We don’t need no education

We’re all a bit tired of experts, after all. The Minister for Education said so. Which tells you pretty much all you need to know about Britain, about how politicians feel about the people they’re supposed to represent, about education in Britain and the reasons for its place in the world.

It’s a country which has always pretty much despised education and cultivated the idea that decent people don’t know much, don’t want to and don’t need to, along with the idea that education in itself is suspect. It’s a country where you can definitely know too much for your own good.

At school I was advised by my Careers master not to do Psychology; employers would think I was always trying to find out what was in their heads. This wasn’t said as a joke. It was very definitely serious careers advice, at what was then a decent-enough school that produced some seriously rich adults, if not that many academics.

Any study of comparative educational attainment shows the UK lagging far, far behind in pretty much everything, starting with literacy. You can see the government’s own comparisons here. It lists the countries we’re encouraged to sneer at, the bad haircut Koreans, the we’re-absolutely-terrified-of-them-so-hush-Chinese, the hippy Finns, the close-to-communist-yet-inexplicably-affluent-and-modest-and-happy Norwegians, chocolate-munching Belgians, clog-wearing Anne-Frank-betraying-Dutch-who-we-helped-so-much and the dangerous-to-bankers-Gordon-Brown-defying Icelanders. The best of them have kids whose reading age is a year and a half above that of a British child of the same age. On average. Twenty countries do solidly better than the UK in mathematics, presumably ones which don’t pretend to be American and call it Math. Likely. Ten countries race ahead of the UK at Science in schools. And we get exactly what we deserve. With a UK population whose collective reading age is about nine years old perhaps it’s not surprising that social policy is dictated by the tabloid press.

I haven’t worked in all of these countries, but I’ve taught a fair few Chinese kids. They do things differently there. Here, we spend hours trying to work out new ways to involve the kids, how to make the lessons appeal, integrate learning into their life experience, make it bogusly ‘relevant’, because obviously knowing how to read enough to get a job compared to say, Pa knowing the boss, isn’t relevant to anything in the UK. In China the approach seems to be much the same as the one I remember from a rural primary school when it wasn’t just films that were black and white: sit down, shut up, open your books.

I’m not convinced that’s always the best way to do things. A practical lesson I did on how to make and lie in a hammock goes down as the happiest and most productive I remember, where even the ‘bad’ boys got involved. And were suitably chastened, even downright frightened when I told them about the last stitch at sea, the one through the septum to close the hammock over the dead sailor prior to chucking him over the side, just in case he wasn’t able to move or speak. Over, under, around, through, back over, up, down, we learned them all. Relative prepositions of place, in a sunny field by a stream one August morning. That time, Pink Floyd got it wrong. And some days, dark sarcasm is the only thing that keeps you going. I’m English, after all.

 

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