Marx on Monday: Education Reform

When Tony Blair was asked what his three main priorities were for government he famously replied, education, education and education. It was a turning point for working class people in Britain. When I was a young lad growing up in the 1970’s there were about 200,000 people at University in the UK, but Tony’s vision was to increase that to 50% of all children having a university degree.

There were two possible ways to achieve it. Educate our children to a much higher standard or make exams much easier and qualifications meaningless. Thankfully Tony Blair chose the latter. There are now over 2 million children in higher education and no town or village in England is without its own university. At first the new universities were former polytechnics who changed their names, but then other institutions such as Higher Education Colleges, former youth clubs and even fast food restaurant chains were given university status to help cope with the ever expanding demand for higher education.

Of course to help children get into university or “uni” as it has become known it was necessary to help them get better grades at A level and GCSE. This was achieved by allowing them to take the answers into the exams with them and by introducing coursework that they are allowed to do again and again until they achieve the required grades.

It certainly worked for my oldest son Clay-Barry. There were various obstacles preventing him from obtaining a degree. He was lazy, stupid and had difficulty writing his own name. But thanks to his GCSEs and A levels being mainly based on coursework which he did several times with the help of the teacher, and exams where he was allowed to take the answers in with him, he finally achieved 10 A stars at GCSE and 3 A stars at A level. With such stellar grades he received three offers from universities. He was tempted to read Surfing at Plymouth University or Adventure Studies at Chichester University before he finally settled for reading David Beckham Studies at Staffordshire University.

He spent three years studying such subjects as Beckham’s ever changing hairstyles, the meaning behind his tattoos and his marriage to Posh Spice before graduating with a first class honours degree and student loan debts of £27,000.

It was a proud moment for me. He was the first member of my family ever to obtain a GCSE, let alone a degree, and his success is a testament to the vision and political philosophy of Tony Blair.

Okay, like 20% of all graduates, he hasn’t been able to find a job since he graduated five years ago, apart from a short internship as a dustbin man and some work experience collecting trollies in the Asda car park, and he is saddled with debts of £27,000 from his time at university, but that doesn’t matter. He doesn’t have to pay back a penny of his student loan until he is earning more than £42,000 and, thanks to the fact that his degree certificate isn’t worth the paper it is written on, there is absolutely no chance of that ever happening.

I had expected all of my children to end up with degrees but now, thanks to government proposals to make GCSEs harder, there’s precious little chance of that!

I was sitting having a quiet pint last week in Notting Hill’s Windsor Castle pub fuming about the injustice of it all when who should walk in but education secretary Michael Gove. He looked as shocked to see me as I was to see him but came over wearing his avuncular politician’s smile.

“Hello Kevin,” he greeted me, “can I get you a drink?”

“Pint of lager please Michael,” I replied.

He went to the bar and returned with our pints, sitting down opposite me.

“You look a bit glum Kevin,” he said, “what’s the matter?”

“Funny you should ask,” I scowled back, “it’s your plans to make GCSE exams harder – they’re going to destroy my children’s prospects of success in life.”

“How?” he looked surprised.

“Because they’re lazy and stupid,” I replied, “and if you replace modular testing, coursework and tiering with a one off summer exam they’ll have no chance of passing.”

“I see,” he replied sympathetically, “but don’t you think it’s important that we improve our education system?”

“Not at the expense of children being branded failures,” I snapped back, “your plans are going to exclude children from higher education just because they’re too stupid to write their own name.”

“But do you think children who are, in your words, too stupid to write their own name, should become graduates?”

“Absolutely,” I told him straight, “my oldest boy Clay-Barry has trouble writing his name, has never read a book and can’t count beyond a hundred but thanks to the vision of Tony Blair and the much needed dumbing down of our education system he managed to get a first class honours degree in David Beckham Studies from the University of Stafford.”

“Really,” Gove raised his eyebrows, “and has he got a job?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snorted, “who’s going to employ someone with a degree in David Beckham Studies?”

“Aren’t you worried Kevin, “said Gove, “that in a recent major study of 24 developed nations Britain came 19th in literacy and 21st in numeracy?”

“No,” I replied, “because in terms of a proportion of our children who become graduates we rank 1st.”

“We also rank first in the table of unemployment amongst graduates,” he replied, “with 20% of them unable to get a job.”

“So what’s your solution Michael,” I asked, “a return to those dark days when higher education was the preserve of the intelligent and hardworking?”

“I just want to improve Britain’s education system,” Gove sighed, “and make passing exams mean something.”

“They do mean something Michael,” I explained, “they let young people who are not very bright or industrious, but pass their modules after endless re-sits and help from teachers, feel good about themselves – and the so-called meaningless certificates give children false hope that they might achieve something in life. In your brave new world people like my daughter Morgan-Marie will have their hopes and dreams stolen away from them.”

“How is Morgan-Marie getting on at school?” Gove asked.

“Quite well,” I told him, “she has still never read a book, she can’t spell and she can’t add up without a calculator, but with help from her teacher she did well in her modules at the eighth time of asking and was well on target for 10 A stars at GCSE until you announced your stupid changes.”

