Back to School…

Recently, mainly thanks to the panic over Muslims allegedly seizing control of state schools, education has become a big issue again in the UK. Leaving aside the specific, and frequently ironic, hysteria surrounding the Islamic ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations, the English educational system is in dire need of reform. A lot of talk, naturally, has been about the need for secular schools, something I wholeheartedly agree with (if you want your child educated in your religion, send them to Sunday School or its equivalent or go private). Unfortunately, a few of the louder proponents of ‘secular’ education desire schools to actively promote an anti-religion agenda, which is equally inappropriate – schools should equip their students with the skills to make up their own minds, not indoctrinate them in anyone’s viewpoint using taxpayer’s money.

I would like to see basic education reined in and stripped of the attitude that it is effectively a free babysitting service. The aim of a basic state education should be to ensure that students have a grounding in all necessary subjects and the skills to pursue further education, to educate themselves in their own interests, to make their own minds up in life and to be able to get a job. Then, when they are a little older, say 14, and incorporating the current sixth-form education, they should have the opportunity to specialise, whether attending an academic college with an eye on University or a technical college with the aim of gaining an apprenticeship, or the option of art or sport colleges. (And, we really need to end the silly attitude that academia is somehow superior to technical fields – a properly-trained plumber is the equal of a University graduate and a specialist in a technical field is the equal of someone with a doctorate: there should be no shame in taking the technical rather than academic route.)

To achieve this, a basic state education should focus upon literacy, arithmetic, research skills and critical thinking, whilst providing a basic grounding in mathematics, science, history, geography, social studies (religion, politics, etc), computer use, art, music, drama, literature, etc. The four core areas would produce a young adult capable of getting a basic job, of making decisions about their future, of functioning in society, and finding out any information they require. The additional subjects would give them a basic understanding that allows them to decide whether or not they want to pursue that subject in more depth later or to pursue it as a hobby, whilst also giving them the sort of basic knowledge that might come in useful in later life.

In addition, we need to end the peculiar attitudes that afflict the provision of education to certain sectors of society. We need to end the idea that certain schools will, naturally, be better than others. At the moment, there is an attitude that a school in a poor area will be poorly supplied, that certain students (usually black or white working class) shouldn’t be ‘afflicted’ with a good education, and when a school performs badly, good teachers will shun it in order to avoid being tainted with its failure, causing it to slip into a vicious circle of poor performance. These are all ridiculous fallacies.

Wherever possible, all state schools should be approximately the same size with the same number of students, the same equipment and the same opportunities. All equipment should come from central procurement, reducing costs and ending inequality in schooling. Of course, applying such ideals in the real world means this won’t work everywhere – it may not be practical to ship all the students across a low-population rural area to a single distant school, for example, and not every school can have a playing field attached – but the attempt should be made as far as is practical and alternatives found where it is not (such as busing students to another school’s playing field, if necessary, or sharing teachers between smaller schools). The curriculum should be the same everywhere and suitably-qualified teachers must be provided. If discipline and education levels are maintained everywhere, the ability of teachers to cherry-pick ‘good schools’ and condemn others to a spiral of failure would be ended – something that would be greatly be assisted by ending the attitude that certain types of student are somehow incapable of discipline or being educated. To the same ends, parental choice of state-funded (pre-specialisation) school should end, with children being sent to the nearest school – if all schools are effectively the same, delivering the same level of education, with good levels of discipline, the reasons why parents prefer one over another will evaporate.

Once the children have reached an appropriate age and received a sufficient grounding, a choice can be made, based upon their abilities, aptitudes and interests, as to which sort of college they will attend, so that they can gain a more specialised education to suit them for their future career. (Although, thanks to their basic education, switching careers, whether through retraining or just taking an entry-level position to gain experience, would be much easier than now is the case, freeing many more from becoming trapped in dead-end jobs.) By focusing this later education upon a concrete goal, as is seldom the case for under-18s at the moment, it is to be hoped that students will put more effort into education by linking it to an actual real-world outcome.

Finally, by providing a suitable basic level of education, we may hope that, as adults, they will be capable of pursuing their interests – whether through adult education courses or informally as hobbies – effectively and of properly engaging with society, creating a better-informed, happier and empowered future.

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