives. The Empire, which gave much of the world its legislature, engineering marvels, medicine and the English language itself, was only evil.

Children don’t know things because their teachers don’t. I have met teachers who have never heard of Orson Welles or Muriel Spark. They don’t read for pleasure, watch black-and-white movies, and they never stray outside the syllabus. The word I’d use is thick. Anyone with talent quickly resigns in despair.”

Maths and history and poetry were and still are a very important part of my life. But they should be a very important part of everybody’s life. I wonder what other holes are being punched in the curriculum.

Music for one. A study by the British Phonographic Industry in March last year found there had been a 21 per cent decrease in music provision in state schools in England since 2014. This despite the fact that a 2013 study indicated that there was a window of learning between the ages of six and eight when musical training interacts with motor development.

And then there is sport. With decades of bad policy schools have sold their playing fields. Teachers were awarded a significant pay rise in the 1970s but at the same time the number of hours were more strictly defined. So the majority of teachers would no longer stay on to coach sport or supervise other activities. The typical state school ends its day at 4pm while private schools stay on till 6pm or 7pm. Half the England Cricket  World Cup winning squad last year were educated in private schools. The result of all this- an obesity crisis among young children whose idea of competitive activity is Fortnite.

No doubt I could add Physics, Classical and Modern Languages, Domestic Economics, the list goes on.

So what is being taught? Is it wokefulness? Is it left-wing drivel? Is it transgenderism? I will no doubt return to this important subject but for the time being I remain deeply concerned that the English system of education resembles nothing more than a Swiss cheese.

[i] A Mathematics Problem 29th November 2014
[ii] The Oldie October 2020

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