“Stupid changes?” Gove frowned.

“That’s right,” I snapped, “in maths she’s going to have to learn about ratios, proportion, rates of change, vectors, probability, quadratic equations and sine and cosines – and then she’s going to have to sit an exam and answer questions about them.”

“I see,” Gove looked confused.

“And in English she’s going to have to read rubbish like Shakespeare, English poetry and Hardy, as well as learn spelling, punctuation and grammar,” I raged, ”and then sit an exam and answer questions about it all.”

“Yes that’s the plan,” Gove replied.

“I’m telling you Michael,” I warned him, “you are well on the way to creating an iniquitous system where the more intelligent and hardworking you are the more chance you have of getting good grades in your exams.”

“Thank you,” he replied.

“It’s not meant as a compliment,” I snarled, “you have single-handedly destroyed Tony Blair’s dream of Britain having the highest proportion of semi-literate and ill-educated graduates in the developed world.”

Love Bogpaper? Get it delivered to you via our newsletter!

  • Officer Crabtree

    Two write Kevin. These elitist write wing scum only want the best to suck seed. If we allow this, watt next- people having to work to live in comfort and have sky TV? They are my human writes.

  • Simon Roberts

    Would it seem too conspiratorial if I were to suggest that the purpose of all this education was never to improve education? Blair had a good enough education to know that increasing the supply of graduates will not increase the demand for them.

    If you have had any contact with these modern day graduates as I have, you will know that many (not all) of them have very little to show for their educations in terms of marketable skills. What they do have is in-depth knowledge of is human rights, anti-racism, the evils of capitalism and a ridiculously over-inflated opinion of themselves (despite the absence of any evidence to support it). Marxists, in other words.

    Of course, the victims of all this nonsense are the kids themselves. They are saddled with debts which will amount to a disincentive to succeed, their qualifications are worthless and they are confronted with the choice of either accepting the manual labour that they were more suited to in the first place (now in competition with cheap immigrants) or being unemployed.

    Politicians are all pretty dreadful, but Blair and Brown deserve a special loathing.

  • Michael

    Brilliant as usual Mr Marx.

    I do deep down feel some sympathy for these students and how they’ve been used as pawns in an evil political game. My observations are along similar lines to Simon Roberts. All these students want is “equality”, “tolerance”, and a life where actions don’t have consequences where all must have well-paid “jobs”. What they’re getting instead is smacked in the face with reality.

    It is worth repeating a few lines of George Carlin’s “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it” speech:

    “But there’s a reason, there’s a reason education SUCKS, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, EVER be fixed….. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. That’s right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table and think about how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that!

    You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork….. All day long beating you over the head with their media telling you what to believe, what to think and what to buy. The table has tilted folks. The game is rigged and nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care! Good honest hard-working people; white collar, blue collar it doesn’t matter what color shirt you have on. Good honest hard-working people continue, these are people of modest means, continue to elect these rich cock suckers who don’t give a FCUK about you”

  • dr

    As far as I can tell, what we would like in our country seems to be an education system where we would like almost all kids to do well, but at the same time we would like high standards. In essence we would like almost all kids to perform at a high level whilst in school.
    The only way I can see that we can hope to get this, is by broadening education so that each child has the opportunity to undertake activities that they are good at. Until we start recognizing individual uniqueness and allow children to tailor their education accordingly, then we will be stuck in this trap where everyone is supposed to learn almost the same subjects and everyone is expected to do well, despite wildly varying aptitude.
    For example, Kev, writing above, is clearly capable of writing English to a high standard, well beyond GCSE. But I would suggest that his inability to achieve any qualifications at GCSE would have been down to his disillusionment with his education in general, driven by being forced to study subjects in which he struggled. So his underachievement in subjects in which he was less able, contaminated subjects in which he clearly has ability.

  • http://jazz606.wordpress.com/ jazz606

    To have any chance of improving education in this country the first thing that must be done is to close the Department for Education and all the LEAs.

  • LeftyThinker

    I wiv u awl the whey, Marx, it’s orful dat kids carnt get kwalifried any mor wiv dis dredfull Torie govinmint wot is distroyin the self eSteam ov our fyne an’ splen-did yoof oo kno ow 2 enjoi life, not lyk the ole kill-joyz in the Toreys.

  • http://twitter.com/BigDon62 Donal Corrigan (@BigDon62)

    The irony of it all Kevin. I was educated in my later school days under the watch of Harold Wilson & Jim Callaghan, turned out well for a Tory, although I say so myself ☺

  • http://www.daretoknowblog.blogspot.com Carlotta

    “The only way I can see that we can hope to get this, is by broadening education so that each child has the opportunity to undertake activities that they are good at. Until we start recognizing individual uniqueness and allow children to tailor their education accordingly, then we will be stuck in this trap where everyone is supposed to learn almost the same subjects and everyone is expected to do well, despite wildly varying aptitude.”

