Going for Gold

Did you see this recent news item?

2012 Olympic Games Medal Shock!


‘The Olympic Games Committee made a surprise announcement today in which it stated that in future Gold medals will only be awarded to the winners of the 100 metres, which it considers to be the only true test of an athlete. Winners of other track events that involve at least some competitive speed running will only be awarded Silver medals, while other, so called ‘soft sports’ such as pole-vaulting or horse-riding will only gain winners Bronze medals. Team games, in which it is impossible to identify a single winner, and sports that can be played professionally, such as football and boxing, will still be offered as recreational fringe events, but no medals will be awarded. A spokesperson said ‘It’s essential not to further devalue the gold standard, and we hope that this action will encourage more athletes to train for and compete in the 100 metres’.

Crazy, and of course quite untrue. Except that in the UK that’s exactly how we view the current education system – we prepare everyone for success in one event that only a small proportion of entrants are capable of succeeding in. What makes it worse is that the one event is, by definition, ‘academic’ – theoretical rather than practical. An academic is ‘a person who works as a researcher (and usually teacher) at a university, college, or similar institution in post-secondary (tertiary) education’. Why is it that we all want our children to be brilliant academics, but are quick in a discussion to dismiss an idea as being ‘academic’, i.e. of theoretical rather than any practical relevance? As a result we have a nation full of trained 100 metre runners, the vast majority of whom have no chance of ever achieving Gold, and frequently see themselves, and are also seen by potential employers, as failures and as such un-equipped  for any other event, such as work in the outside work. And how much longer will the ‘essay’ and the multiple choice question remain the main format for assessment, given that few jobs involve a great deal of essay writing or answering mcqs.

This attitude is by no means new, and has been something that as a society we have been dearly clinging on to for centuries, while other countries seem to have been able to move on and value technical and vocational education in a far more positive way. Somehow we need to bring about a major shift in the way we perceive and value education in the UK, and re-naming schools as ‘academies’, making A levels more difficult and getting more people to study subjects such as English and History to degree level is not the direction we should be going in. In just about every area of business, commerce, health, defence, housing, farming, etc., there have been changes during the past 60 years on a scale that make them unrecognisable from the way they were in the 1950s. The single exception is education where, apart from the largely inappropriate use of computers, little has altered except in name. If the UK is to remain, or even become, in any way competitive in the global market place, it’s much too late therefore for a slow, evolutionary incremental shift in public opinion and institutional structures, curriculum and teaching method. We need to think the unthinkable. Nothing less than a short, sharp revolution in needed.

I have no grand plan or costed strategy for development, but here are a few of the sort of things we ought to be currently considering:

• We need a shift away from the idea that we all attend compulsory full-time schooling between 4 and 16. It’s always struck me that the single most inappropriate environment for a 14 year old is to be required to sit still in silence for hours on end listening to adults who think they know everything.

• The traditional school structure and organisation is entirely outmoded for the modern age. We need to develop institutions that facilitate a more effective daily mix of exposure to teaching styles and learning experiences, essentially including independent learning.

• Students need to be given and take more responsibility for their own learning, utilising the innovative possibilities of innovative computer technology, rather than simply using IT to reinforce and automate traditional approaches.

• The use of the slogan “What have you learnt today?’ could be used to prompt a genuine approach to lifelong learning for all in which the act of learning something new everyday is recognised and valued by individuals and employers.

• How can all intelligences and abilities come to be seen as being equal, and none more equal than others? The emphasis on academic education is only appropriate for the roughly 5% of the population who are suited to it. We need some sort of single national award system that recognises a relevant comparative ‘gold’ standard across all courses.

• In this day and age are we really still unable to teach every child how to achieve basic standards in literacy and numeracy? Standards have improved slightly over recent years, but there’s clearly something badly wrong here that needs sorting out.

• We need to introduce of a valued certificate or ‘qualification’ of basic achievement that recognises the practical application of reading, writing and arithmetic in daily use, alongside a similarly valued certificate of personal learning and creative thinking/problem-solving skills, both taken at any age when the learner is ready.

• Currently teachers have five training days a year which are mostly spent on being introduced to new administrative procedures. There needs to be a major investment in effective and compulsory in-service training / CPD (Continuing Professional Development) for teachers to enable them to keep up-to-date with their rapidly changing subject knowledge and with the new substantially different methods of teaching and learning afforded by developments in IT.

• By narrowing the range of knowledge and understanding that is now examined we have successfully raised the number of students gaining A level passes and going into Higher Education. We have steadily improved the number of children who get five GCSE A* to C grades. But when are we going to start doing something for the other 50% of learners who have limited qualifications and remain alienated by an education system that has little to offer them?

