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The Third Rock Forum - Education

Article Title
Education, education, education
Topic Section(s)
Submitted : 16-12-2010 16:26
Amended : 10-11-2014 12:50
Status : Approved:  
Likes : 1
Dislikes : 0

Most people would agree that education is a crucially important government responsibility.  All main political parties agree that there should be more social mobility and the best way to encourage social mobility is through education.  So the educational system provided by government and experienced by our children and young people is worthy of the serious consideration and critical analysis.

This article suggests that, from the 1960s, the definition of education, its function, its objectives and the means of fulfilling those objectives have become hopelessly confused in Britain.

Let’s start by trying to define what we need from an educational system. We want citizens who are capable of contributing to society through work and, as far as possible, who can fulfil their potential in any field of their choice on condition it is of benefit to themselves and society. We also want citizens who are responsible, capable of self-discipline, benevolent, creative and possessed of many other laudable attributes, and education certainly has a part to play in instilling these qualities but it is the first two objectives – self-fulfilled individuals who can contribute to society through work – that we would argue are the primary goals of an educational system.

For citizens to contribute fully in an advanced society they need three skills that are prerequisites of acquiring a good education.   They are in fact part of the education process but we call them prerequisites because, without them, the rest of the educational process will be hobbled and will falter.   These three skills are:

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Logic (or the ability to reason)

It may be useful to define these terms.  By literacy we mean the ability to express yourself in words (oral or written) in such a way that you are able to make your words mean what you want them to mean - and nothing else.   By numeracy, we mean the ability to perform elementary mathematical tasks and to have a good grasp of the mathematical processes that are involved.  By logic, we mean the ability to see the connection between propositions, to identify causes and their effect and to expose inconsistencies.

These definitions are short and crude but we hope they are clear enough for some readers at least to realise that our present educational system is not providing these skills at anything like the level of competence that a modern competitive society requires. Indeed, the educational establishment has systematically undermined efforts to maintain standards of literacy, numeracy and reasoning over the last fifty years to such an extent and with such success that some of those reading this article may not recognise the problem at all.

How has the educational establishment wrought this damage?  Well, it began with the benign but truly idiotic idea that children should be left to learn at their own pace by experimentation and exploration.   It is unfair to dismiss the Plowden Report of 1967 as nonsense.  Most of its recommendations were very sensible and even its advocacy of child-centred learning had some merit but to the extent that it was subsequently used to justify the idea:

  • that it was no longer necessary to insist on proper standards of literacy
  • that, if you could use a calculator, that was all the mathematics you needed
  • that what you felt about things, even if your feelings were entirely inconsistent, was more important than their obvious inconsistency

it has done enormous, but hopefully not irreparable, damage to our educational system.

Of course we are not arguing that the skills of literacy, numeracy and reasoning have been lost.   There are many young people who have acquired them as well as anyone in the past.   But, in the main, they have acquired them despite, not because of, the educational system.

The educational system has abandoned learning by rote, whereby young children used to internalise and, in modern parlance, take ownership of, such basic elements of knowledge as the times tables, the capitals of the world, the elements of grammar. It now seems children can pass even A level in English literature without being able to recite even one poem from memory.   Deprived of a calculator, many GCSE maths students are helpless and hopeless.   And, as for reasoning, the rubric of the multi-cultural society - that we should respect all cultures, even if the values of those cultures contradict our own - has stifled debate, constructive or otherwise, and often has silenced reason.

We can argue about whether children should commit poems to memory but surely there can be no disputing the need for all children in this country to acquire competence in English, basic mathematics and the principles of reasoning.

It is a disgrace that large numbers of young people leave school after 12 years of formal education without these basic competencies.   What on earth are our schools doing?   What are our teachers doing?   Is it their purpose to turn out hundreds of thousands of unemployable young citizens who will struggle with life as well as the workplace because they are functionally illiterate and innumerate?

What should be done?

Well, we must start with the teachers.  We have to accept that, since many teachers have been through the misguided educational system which is the problem, they will be ill-equipped to find solutions.  Indeed they will almost certainly resist the radical changes needed.  Nevertheless, if our society is to compete effectively in a post-industrial world, we have to do something.  We need to set much higher standards for those teaching in primary and secondary schools.  We need to reinstate teaching as a highly respected profession, not as the place those with a poor degree even by today’s debased standards and who can’t get any other job turn to as a last resort.  Teacher training colleges should ensure all candidates for the teaching profession are themselves competent in literacy, numeracy and reasoning before they do anything else.   We cannot have teachers with the lowest pass mark in maths GCSE trying to teach the next generation the basics of maths when it is fairly obvious they have failed to grasp the principles themselves.  We cannot have head teachers who cannot spell and who find it difficult to put together a grammatical sentence.

Of course, there are many well-educated, competent and dedicated teachers.   But there are also many who are not and, whatever the ratio of good to bad teachers, the outcome, large numbers of functionally illiterate and innumerate young adults, is irrefutable evidence of a major problem.

If we decided that, even if it took the full 12 years of formal education to the exclusion of all other academic subjects, every child in this country would leave school able to read and write, perform simple mathematical tasks and grasp an argument, we would have greatly improved their life chances and produced a much better labour pool for today’s employers.  Of course most children, if properly taught, will not need 12 years to reach the required level of competence in these basic skills.  Five years should be sufficient for most.   For them, the curriculum could then broaden out.  

For any who have not achieved competence in the basic skills, there would still be seven years to sort out these residual problems.


Status: Approved
Reply Date : 19-12-2013 15:27
Author : georgebundle

Theo has got the issue correctly, 100%. Should this article be circulated to all members of the Education Sub-committee of the House of Commons? Should this article copied to the Permanent Secretary to the Department of Education?

Thank you Theo for writing this article.