    Dead right and something plenty of home educators in this country know very well….though it has been nigh impossible to get people to believe us, given the free child-minding service that schools provide.

    Increasingly though, techie solutions should be giving us the the power to personalise learning, even possibly within a school environment…though really why go to school when you can already learn 6 languages and counting to a reasonable level, completely for free and FAR MORE EFFICIENTLY than in a classroom with Duolingo? (eg: it finds out what you YOU don’t know, and spontaneously helps you remember it, and all without all the shame!)

    Ditto Khan Academy for maths, science etc.

    And why use a dodgy bored lecturer at great expense when you can do a MOOC from the most inspired cutting edge lecturer in the world?

    Also am pretty sure that with the increasing power and accuracy of brain scanning, we will be able to prove that it isn’t necessarily the content that matters as much as the passion with which one learns. We should be integrating new messages from neuroscience into the way we learn, and tailor education accordingl

    Son who was home educated following a curriculum entirely dictated by his interests. ie: Runescape, Guitar Hero, trampolining, climbing, knitting (!) is now at college getting the usual A* predictions. He never studied anything conventional prior to going. Unlike plenty of his schooled classmates, he manages his own learning very competently, is motivated to learn, and also earns good money on the side as a highly competent musician.

    Daughter currently studying guinea pigs. Has been for last year or so. Amazing what you can learn studying an apparently pretty boring little ball of fluff…but am telling you, it works!

    Yep, time to completely rethink schools. If we must have the child care component at all, make them places filled with resources and neuroscientists. Let children manage their own time, whether this means playing Doom solidly for 15 years (and then go on to win top prizes in physics and Maths at Imperial…as one home educated friend did) or muck about on a farm for 16 years and then become a vet (as did another HE kid). It works..honest, it does.

    • Rocco

      Carlotta, I’ve a tremendous amount of t respect for parents who homeschool their children. Congratulations on doing such a terrific job.

      Out of interest, have you read m my post on “free” schools on last weeks Bogpaper (‘Lessons in freedom?’) I’d be very interested to hear your opinion on it, as a libertarian home educator.

  • http://www.daretoknowblog.blogspot.com Carlotta

    Fascinating problem, I agree. How does one pass on libertarian as opposed to libertine values to children?

    My guess is that the problem is possibly bigger than schools. It comes down to the problem of the wide-spread abandonment of religious ethics and the failure to argue the case for secular ethics instead. There is a moral vacuum or at least an unnecessary lack of sophistication at the heart of many British families nowadays. Somehow the secular/rationalist/libertarian message needs to get out a bit more!

    If this has to happen in schools, so be it. Gotta start somewhere. In some classes, I probably wouldn’t actually kick off with a lecture on “the appeal to authority” fallacy. Instead I might start with the theory that coercion is damaging because it forces a person to enact a theory that is not active in the mind, and therefore limits the capacity for reason and creativity. From this fairly central theory, much good can come!

    If somehow the explanatory theories of the epistemic value of non-coercion, of seeking win-win scenarios, of mutual rational self-interest, of freely chosen preference change could get out there, say in families…what then of schools?

    Many children would chose not to go unless they were made considerably more enticing, then we really will have to think again.

    There is going to be a huge shortage of teachers soon anyhow, so we will HAVE to think outside the box. People like Sugata Mitra are already tackling this sort of problem and if only we could loosen up a bit, and tap into Google, the granny cloud, crowd sourcing, MOOCs etc, there could be plenty of other solutions which could meet the educational needs of children and adults.

    As to the conundrum raised by the example of your own education, I’d say by way of a counter-example, that I have good grounds for thinking that one doesn’t have to have an authoritarian environment in which to learn about liberty. I will concede that plenty of modern private schools have actually got pretty good at managing this apparent contradiction. Eton and even CLC are a lot better now than they were in my day, for example and I’ve been impressed by recent alumni and their knowledge of political/social theory and the importance of freedom. (And they are generally speaking not the irredeemable narcissists or life-long anorexics of yore).

    (OK breathe…)

    As I was saying though, plenty of home educated kids have been raised in an entirely libertarian fashion. This doesn’t mean libertine. They haven’t been neglected and they don’t run wild. They have been offered sound moral explanations and critical thinking skills which really haven’t been foisted upon them, being merely offered. The thing is, these kids do seem to take these on board freely…something about the truth outing!

  • J.Smith

    I simply saw rate of change when discussing his daughters maths GCSE and was immediately convinced. As a Russell Group University, Maths Student but unfortunately educated under the final peak of Labours filthy, dumbing down education policy Gove is what this country needs. If only more ministers were not worried about issues of intellectual unfairness and leaving lower-middle grade students to be lower middle grade students we would have not only the best state schools in the world (as we already do with public and a large proportion of the independent schools) but just the most intelligent, hard working and best qualified school leavers at both A-Level and GCSE level.
    As a child of the New Labour years, do not trust posh boy, parachuted into S-o-T Tristram Hunt with your child’s education. He will be the final Blairite nail into our future generations educational coffin.