• In terms of a quick fix, one of the problems is that children’s attitudes towards school and learning is heavily influenced by their parents’ experiences. Most of today’s parents were at failing comprehensive schools in the 1970s and 1980s and remain unconvinced of the value of education. Today’s children, who have grown up in a narrow assessment-led National Curriculum culture, will become parents in the next two decades. How do we ensure that they will have a different, more enlightened view of education to pass on to their children?

Ironically, sadly all these things are probably somewhat ‘academic’. It’s difficult to see future governments or administrative organisations initiating or welcoming change on this level. Somehow we need to find a way to take control of our own future learning and growth.

4 comments on “Going for Gold

  1. You’re so right – it’s obvious, we need the short, sharp revolution and put an end to all this nonsense. The system is currently wrong/screwed and it’s becoming even more of a concern to me as my nine year-old son now has less than one year before he does his first 100 meters dash (The selective Kent Test). Then again, I always viewed Grammar Schools as the “Academic” side of things that you so correctly point out as maybe not being quite right either. For sure, out of the two evils I want him to go to a Grammar as I fear how bad other schools generally are when it comes to the affects of the attitudes and personalities of the 50 per cent who couldn’t care less.

    I’ve just agreed to do some extra tuition with my son and a school friend to just start doing some little exercises and mock tests, just to get them used to doing “quick sprints”, stretching and exercising the mind’s muscles so that they can instantly adjust to the burst of mental energy that’s required. To talk to them about concentrating and getting used to making decisions whilst logically thinking things through.

    Of course, from what I understand, the Kent Test is not at all related to the National Curriculum and apparently some elements of “reasoning” are not in the NC but are in the test! It all sounds cock-eyed to me, right down to the fact that they’ve brought the test forward to the beginning of the academic year rather than sort out why it takes so long to sort out the choosing schools side of things. It really seems stupid to test them when they have only just got into the new school year when they’ve probably forgotten or not practised their skills throughout the summer. Then to wait the best part of a year for them to maybe completely change and grow before the fate of that 100 meter dash takes hold.

    Not sure about sending all the kids out to work at 14 is a good idea? Sounds a bit like sending them up the chimneys. Far better that they should, throughout their growing-up and as part of their education, be exposed to and experience “real” life. My kids are aware that I work from home and sometimes I talk them through what I’m doing (design and artwork) and explain why it needs to be done, they don’t always understand why I can’t come and play when they want or sometimes I’m a bit short tempered with them when I’m concentrating, but they do see that not all work is done sitting in offices, factories and shops (it can be done sitting at home!). My nine year-old son particularly sees what I’m doing and sometimes disappears off to try and do it himself on the laptop. He can use the Adobe Creative Suite of programs, Word, Powerpoint, etc. from just watching me and experiencing things as they happen around him. Once he asked for a copy of a leaflet I was working on and came back with it later with some genuine improvements that I ended up using.

    I’m not saying what happens here at home is the right way but somehow, kids should be put in the position where they can have real, practical, academic or otherwise experiences that they can apply to the real world. We all know that education has been missing the basics for a long time, things like how to cook an egg, drive a car, ride a bike, fix a bike, fill out a tax return, so why the hell are these things still not taught in schools? Schools not really being places where we can just get rid of the kids but as places to safely explore the real world and excite them for when they come home, enough to want to help and appreciate what is good.

    I have been thinking about home education, not that I know anything about it. Lots of people do it but how do those parents cover all the topics and subject matter that may often require specialist materials, machines, chemicals, devices or whatever, let alone the cost and sanity of the family unit as well as make sure the kids know how to interact with others on the many levels that develop outside of home?

    It’s all too much to think of and in the end it’ll all just happen one way or the other. But I do so much hate the way the kids are taught, whether it be the over-bearing religious side of it all or the way they are taught to write in such a horrible handwriting script. The maths they do is all different and they don’t even seem to know how to do basic sums “the old way” by putting one number under the other and adding the units, then the tens, etc. I looked at some sample Kent Test papers and the maths paper seems full of complicated things such as “if 4x = 3y and a bath takes 10 minutes to pull out of the station, how many cakes will be left?”. I could do them, my wife shuddered and I don’t know if I could have done all 50 questions in the 50 allotted minutes. The English paper was an extract of a story with complicated character names, a solid A4 page and a half of overbearing text (no paragraph spaces and all cramped together) and then a whole series of quite deep questions about that text “What do you think Anvard was recalling when Duravis was seen to be troubled by the situation” – I made that question up but it was that kind of thing. Anyway, I asked my son if he had done anything at school like “if y = 100 and 4x = y, then what is x” and he said no. He gave me the answer though (25) and I think he knows that sort of thing because I’ve taught him it. Both my kids are quite good at mental arithmetic as I’ve often done little sums, maths puzzles and explanations with them over the years, but god knows how he will do on the Maths paper on that particular day? At the moment I can’t even do the adding up the way they do so I guess I have to go and learn that before I proceed on this year of crash extra curricular education.

