Posts Tagged ‘all shall have prizes’

Social mobility is in the news  again. As usual, the best universities are getting stick for not admitting enough students from “disadvantaged backgrounds.” There is disadvantaged and disadvantaged, as we know, but in general this is taken to mean children from poorer, uneducated or non-English families who have been educated in state schools.

That these factors can influence a child’s academic achievement is beyond question, but it is no fault of the universities when children fail to score good enough grades or acquire the kind of general culture that would enable them to profit from a university education. The fault lies quite clearly with the schools and with my generation of well-meaning hippy-Marxist-let-it-all-hang-loose teachers who abolished grammar and structure, who dismissed knowledge and discipline as boring and bourgeois control mechanisms designed to inhibit the flowering of creativity which would shatter for ever the chains that capitalism sought to impose, who strove to make the curriculum relevant to working class children who had a perfectly good and vigorous culture of their own, who lumped together the quick and the slow, the interested and the completely indifferent, in lessons like maths… How long would Arsène Wenger have stayed in his job if he had introduced joint training sessions for the van Persies and the halt and lame?

The results of this approach to teaching in schools are plain to see: mis-spelling and mis-speaking a commonplace, even among those who pass for educated and speak in our names on the radio and TV. In the place of history we act out the evening meal in a Saxon peasant’s hut as imagined by our thirteen-year-old brains. It was already rather shocking in the 70’s when I last taught in this country. It is a lot worse now.

I was a Rough Guide author for several years. All the editors were university graduates, yet they invariably introduced all sorts of errors into the manuscripts I submitted, including misused words, inconsistencies like spelling a place name two or three different ways on the same page. And this was a book about France. You would think that an apparently educated person would be aware whether or not he had a reasonable knowledge of French and, if he did not, would  take care to check, especially when the only trouble it entailed was looking at a map. But no: the degree of ignorance is such that people are no longer aware of their own ignorance and seem to regard precision and accuracy with total indifference.

In the June 16th Observer Brian Sewell berates the BBC and other TV outfits for their dumbed-down, populist approach in documentaries about serious subjects like art and history. The subject is “presented” by some more or less attractive personality, as if any serious discussion, explanation or investigation amounted to a sort of arrogant display of toff-ish elitism and disdain for the hoi polloi.

A dear friend, now dead, had an interview with the head of a girls’ comprehensive in south London. He was looking for a suitable school for his daughter. He had been an accomplished athlete himself and wanted to find a school that took sport seriously. “Oh, yes,” said the head. “We think sport is very important for girls, but we don’t believe in team games and competitive sport.”

All shall have prizes. No failures, only deferred success.

This is the sort of woolly-minded nonsense that has now pushed us well down the league table for educational achievement in the world. And who has benefited from it? Not working class children. Not children from “disadvantaged” backgrounds. Many more of them got into the top universities when grammar schools still flourished. And while grammar schools may not be the perfect answer to our education problems, they were certainly in many ways more effective than what has replaced them.

No skills can be acquired without rigour, discipline, sacrifice. If you are going to learn to play the guitar well, you have got to stay in playing scales when your friends are out partying. The same is true of carpentry, speaking French, playing tennis. If you do not master the basics – and learn to live with the bruised knees and bruised ego that goes with it – you ain’t going to make it.

The friends I have had who left school early have nearly all regretted not having a proper education and striven to make up for it in the rest of their lives. The popularity of books like Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Gwynne’s Grammar suggests that many people feel very anxious about their shaky grasp of their language. And that they want to know things, not be fudged off with the second-rate, the easier option. Long live Comrade Gove!

On October 24th 2012 Graeme Atherton wrote in The Guardian: “Access league tables based on the progress HEI’s are making over time across a range of under-represented groups could be a powerful way of using information to influence institutional behaviour.” Quite so! Is he a graduate of a Russell Group university? Now there is a worrying thought.

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