Friday, July 09, 2010

My ideal educational system

A slightly more considered post than yesterday's, in response to some comments.

Two guiding assumptions:
a) any and every child naturally wishes to learn, and will do so autonomously and in a self-directed fashion unless other forces prevent that learning from happening;
b) an education system's sole purpose is to encourage and enable that learning, ie to act against the forces which prevent the learning from happening.

So what would I do, if I were given dictatorial powers over our education system?

1. I would abolish all qualitative grading.
2. I would abolish all age groupings.
3. I would abolish the time-structure of schools - in practice, I'd abolish all "schools" as presently constituted.
4. I would (so long as central funding continued to make sense) shift funding entirely onto a voucher scheme.

Expanding these:

Qualitative grading - by this I mean giving marks from A to F. To my mind, all qualifications should simply be of the 'pass/fail' variety, in the same way as a driving test. Students can take the relevant test whenever they want, and when they can display the competency concerned, they get the little piece of paper saying so. No mess, no fuss, no grade inflation for political purposes (and grading should be completely independent of the government).

Age groupings - children (and adults) mature at different rates and in different ways - such is not news. Shoehorning people together according to their date of birth is arbitrary and has pernicious and destructive consequences, which only tend to be alleviated when a low teacher:pupil ratio allows a good teacher to provide the personal care which overcomes those consequences. Let the student, of whatever age, pursue their own interests and run with them. It works at the beginning of the educational process, and it works at the end - why do we think it essential to turn children into industrial feedstock in the middle?

Time-structure - we have an historical legacy leading to a raving mad pattern of organisation for educating. Long holidays for religious festivals and harvest; Fordism during the day. I would abandon these things completely. Students would seek a teacher able to give them tuition at the level and in the subject they desire. Similarly, teachers would seek students to whom they had something to give. Instead of schools there would be 'academies' (I wanted to think of a different word that didn't have present-day connotations but couldn't find one, and it is the correct word!) - something much more akin to a large library with lots of different services, open pretty much all year round, and most hours of the day, within which people can come and learn at the time and speed suitable for them. If it suits a teacher to gather some students together who are at the same level, and teach them as a group - fine (and either side can instigate that). Similarly, the teachers have total authority over how many students to take, and how they are to teach them. They could even band together if they so chose. The system I envision would, in short, have a lot more teachers (and give them a lot more power) and much less 'schooling' (see, Shlottie, I do actually rate teachers, on the whole ;-).

Vouchers - the money follows the student, and can be administered by the parents to begin with, but increasingly by the child as time goes on. The funding lasts for a lifetime, up to a certain level of attainment (first degree?). The funding is fine-grained, that is, it is meted out per "course module" or equivalent, not as a single grant per year. There are very few restrictions on what can be pursued, save that funding for some things are dependent on prior attainment, eg you can't be funded to read English Lit until you've attained the necessary language skill.

Of course, all of this is the academic side of education - hence they would indeed be academies - and education involves a great deal more than this. Yet I wouldn't see the responsibility for the wider education as resting with the teacher - it would return to where it belonged, to the parents and the wider community as a whole. If the time structure is abandoned then children would once more be a full and daily presence in people's lives, and that could only be a good thing.


  1. And the funding? Government?
    If the funding follows the student, are teachers paid by the number of students they teach?

  2. "Long holidays for religious festivals and harvest"

    Not so. If you actually read the log books of elementary schools in the second half of the nineteenth century you will see that schooling was continuous, with a few days off for religious festivals and a week or two at the time of each of the various harvests. (Theoretically these harvest breaks were not meant to happen, but there was nothing on earth that schoolteachers could do to stop them: their pupils' labour was just too important to the community, hence the resigned comments often seen in the logbooks.)

    The long holidays we now think of as typical were derived from university terms. Aligning pre-university education with them was a consequence both of its increasing stature and of an intention to increase that stature.

