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January 24, 2007

Ruth Kelly Leaves Early to Avoid the Rush: Marc Sidwell suggests state education is signing up to more decades of failure

Posted by Marc Sidwell

Marc Sidwell argues that the DfES's embracement of "personalised learning" will institutionalise educational failure.

When Tony was handing out spin doctors, were the DfES team playing hookey? Recent press releases promised to raise the school-leaving age from sixteen to eighteen - and sent most readers' heads directly to their hands, without the need for any commentator to offer directions.

New league tables were unveiled on which educational achievement was so egregiously distorted that they mocked themselves (Chelmsford County High is below average! Send your child to top-of-the-board Academy of St Francis of Assisi where 17% get five good GCSEs! Now that's added value!). When the woman who bulldozed special education services sends her child private rather than put up with inadequate state provision, the rest is silence. Good wine needs no bush and in 2007 it seems that the DfES's headlines have finally become self-basting turkeys.

Yet it is now so easy to weep/laugh at the daily folly dished out in the name of national education that the longer-term commitments emerging this month can be missed. January 2007 was not just the point at which the Department of Education became an obvious joke: it was the moment when it signed our children up to more generations without a proper education.

For some time it has been possible to think that the calamity of the Plowden report and the closure of the grammar schools - all the Sixties cant that accompanied comprehensivisation - was slowly being reconsidered. The road may have been long and winding, allowing the generation who cut their political teeth on these issues to either die or at least forget why they had thought it mattered so much, but it was heading in the right direction. Setting would increase, independence of various kinds would be introduced. Children would gradually be taught more and more. An intellectual fashion would have spoilt the life-chances of a generation of the poor, but at least things were on the mend.

Well not any more. The DfES is set to be once, twice, three times a fashion victim. The new trend is "personalised education" and it should make you shudder. This is not a case of a single daft initiative. Personalised education is a vision for 2020, a long-term, root-and-branch shift, a new educational gestalt, a departmental weltanschauung that could have been designed to keep the words "achievement" and "school" as strangers to one another.

It works like this. Molly is twelve and she has just learnt how to solve differential equations. Colin is fourteen and he can now remember his six times table. Both children deserve our praise. It would be judgemental of us to distinguish between their achievements as each has improved by the same amount relative to their starting points. All achievement is equal and now let's all dance around the diversity tree until the bell goes. I exaggerate, of course. There are no plans to bring back anything so prescriptive as the times tables.

Personalised education is a calamity. Worse, it is a calamity we may not get rid of for half a century. Out will go grades and marks (for those would give Colin an "F" and Molly an "A": remember, they are both doing very well). You can see why this will appeal to the department, tired of having to deal with all those cruel journalists harping on about grade inflation as if that had anything to do with real personal measures of attainment. Will the rest of us really let them get away with this just because of that hypnotising word "personal"? On past form, yes. Ruth Kelly closed special education facilities by calling it "inclusion".

Grades will be the least of it. Out too will go any sense of urgency. Why should we tell Colin he "ought" to have learnt that years before? We are all individuals, you know. We must follow our own paths through this flower-strewn forest of life and if some of our students come out of compulsory schooling at eighteen unable to tie their own shoelaces… Well, that's the wrong question. The DfES won't know if Colin can do anything in particular because they will be looking at the really important variable, which is to say: did he walk at his own pace along his personalised learning highway? Sing it like Sinatra, Colin: do it your way. Destination is really an outmoded concern.

One of the central tenets of liberal education has always been its sense of urgency. Driven by the mission of instilling essential knowledge and skills into the child before the age of majority, when he or she would join the adult world as a free citizen, a liberal education has always been a race against time. Now we are happy to compel adults to remain in schooling, a profoundly illiberal requirement. Colin will be kept pluckily working at those tables until he is old and grey and everyone will think that he, his school and his lifelong learning provider are doing just swell.

The central misconception of personalised learning is that there is no bar that we can expect all our children to jump by a certain age. This is unfortunately the central premise of a liberal education. It is why parents will keep hounding the DfES about the fact that Colin can't read yet, however far they try to move the goalposts. That the old-fashioned system means a few sometimes end up failing or repeating a year or that "oppressive" methods of teaching like synthetic phonics are required is part of the price of freedom. No one said school had to be fun, apart from education's fashion designers.

Personalised learning is about to be locked in for decades. I am alarmed for the pupils about to be subjected to its nonsense, but I am almost as concerned for the DfES, which is now beginning to show signs of a total dependency on educational fashions from which it cannot shake itself. Faced with this pattern of addictive behaviour, we need to attempt an intervention. Someone must confront the department with the illiteracy figures and make them see the costs of their habit. The ministry may need to retire en masse to the Priory and go cold turkey on the educational journals for a few months. The first step with dependent behaviour is simply to admit you have a problem. How much longer can the department that is a national joke stay in denial?

Marc Sidwell is a freelance writer and a member of the organising committee for the Henry Jackson Society, as well as co-founder of the Champagne Charlies discussion group. He is currently working on an anthology of British writing in defence of liberal education.


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Could the author please explain to us what a liberal education is all about? Who is supposed to benefit from such a thing? Let’s have a decent manifesto.

We have been watching “American Idol” recently, and are wondering at a system that produces such ninnies who crumple when the judges tell them (in politer terms) that their caterwauling is not up to required standard. Didn’t the comprehensive system come from America?

Please also explain the Champagne Charlies discussion group. The very name suggests that it, and the Henry Jackson Society, are simply cliques dedicated to keeping the world safe for “people like us”, and let everyone else go to the dogs for all we care.

I may seem like a bit of a “right-wing Bolshevik”, but I do understand something of the anti-competition motivation. It is one thing to fail at something, be it maths or sport, but it is another to be told that one is thereby inferior. Remember: “A Man's a Man for A' That”!

The examples of Molly and Colin bring mathematics into the picture. On reading this, I therefore searched for material, and found a paper from the University of Chicago:

Mathematics in a Liberal Education
E. P. Northrop
The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 52, No. 3. (Mar., 1945), pp. 132-137.

Could Mr Sidwell please tell us what HE thinks is the place of mathematics in a liberal education?


Posted by: Robert H. Olley at January 27, 2007 05:04 PM
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