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Education, Education, Education

16/12/2010
Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingd...

So important that he had to say it three times. Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, made education the key focus for his premiership. He asked the voters to judge his government by the success of his education policies.

There were lots of them. One thing you can always be sure of and that is that governments, especially new ones, will want to bugger about with the education. And didn’t they just? Re-branded ministries, new targets, revolutionary initiatives on literacy and numeracy, new exams and exam boards, changes to university funding, changes to admission processes both to schools and unis… the whole nine yards.

So, after 13 years, what has been the nett benefit?

It seems to me that you measure the success of any social policy by the degree to which it has helped the most vulnerable. In education terms, that means the ill-educated, especially those who cannot read or count. On this measure, Blair & Co failed, failed, failed.

OECD figures released last week (see Shepherd 2010) show that the UK ranksĀ ranked 25th for reading and 28th for maths out of a study of 15 year olds in 65 developed countries. This continues a slide in our relative performance and was in spite of the fact that only 7 of our competitors spend more per capita than the UK on their children’s education.

The frankly dismal levels of illiteracy in this country have failed to respond to more than a decade of dedicated primary teaching, while employers and universities continue to complain that we may have produced the least numerate generation of school-leavers in history.

Clearly something isn’t working.

There seem to be two explanations. One that these special interventions were wrong-headed from the start. Or, more probably, that there is a dynamic which discourages the universal acquisition of basic skills at a faster rate than they can be learned.

The problem with ‘education, education, education’ is that education has never been only about school. It has always been about respecting and valuing learning.

If, as a society, we have lost all respect for learning, discovery, creativity and wisdom, then, no matter how many squeaky new initiatives are introduced, there is not a snowflake in hell’s chance that good, ordinary kids will get the education they deserve. The extra-systemic, anti-educational forces of instantaneous celebrity culture are simply too powerful to resist.

Do we need to radically re-structure education, again? Probably not. Do we need to re-prioritise the value of learning and education in and of themselves. Yes.

Time for a rethink, methinks.

Sources

Shepherd J; UK Slips Down World Rankings; The Guardian; 07.112.10; http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/dec/07/uk-schools-slip-world-rankings

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