Thursday, November 16, 2006

Education, education, education: Lewisham College’s disregard for the past part 2 of 2
Hey, that’s groovy. It’s a gas. In fact, it’s cool-o-roonie. Far out, man. Gimme some skin. That’s rad. Bodacious even. Can you dig it? Er, no I can’t. And no I haven’t been tripping either. But dated slang is perhaps a more revealing metaphor as to why British education is where it is today than you may realise. And why institutions like Lewisham College do not help when they embrace questionable teaching practices while dismissing past methods that worked.

Every generation seeks to put their stamp on their time. That’s fine with slang, and if it’s clever, it can sometimes add permanent colour to language. But it can be disastrous when fashion is applied to more than just street talk. Robin Ghurbhurun Lewisham College's director of e-learning says `There is an expectation from the students coming through - they are living in a digital world with YouTube and MySpace and iPods and Xboxes and the last thing they want to do is walk into a classroom that looks like it's from the 18th century'. My previous post demonstrated how traditional British education is still successful in our former colonies while new fangled ideas like elearning are struggling in this country. Mr. Ghurbhurun is not breaking new ground here: His predecessors in the State system have also been children of their times and sought to support contemporary ideas. In the area of State education, this has been going on since 1833. In his excellent book `The Welfare State We’re In’, James Bartholomew lists the key milestones:

1833: Government grants are first issued to charitable, church schools to give a bit of help. Then more grants are given.

1839: Government inspectors are appointed to examine schools to ensure grants go to suitable institutions.

1870: Government’s Elementary Education Act is introduced by W.E. Forster to help fill perceived gaps in independent schooling. Independent schools start collapsing, as they cannot compete with the new Government free schools. This was not what Forster intended.

1876: Government’s Elementary Education Act as framed by Lord Sandon prevents employers taking on children who have not come from Government-certified schools. More independent schools are forced to close.

1880: Government makes elementary schooling compulsory for children aged five to ten.

1902: Government’s Education Act as designed by Arthur Balfour makes secondary schooling mandatory as well.

1917: Government grants are given to Oxford and Cambridge Universities for the first time. Both are assured there would be no loss of independence.

1918: Government’s Education Act, brought in by H.A.L Fisher, abolishes all fees for children in State elementary schools and raises the age of compulsory education to fourteen.

1944: Government’s Education Act, as created by `Rab’ Butler, pays more money to church schools, and in return, achieves control over most of them.

1961: Government creates the first State university: Sussex. Other universities become more dependent on Government.

1963: Government’s Robbins Report recommends that higher education should be available to all who qualify for it.

Many of these initiatives were created with the best intentions in mind. It originally only wanted to fill small gaps in an otherwise impressive school system that operated without State help. Over nearly two centuries, the Government has totally swamped the education system, and in many instances expropriated property paid for by charities, churches and generous donors. We now have a dreadful school system that forces many worried parents to spend twice on educating their children via the independent sector. Those that get left behind risk becoming functionally illiterate.

It seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with creating new fashions as long as you don’t try and reinvent the wheel every few years or so. And if you must, then be prepared for the next generation to undo your good intentions with their own ideas. But at least in the case of language you can easily choose whether you want to use it or not. Unfortunately, when the Government wants to get trendy, it often loses the plot and at best, shows it’s out of touch and at worse, causes misery by forcing millions to conform to outdated and crackpot ideas. And because you can’t do much about it other than try and be the next Government; that can be a real bummer, man.

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