    Anyway, your articles make some very valid points and it all seems so obvious that something is wrong. Just look at the mentality on the streets and in the news these days not to mention the attitudes and complete lack of respect from the pupils my wife gets as a teacher in what is supposed to be a “good” non-Grammar Secondary school!

    “All Change Please!” Why isn’t it changing? Will somebody please stop the school bus so that we can all get off, look around and check where we aren’t so that we may correct the route to the Education Experience Centre.

    • There would be a danger that kids would get sent up chimneys if they were sent out to work at 14 – it would have to be very controlled and closely monitored to make sure it was valuable. But there again maybe if they had spent some time up chimneys they would be keener to return to some (purposeful) further education, rather than wasting valuable years just waiting to leave school as soon as they can, and becoming alienated from the idea of learning?

      It’s not just about going out to work though – it’s not being stuck in a classroom all day at the age of 14. A couple of years ago I had the misfortune one afternoon to have to catch what ended up being a school bus. Loads of kids got on, and their collective energy was just amazing (not to mention noisy!) – it just seemed a shame that somehow that energy was not being released/absorbed in school, rather than having them sit in silence all day.

  2. I was very very lucky to be one of Mrs Thatcher’s “incomprehensibles” and attended the first purpose-built comprehensive school to be opened in Kent, joining in its second year. The school was big, 2000+ pupils, and new, and the staff were mostly young, inspirational and committed. Thanks to some pretty sound thinking from the head, you were not allowed to attend if you had taken the 11+ (which was and sadly still is the norm in Kent) so the intake was truly mixed ability attracting boys and girls from all the estates and villages around the local town.

    We were also taught in mixed ability groups until we were 14 for all subjects and, while I didn’t realise it at the time, the staff worked together to create a remarkable joined-up curriculum linking sciences and humanities in a series of themed topics that helped to make sense of things in far more grown up and worldly way. Many people talk about an inspirational teacher who changed their life, which always surprises me as I was blessed with dozens, many of whom have stayed friends throughout my life.

    And atypically for the time there were no medals. Actually that’s not true, there were but somehow they were ground up into a sort of glitter and sprinkled around and didn’t really appear until the end of Y10. My kids are astonished that I did not sit any formal written exams until I was 16. Nor did I go on any work placements, the careers/vocational training was the weakest bit of my school experience. But throughout I felt we were treated more like grown-ups and more of the time than not I went home buzzing and looked forward to returning the next day.

    And while I realise that there were probably just as many pupils who didn’t enjoy the freedom and opportunity that this open and enquiring model of learning offered, I have struggled through my adult life to keep the memory of what it could be like alive. In conversation with a friend who had had similar experiences as a pupil in the 70s, he suggested that we were a bit like the monks in the dark ages, entrusted with keeping this knowledge safe until the world woke up again to the possibilities.

    Sadly I think it will be longer than 2012 before sparkly pixie dust is educational currency again (if indeed it ever really was)

  3. I too was at a Kent comprehensive in the 70’s, around 1,000 pupils (boys only) who were a very mixed bunch of types that gave me a good grounding in various ways of being. Also, most of the teachers were inspirational and exciting to listen to at times. I learnt well at that school and thanks also to my home life I was able to understand what it was all for and why education was important. At times I could have strayed into the underworld of teenage rebellion and failed everyone, but I rotated through groups of kids and with the care and interest of teachers, I made it through.

    I wonder if it’s the same today? It seems that the eccentric, exciting types of teachers don’t get through the system these days, either they are put off by the rigid framework of teaching methods or they do not like all the tick-box form-filling aspects of teaching life today. One person I know who was training to be a teacher and is absolutely the kind of guy that is exciting and dynamic was actively put off from qualifying by his tutors because they thought he just didn’t fit what they thought a teacher should be like.

    Secondary schools are are a very different kind of place these days, some dangerous enough to check the students for weapons before they enter school. Teachers can’t be left alone with a student for fear of being accused of something and no-one is allowed to administer anything more than a verbal reprimand for fear of being accused of assault.

    At my children’s junior school, sport’s day is all about being fair and no-one is a “winner” these days for fear of upsetting the “losers”. It’s all too politically correct and the blame culture makes everyone passive to a lowest common denominator extent were everyone is catered for at the same low level.

    I understand the need for fairness and equality but what’s fair and equal about an education system that seems to be generally failing to engage a large percentage of the kids as they progress though it, let alone failing society in general?

    Why should my junior school kids be put into the position of having a test that decides their fate depending on how well they perform at that particular stage in their life? For me, as one who apparently failed the 11+, I didn’t reach my peak of ability until a year or two later at secondary school when suddenly it all clicked into place, probably thanks to the great teachers.

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