Going For Old?

Pikemen engage musketeers during a re-enactment of the Siege of

Academics engage Vocationalists during a re-enactment of the English Civil War

A few days ago someone drew to my attention to a link to my post ‘Your Country Needs You‘ (published in October) that had been included on ‘Scenes From The Battleground‘s recent blog post. In return I am pleased to reciprocate a link, and hope he will get as many extra views of his site as All Change Please! has since enjoyed as a result.


In this post I want to discuss some of the arguments that Scenes From The Battleground and other academics often present to justify their approach to teaching and learning, i.e.:

•  since the introduction of the GCSE, all teaching and learning has been made less challenging, or ‘dumbed down’
•  an academic approach to teaching and learning is the only one that can provide a worthwhile education, is appropriate for everyone, and if they are all taught in academic way exam results will automatically improve
•  it is better to have had an academic education and fail, than to have any other sort of education
•  teachers advise working class children not to apply for university
•  employers are only interested in graduates with good academic degrees

It remains of great concern that some academics, rather like the managing directors of companies such as Comet, Jessops and HMV, fail to acknowledge that the world is changing almost beyond recognition, and that the old ways are no longer necessarily the best ways. We can no longer afford for our children to experience a re-enactment of an education system no longer fit for purpose.

Dumbing down

Scenes From The Battleground seems convinced that education has been ‘dumbed down’, and he attempts to provide evidence that supports his fears, compounded by the fact that, as he admits, the posts he has linked to have been written by intelligent and experienced educationalists.

The thing is, you don’t exactly need to be a rocket surgeon or a brain scientist to work out that if the numbers of students going to university since the 1970s are going to rise from around 10% to 50%, then either standards of teaching and learning are going to have to rise unbelievably, or the entry examinations are going to need to be made  easier to pass. Of course academic education has been ‘dumbed down’. So in that respect All Change Please! finds itself in complete agreement with Scenes From The Battleground, Mr Gove and others like them, in that standards of academic education in schools have fallen over the years, and that they justifiably do need to be raised.

The only way is academic

However, that’s about as far as our agreement goes. What Scenes From The Battleground really means is that there has been a lowering of academic expectations.  I would argue that at the same time there has been a raising of expectation and standards of technical and vocational ‘practical’ standards that are far more appropriate for the majority of students. There is also the frequent use by academics of the word ‘rigour’. Why do academics, politicians and journalists only associate ‘rigour’ with academic study? Rigour is something that can be and is applied to any area of study, be it in the Creative Arts, Business Studies, Physical Education, and so on.

Returning briefly to my ‘Going for Gold‘ Olympic medal analogy post, it’s like insisting that all athletes only prepare themselves for the rigour of the 100 metres. As a result, many swimmers, pole vaulters, marathon runners, etc., would never discover that their particular aptitude lay in a completely different discipline. (And I am equally concerned by the further comparison that only those athletes deemed likely to win a medal at the next Olympics will be given funding). The EBacc, as presently conceived, might well succeed in raising academic standards for a small minority, but at the same time will produce a much higher number of failures and disaffected teenagers.

Indeed the way Scenes From The Battleground sees the situation exemplifies exactly where much of the problem lies. While a few academics seem to have managed to join up the dots and grasp the bigger picture, for many a narrow academic education tends to produce people who only see the world from their own point-of-view. It worked for them, so it must be good for everyone, and all that needs to happen is for everyone to receive an academic education, and everything will be wonderful.

It is better to have tried and failed than never to have had an academic education

Having seemingly reassured himself that he is correct, in an up-date post Scenes From The Battleground states a commonly-held view amongst many academics:

‘It is better to make everyone try to get into a good university, and have a lot fail, than to write off so many of the able-but-poor like we do now. University should be a goal for all because a good education should be a goal for all and even in failing to achieve that goal, one may be given the means to achieve many other goals instead.’

