Oi Ofsted, leave them kids alone

Education Make you Fick, Innit?
June 8, 2007

What a great title: Education Make you Fick, Innit ? Of course there are some who enjoy natural advantages in the density department and they just require a little polish before going on to a successful career in politics.

I jest, but I was deeply depressed by the authors' analysis of what has gone wrong in schools, colleges and universities. Their argument is that education is not about freeing the mind, encouraging greater democracy or even preparing people for employment. No, its primary aim, demonstrated convincingly throughout, is social control. My spirits revived at the last chapter, though, which suggests how we might put things right.

First the diagnosis. The Education Act of 1944 established the principle of free secondary education for all. In part it was a commitment to a fairer society, but it chiefly addressed the need for a more educated workforce.

Its end-of-term report should have read "could do better". It squandered talent and reinforced class structures.

Cue the comprehensive system - the second attempt to create a more equal society and the first to help each child to realise its potential. But the political will to implement the new legislation was lacking. Moreover, the retention of an academic curriculum ensured that the divisions that the comprehensives were designed to overcome remained. They were also evident in higher education, despite the expansion of the 1960s, in the divide between universities and polytechnics.

The oil crisis of the 1970s spelt the end of education for social justice. Indeed, progressive teaching methods were blamed for the economic downturn. This was the period that saw the appearance of successive agencies whose aim was to mitigate the effects of youth unemployment by the provision of various training schemes.

The 1980s saw the imposition of a national curriculum that was out of tune with Britain's increasingly diverse population and a regime of inspection embodied in the dreaded Ofsted. Smile, you are being quality assured. At the same time, universities suffered more cuts than slasher movie victims.

By the late 1980s, departments were closing, a trend that has intensified under new Labour. Business has an ever-greater say in the curriculum of schools and universities while, as the authors note, "learning is reduced to the completion of predetermined and measurable tasks". Everyone must have qualifications but, as one 16-year-old astutely remarks, "you have to work harder and harder to get worse and worse jobs".

What can be done? Don't just teach vocational skills, educate students about the history and meaning of vocation. Provide them with knowledge, skills and understanding and make them aware of "the real cultures of people who live in Britain". Reduce class sizes and give control back to the teachers. The list goes on. But where are we to find the money? Abolishing Ofsted would save £200 million a year for a start.

The authors deserve far better than to have the word "excellent" bestowed on their efforts. Its constant use is symptomatic of what is wrong with the discourse of education: it has lost touch with reality. That is not a charge that can be levelled at Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley. They anchor their analysis in fact, put the mythical figure of "the learner" in context and give reasons to be cheerful.

Education make you fick? Here's a book to make you fink. Give the authors your views at http:///radicaled.wordpress.com

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

Education Make you Fick, Innit?

Author - Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley
Publisher - The Tufnell Press
Pages - 148
Price - £10.95
ISBN - 97818767673

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