    (The traditional practice of grammar/public schools was between these two extremes: the school year was divided into "halves" (as still at Eton, tho' perversely there are now three of them), with a vacation of moderate length between them, plus religious holidays.)

  3. Jonathan (a different one)Fri Jul 09, 09:51:00 pm BST

    Some of these ideas ring bells of reading John Holt back when we were first considering home education (USians home school, Brits tend to home-ed). I've not read any Gatto, but I assume Holt is a direct precursor.

  4. Byron - funding via general taxation for so long as that is viable (only way to counteract poverty as the inhibitor of learning). Teachers paid by number of students they teach.
    Sir Watkin - thanks for the correction.
    Jonathan (a different one to which? - I know about half a dozen!) - yes, John Holt stands directly behind assumption a).

  5. Brave to put so much detail into your policies before you're elected!
    FWIW I'm a home-schooling fan, but I'd balk at imposing my preference on those not inclined to it.

  6. Too late to debate really, I must visit your blog more frequently.

    Your ideas as stated here have a lovely utopian sound to them, but there has to be a certain amount of organisation and discipline in education.

    For instance, all pupils must learn to read and write, otherwise they will find it impossible to study anything else. Without mathematics they will not be able to cope with science. Without chemistry, biology is at best a partially open book. Without a thorough grounding in biology, medicine is out of reach. I'm sure you get the picture. You don't build a house starting with the windows.

    Asking a 5 or 6 - or 7 or 8 - year old to decide whether they want to study reading today or go and play in the park ... you really think that would work? And once the habit of doing what they want when they want and how they want is established, will they really be productive and contributing members of society?

    For example, anyone succeeding at this freeform education is going to get a very rude shock when they get to the world of work, where they will be expected to be present between certain times, and perform specifically defined tasks to required deadlines.

    With the greatest respect, I think you have by far too optimistic a view of children - and teachers for that matter - in this respect. There's a good reason why discipline derives from the Latin word for pupil.

    PS: I'm not a schoolteacher, but I have to cope with the products of the current education system. I agree that reform is required, but I can't agree with your ideas.

  7. Janet - thanks for dropping by. The whole point is that it is an 'ideal', but it's very much something to aim towards even if there will be all sorts of mucky compromising on the way. A few more specific points:
    - 'all pupils must learn to read and write...' - you seem to be disputing a), that children will actively _want_ to learn, is that right? And if so - why? Pointing to children who reject the present system is not enough.
    - '...productive and contributing members of society' - this seems to be challenging my assumption b); that is, I would need to be persuaded that this is the responsibility of the education system. It might need a 'system' to generate it, but it shouldn't be called education.
    Whether children find it a shock to enter the world of work depends upon how far they are sheltered from reality while they are growing up (it also depends on what that 'world of work' has to look like - it doesn't have to look like the twentieth century for ever.)

    Funnily enough 'discipline' - in the form of 'discipleship' - is the major theme that I'm pushing in church at the moment...

  8. Hi Sam, thanks for the reply, and for the questions. My original reply came out of instinct rather than with fully articulated thoughts behind it, so it’s made me think about it harder, which can only be a good thing. I apologise in advance for my verbosity.

    In my humble opinion, there are two main problems. The first is that learning, in and of itself, is generally not valued in our present culture (I’m going to do a lot of generalising here). This isn’t by any means a new phenomenon; I went to a large comprehensive school in the mid 70s, and even then those of us who actively wanted to learn were at best treated with derision, and more often picked on and bullied. Reading books for pleasure was definitely considered unnatural.

    Obviously this attitude isn’t universal, but the impression is presented that it’s prevalent and pervasive in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way (yes, hint of paranoia ;) ). There’s a persistent dumbing-down, spoonfeeding without thought required, bitesize chunks presented to fit the attention span of a goldfish, a reduction of everything to the lowest common denominator, all under the aegis of a supposed elite. If you haven’t already encountered it, I recommend reading Mediocracy* by Fabian Tassano.