Now this is a very contentious statement, and one I suspect few outside academia would agree with. First it has no regard for the future of the majority of students who would indeed fail to get to university, beyond the unsupported suggestion that as a result somehow they would be able to achieve ‘many other goals instead’. And it also quite wrongly equates university with being the only possible source of a worthwhile education.

Class Wars

Scenes From The Battleground also poses the question: “What would pushy middle-class parents make of this (non-academic activity)?” and suggests that they would perceive evidence of dumbing-down. If they were hoping their children were bound for a Russell Group university, then of course I would agree. But if a parent’s main concern is that their off-spring should find a worthwhile and well-paid job in the emerging economy – and that will in the future give them a good chance of enabling them to be happy and to live independently – then an increasing number are starting to realise that there is more relevant and up-to-date learning going on in some other more practical and less theoretical disciplines. And anyway, All Change Please!, like the majority of teachers, did not go into education specifically to meet the demands of the pushy middle-class parent, but the needs of all children, whatever their background.

‘Teachers cannot afford to be emphasising to kids that university is one goal among others, because the effect won’t be to deter the posh-but-thick; it will be to deter the working class’.

Scenes From The Battleground then goes on to discuss the much-used argument that social class remains the key factor in going to university (which indeed it may well be), and that teachers deter the working class from going there. I simply do not believe that the majority of teachers do this, at least not if the student shows the required level of potential academic ability and has the desire to do so. What they do do however, is to suggest that perhaps some students who are quite unlikely to achieve the necessary academic standards should consider alternative educational pathways that are more likely to enable them to succeed and obtain employment through more practically-related knowledge and experience.


Finally, and how many times does it need repeating, top company chief executives keep stating that what they need now is not graduates stuck in the old Industrial Age ways of memorising and recalling a prescribed, often out-of-date, body of knowledge, but life-long learners, creative risk-takers and collaborative problem-solvers willing and able to work flexibly to respond to ever-changing and entirely unpredictable markets that embrace instability. According to this article, today’s young people will find themselves living and working in the ‘Age of Chaos’, and will need to have a ‘Generation Flux’ mindset. I can only advise academics to stay in their ivory towers and lock the door firmly behind them!


So why is it that at the same time though employers quite rightly complain that many school-leavers often lack, or are far from fluent in, basic numeracy and literacy skills? Perhaps this is because what they are being taught in schools is often too theoretical, and not grounded in the context of everyday, real-world problems?

Education needs to be appropriate for everyone, not just the academically-able.

Image credit: Anguskirk  http://www.flickr.com/photos/anguskirk/4944028963

3 comments on “Going For Old?

  1. I agree that good education should be a goal for all but the idea that you learn much at university seems a bit optimistic. I learned about Neighbours, hangovers and how much coffee you need to drink to stay up all night writing an essay that was due in the day before. Actually, the Neighbours info has been useful, come to think of it. I also got to meet posh kids from private schools who were, generally speaking, rather spectacularly less clever than my friends from school who had failed to get in to this particular university…

  2. Okay, I’ve absorbed most of this post and some of the Battleground stuff and the things that occur to me to say are:

    1. People these days are much more knowledgeable about many things than ever before in history, “academic” or not (standing on the shoulders of giants stuff, etc.).

    2. Dumbing down is certainly happening if all you can think about is in terms of making sure “Academic” is the be all and end all of learning, understanding and education.

    3. Life skills are about so much more than university, academic (dis)ability and being able to answer as many questions as you can in an allotted time as though it’s an episode of Mastermind. Think about all the day to day services and provisions you pay for that you can’t either provide, create or do yourself; how many of them are academic needs and did it matter how quickly those things were done or was it better that they were done properly with skill, thought and ability?

  3. The very recent evidence from the US where they led the way into academe for decades is really showing us where the Uk is in danger of heading. Stateside, parents now are likely to generate for the first time new generations of children less well qualified than themselves, in a society even more polarised into the haves and have-debts. Intersting comments beyond the BBC article points the way to craft skills, w3hich look more likely to give you the wherewithwall to pay the bills (that just get bigger and bigger). http://goo.gl/66MKH takes you there.

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