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David's Mental Meanderings
21st November 2004

It has once again been a long time since I have sent out a Meandering. Any writing time I have tends to focus on much shorter Daily Diversions. In fact, this piece started as a Diversion and my ranting got out of control.

The news media are having a field day. The heir to the throne has said something outrageous with political implications. Yes, Prince Charles dared to suggest that there are flaws in the education system. Or, more outrageously really, he dared to suggest that there are flaws in the socio-educational theories which underpin the system.

He has been excoriated, mostly for things he didn't say, because there is no reasonable opposing view to what he did say. Not that what he said should have been discussed in the public arena. It was scribbled in the margin of a private memo nicked by the former member of his staff who is suing the Royal Household for sex discrimination and unfair dismissal after she resigned last April. She admits she stole it.

Anyhow, the Prince said:

What is wrong with everyone nowadays? Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their actual capabilities? This is all to do with the learning culture in schools - the child-centred learning emphasis which admits of no failure and tells people they can all be pop stars or High Court judges, or brilliant TV personalities - heads of states! without ever putting in the necessary work or effort, or having natural abilities.

"It's the result of 'social utopianism', which believes humanity can be genetically re-engineered, or socially re-engineered, to contradict the lessons of history and the realities of nature.

Even though this was a private memo revealed in an employment tribunal, it required no less than two Cabinet ministers to refute it. They insist that the Prince is saying people should know their place and be content with it. Charles is hitting back tomorrow in a speech, the contents of which have already been given to the press:

The idea that I think that 'people should not try to rise above their station' is a travesty of the truth, nor indeed have I ever used any such words or anything like them. For the last 30 years I have done all I can to give young people who have limited opportunities, usually through no fault of their own, a chance to succeed. That is what my Prince's Trust is all about.

What the Government and the educational establishment can't accept is that rather than trying to force 50% of the population through university, some folks just aren't as bright as others. There would probably be fewer "failures" if everyone wasn't put on a one-size-fits-all educational assembly line.

Yet on that line, children are left to assemble themselves because they are incapable of actually being taught. At what we call Key Stage 3 in this country - Years 7 to 9 (the equivalent of 6th to 8th grade in the US) - a teacher should speak for no more than five to seven minutes in an hour lesson. Roughly one-tenth of the time. This is child-centred learning.

No one fails. In the US the grading system is (or at least was when I came through it) fairly simple, A, B, C, and D are passing grades. If you don't pass, you get an F. F=Fail. If you got an F, you failed to complete the assignment/test/class with the minimum required knowledge. As KS3 here, we don't even mark on a letter system. Work is "levelled". Everyone is working at some level of ability and hey, they feel good about themselves and hey, that's okay.

Even at Key Stage 4, which is the preparation for nationally standardised General Certificate in Secondary Education exams for each subject (they replaced the "O" levels in 1988), work is marked (like the exams) on an A-G scale. Anything below a G is a U - simply Unclassified. In other words, you don't get a GCSE, but you didn't fail - but we just don't have a mark low enough to give you. To get a G requires getting about 20% of the available marks.

To avoid any U's, those students who cannot get a G often work on an "Entry Level Certificate". In History, this means they have two years to write 1200 words, split across five tasks, all completed under close teacher supervision. To put this into perspective, 1200 words is substantially shorter than this Meandering. Some of these tasks can be completed without proper written work and can include small group work.

In most schools and in most subjects, children are grouped according to ability. Of course timetables being the complex things they are, they can't be grouped for individual subjects, but rather for groups of subjects. Still, it generally helps to keep the more able from being held back. The real issue is whether some of the kids in the bottom sets should be there at all.

In one class I teach, over 70% of the students are adjudged to have special educational needs (SEN). This is why so many of the standards to be met in the Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) year relate to the ability to differentiate lessons for SEN. In essence, I sometimes should have 12 or 13 different lessons planned for the same group to show that I am addressing each individual need.

In former times, many of these students would have been taught in special units. This does not meet with the Government's philosophy of inclusion. Nobody can be made to feel any different.

And then there are those students who do not want to be included. On any given day, I would estimate that there are about 25% of pupils who want to be their lesson. We call these pupils the top set (ability group). The others are there because they have to be.

In an excellent article on LewRockwell.com, Gary North notes some interesting correlations between school and prison. Except for the fact that school buses in the UK are not yellow (they are contracted from private companies), it applies here:

Society makes the prisoners go to jail. It sees these prisoners as dangerous. It wants to teach them to obey. Society makes children go to school. It sees these children as dangerous to themselves. It wants to teach them to obey. If it can teach both groups how to obey, society expects the world to improve. Society therefore uses tax money to pay for the operation of jails and schools. This includes paying for buses. But there is a difference. Prison buses are white. School buses are yellow.

He continues:

In prison, prisoners sell illegal drugs. Students do the same in school. In prison, the food is terrible. It's not very good in school - possibly prepared by the same food service company. In prison, there are constant inspections. Guards keep taking roll to make sure everyone is present and accounted for. Teachers do the same in school. In prison, you aren't allowed to leave without permission. The same is true in school. In prison, bullies run the show. In school, they do, too. But there is a difference. Prison buses are white. School buses are yellow.

This is too extreme. The systems are different. Criminals are convicted in a court of law before they are sent to jail. Students, in contrast, are innocent. Some prisoners can get parole. The average term in prison for murder is under ten years. Students are put into the school system for twelve years. There is no parole.

When I got into teaching, it seemed like an obvious choice. After all, I able to take knowledge I have and give it to anyone who wants it. I can teach. I've done it for years. No, what I do is attempt to manage the behaviour of immature individuals confined to a closed space by the force of law. I am a glorified prison guard. I attempt to convince these people to use the time of their confinement to learn something they don't want to know and for the most part will never use. They are not there to sip from the font of knowledge which I possess and offer to them for the small sum of less than £19,000 per year. This is the same starting pay as a prison guard. The only difference is that as a teacher I have to have a university degree and Post-graduate Certificate in Education and prison guards can't be blind or crippled.

I found it interesting that for all the interest in his private memos, something the Prince of Wales wrote that was released public consumption on Tuesday (a letter to the annual conference of the Association of Colleges) was reported in brief by some newspapers but generally ignored by the rest of the media. "Too often, much of the discussion focuses exclusively in terms of costs and benefits to the economy, as if human beings really ought to become better robots." That's really what the Government really wants. The cookie-cutting National Curriculum has no place for the love of learning. In contrast, the other Charles, Education Secretary Charles Clarke described education for its own sake as "a bit dodgy". He only retort to the Prince was that the Government had met its target of helping 750,000 people to improve their basic literacy and numeracy skills.

The Prince has noted that the National Curriculum fails to provide children with "valuable and essential knowledge and understanding about their national history and heritage." But how can they get that when they only have History lessons three times every two weeks at KS3? At KS3, I have three years to teach the period from 1066-1945. This includes a large part of Year 8 being taken up with "Black Peoples of the Americas", from the colonial slave trade to the Civil Rights Movement. At KS4, the Government wants to combine History and Geography into a single subject. Think of how much more time can then be diverted back to basic literacy and numeracy.

So they may barely know how to read and add up, may know nothing about the past, but they can feel cheated that they haven't become celebrities. As long as they play their role in New Labour's Brave New World there's no real cause for concern.

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