    For example, when was the last time Eastenders or Coronation Street had a storyline about someone who was interested in something purely academic, like the development of Italian opera, or learning Middle English to read Chaucer in the original, or joining an archaeological dig to study Neolithic settlements on Orkney? How many houses depicted in television dramas or property makeover programmes have bookcases (with books)? Is Lisa Simpson held up as an example to follow, or shown as a lonely misfit and object of pity?

    Being intelligent is portrayed as unnecessary, being educated as pointless. All you need to know is how to work the system and hope one day you’ll win the lottery (which I’ve heard described as a tax on the statistically inept). Footballers are revered and envied, not for their ability to combine anatomy, psychology, and the physics of motion into a harmonious whole, but for their wealth, fast living lifestyles, and beautiful girlfriends.

    Until this displayed culture is radically altered, expecting the majority of children to see learning as desirable, worthwhile, or even achievable is going to be an uphill struggle.

    (Continued in part 2 – much too verbose, sorry!)

    * Brief definition of mediocracy from Fabian Tassano’s blog ( Mediocracy is a condition in which culture is subordinated to pseudo-egalitarian ideology. Symptoms include: dumbing, jargonism, infantilisation, vacuity, phoney democratisation and authoritarianism. A key weapon of the mediocratic agenda is the Orwellian redefinition of words and ideas (e.g. equality).

  9. Part 2

    The second – and, I think, more important – problem is this: which is easier, the wide flat road or the steep narrow track? The natural instinct in all of us is to take the path of least resistance.

    Learning doesn’t come quickly and easily to many people; most of us have to work pretty hard at it, with the exception of language. Linguistic ability is hardwired into the brain and learning to understand speech is completely natural and relatively easy for babies (it gets much harder later on; neurolinguistic development is a fascinating subject (forgive the digression, but if you were ever interested in exploring it further, it’s well worth reading Locke 1997, available at – but don’t mix it up with neurolinguistic programming, which is something quite different and rather less convincing). Learning to speak is harder, not so much because of lack of understanding, but because it takes time for lips, tongue, throat and larynx to learn both the movements and coordination to produce the right sounds. Nevertheless, most children learn to talk without conscious effort.

    Reading and writing are a different kettle of fish altogether. Those require training and much practice: the mind to concentrate (I’m sure you’ve noticed that the attention span of a small child tends to the shorter end of the spectrum), the eye muscles to focus and the hand and arm muscles to guide a pen (fine muscular control is very difficult for young children), and the comprehension, synthesis, and translation of symbols to sounds and vice versa. We have the ability to learn this, but. unlike understanding and speaking, it doesn’t just happen. None of us likes to fail, and doing difficult things makes failure more likely, so it’s easier not to try in the first place, given the choice. Until trained to weigh up benefits and risks – and given the knowledge and understanding to comprehend the implications of both – the easy way is inevitable.

    I completely accept what you say about the world of work not staying the same forever; it’s already changed considerably in my lifetime and will undoubtedly continue to do so. I also agree that it’s not necessarily a requirement of education to train people to work. But the underlying principles of both formal education and employment remain the same. The mind must concentrate, consider, synthesise and comprehend, and the hands must train and practice until the required muscular control is attained; whether it’s playing a guitar, welding a pipe or typing a report.

    The basic requirement for defined tasks performed to certain standards and by specified deadlines will never change. That fundamental (self-)discipline will still be required, even if it doesn’t mean getting up at 6am and driving round the M25 (I so do not miss that!). I firmly believe that this discipline has to start early. It’s very hard to unlearn a bad habit.

    I must stop now, I’m sure I’ve rabbited on quite enough. Thank you for the opportunity. I expect I probably seem rather jaundiced and cynical about human nature and the current social state of the UK, and I fear I’m rapidly turning into a grumpy old woman. But I’m really very happy and contented with most of my life :)

  10. I know this is an old thread, but, I was remembering it as I read the following piece in today's Ecologist online...


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