At the Education Committee Conference
Earlier in the week I went to give a talk to a conference organised by the Education Select Committee, who have been running an inquiry on the purpose and quality of education in England (OK, big topic -- but we want them to be broaching big topics dont we?). This was a conference to bring together speakers and discussants on the theme: parliamentarians, teachers, 'education professionals ' of all types.And I was to give the closing speech. You can read the text here.
To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive. I have as strong ideas about education as the next person. In some ways that is what is wonderful (or deeply frustrating, depending on your point of view) about the whole subject: everyone, even the home schooled, has experienced it and so everyone has their pennyworth (it's even more universalising than the NHS -- there are, after all, quite a few people who have only a tangential connection with hospitals and GPs until they are my age).
And, in my case, I have taught in what I used confidently to call (I'm now not so sure) the 'public education system' all my adult life (not only in Cambridge, but at King's College London, and brief stints in the USA). And my mother was a primary school teacher, ending up as head of Dothill Junior (now 'Primary') School in Telford; I spent my earliest years in Church Preen School House (a rather handsome Norman Shaw building, endowed by a late Victorian lord of the manor). There a little drawing on the right. We only had the left hand part; the right hand part was then the school room.
But experience is different from expertise. And I did feel some trepidation addressing a room full of experts armed with experience, and some wide intelligent reading alone. What would I feel, I thought, to listen to a lecture on ancient Rome by someone whose right to speak was based on their annual holidays in Italy?
Anyway, I think it went down qute well. The ancient world often gives a nice handle onto modern problems (so long as we are not so naive as to imagine that is solves them). In this case, Socrates -- one of whose crimes was 'corrupting the youth' (ie 'teaching the wrong syllabus') -- provided useful material for reflection, as did Aristophanes' Clouds (partly a satire on modern teaching methods). The point I found myself emphasising is that education has not recently become a political football; it has always been one. And of course it has, because what society could not argue, and rightly, about how its young were to be turned into social human beings, and what sort of human beings they wanted to create.
The problem is probably more that societies have at the same time been too keen to blame education and educators for what they see as the social failings. Look at the current blame game about social mobility, where the buck is passed up and down the educational food chain (as Russell group uni's deflect the criticism that they admit too few student from disadvantaged backgrounds, by turning on secondary schools for not fostering the aspirations of under-privileged kids, who then tick off nursery schools for not evening out the differences in attainment that have set in by the age of 2.....and so on). And few people stop to remember anyway that schools are only one part of the educational process by which children grow up, and -- convenient though it may be -- they can't be blamed for everything. Anyway I hope you enjoy more along those lines in the text.
In case you are interested, though it was not a specific topic of debate at the conference, I didn't sniff much enthusiasm for the return of grammar schools.