Most people think secondary schools are good and favour practical subjects

Francis Gilbert's picture
The year has ended on a high note for local schools. Despite the bashing that they have received at the hands of this Coalition government and a hysterical press, the British people have other thoughts. The recently published British Attitude Survey reveals that 73% of people thought secondary schools were doing a good job of teaching the basics of reading and writing. This chimes with Ofsted surveys on the subject, which reveal high rates of satisfaction in schools amongst parents. It also ties in with my own personal experience as a teacher: most parents I’ve encountered are very pleased with the job schools are doing.

Most fascinating of all, the survey shows that there has been a big increase in the number of parents who think that “good practical skills and training” give more opportunities in life than “good academic results” – up from 38% in 2002 to 60% in 2009. This again ties in my own experience: increasing numbers of parents and pupils are seeing that subjects like Personal, Social, Health Education (PSHE), practical qualifications like diplomas, and vocational GCSEs and A Levels are vital in today’s changing world. The British people are aware better than our current government that it’s “life skills” that are vital to foster in our children and that many of our academic qualifications – based on out-moded Victorian models of learning – simply do not provide this. As has been mentioned in this site before, a subject like Media Studies enables pupils to understand the media-saturated world we live in and provides them with great practical skills in making their own media; increasingly important skills in today’s context.

The report says:

“The public is in favour of schools developing a broad range of qualities in children. The qualities most widely viewed as being “essential” ones to develop are skills and knowledge to get a job (48%), understanding about drugs and alcohol (45%) and being a good citizen (39%). “Gaining qualifications or certificates of achievement” is less widely viewed as essential – with under one quarter thinking this is the case (24%).

• Nearly three quarters (72%) say schools should be judged on how well they teach children skills for life, even if this means that less emphasis is placed on academic subjects.”

Bravo to this! Let’s hope that Michael Gove pays attention to this important survey and take heed of what the public wants. His nonsensical English Baccalaureate is woefully back-looking, encouraging antiquated subjects like Latin, Biblical Hebrew and Classical Greek, at the expense of subjects that will actually teach our children useful skills they will need for the future. It’s time that our establishment lost its silly snobbery against practical subjects and embraced them in the way that our public want them to.

(To read an interesting American blog about the UK public versus the establishment, click here.)
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Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 12:01

Given that children should have learnt to read and write before they get to secondary school, the figure about secondary schools being good at teaching those makes the whole thing seem highly dubious.

More importantly, pretending our exam system is Victorian (!) isn't going to convince anyone that parental dislike of our system of qualifications is because they are too academic, rigourous and impractical and want more non-academic qualifications. People dislike our system because so many of the qualifications are a worthless waste of time. The dislike of qualifications has gone up as the number of non-academic qualifications and subjects has increased. To see this as an endorsement of more of the same is a bit of a joke.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 12:39

As you know Andrew, I treat statistics with caution, so I will have to concede that any exercise of this sort is not going to be a perfect representation of people's views. However, this survey does chime with own changing opinions on this matter; I used to think that many qualifications that were not academic were worthless. I have revised my views for a few reasons. Firstly, as a parent, I've seen how my own son has benefitted from teaching at his local state primary which has not only taught the basics but has also encouraged him to think "outside the box". He's loved doing project work, going to field studies centres, doing various PSHE projects, making films and doing presentations, going on lots of trips; doing practical activities have made him motivated to learn. Secondly, as a teacher, I've seen how these subjects have "lit" the spark of learning in pupils' eyes. They are not worthless: they have been rigorously constructed with clear and sensible Assessment Objectives and teach vital transferrable skills. The old subject disciplines were largely developed in the Victorian era, in a time when various experts were trying to justify studying things like "English Literature", in much the same way, teachers like me are attempting to justify studying practical subjects. I am not saying these academic subjects are worthless -- they have a great deal of value -- but they need to be part of a modern curriculum, which motivates and inspires.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 14:11

The question comes down to whether you value learning or entertainment in lessons. If you prioritise entertainment then you will get no end of anecdotal evidence of motivated kids, and you might actually be able to convince yourself that it is the learning that has motivated them, rather than the absence of learning and the opportunity to goof around (although you will also get people like me who, as a child, sat through project work with gritted teeth and would have loved to have actually been taught instead).

I'm not really sure where you get the idea that the subject disciplines are Victorian; obviously the nineteenth century was a time of curriculum innovation and a lot of subjects first came to be considered important then, but it was hardly the first time children were taught maths, literacy, foreign languages or religion.

As for "transferrable skills" isn't that just code for dumbing-down again? If kids aren't learning knowledge, and aren't gaining any clearly identifiable new ability, then "transferable skills", "thinking skills", "social skills", "creativity" and curiosity" start appearing as the rationale. They make good excuses because they are either vague to the point of being meaningless or are simply characteristics children have already but in practice they mean that there is no clear learning going on.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 16:16

I have to agree that I suffered at my local state primary school during the 1970s being taught "project work": this doesn't invalidate it as an idea though. Teachers are much, much better trained now: children in groups have specific targets to meet, they are allocated roles, there are clear learning objectives set. That's why my son enjoyed and benefitted from designing a 2nd WW shelter in his Year 5 lessons and learnt a great deal about measuring, about architecture, about the war. I was told to design an island and draw some maps and told to get on with it in a group. I wasn't monitored, I had no idea what I was learning; no one in my group had any idea. It was chronic drift. That was the bad old days. But, as I've said, teachers are much more on the ball now.

With regards to transferrable skills, let's take one "initiative". I do think there's value in making "developing initiative" a key learning objective in a lesson; children need to see the value in coming up with ideas by themselves, in problem-solving; they need to learn about it by showing some initiative, knowing that it's expected of them, having a chance to reflect upon it.

I think there's some evidence that as schools became more institutionalised in the 19th century some consensus about the curriculum evolved during the Victorian era. Dickens shows how destructive an unimaginative, reductive curriculum can be in "Hard Times". I think the book is still very relevant to today.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 19:37

"Hard Times" could not be less relevant. There isn't a classroom in a state school in the country that resembles Gradgrind's. Unfortunately, there are plenty of classrooms where children are kept busy with activities but learn a fraction of what could be learnt by being directly taught. Are you seriously expecting anyone to believe that students learn a lot about the second world war by building a bomb shelter? What exactly?

With regard to "initiative" it is an almost perfect example of something that can't be taught. As with so many excuses for dumbing down, it starts with something teenagers already have, i.e. impulsiveness, and tries to make a virtue of it in order to justify not actually teaching them anything. "Developing initiative" as a learning objective could be used to justify almost any task you can think of, and almost anything the students do can be described as "showing initiative". Identifying any actual learning would be utterly impossible. Assuming that "initiative" shown in the classroom situation automatically transfers to other situations is absurd. It also, once more, misses the role of knowledge: like most people I show more initiative in situations I understand than one's where I don't. The whole suggestion just leaves me thinking of the many, many students whose biggest problem was that they showed too much initiative; going off half-cocked is often the biggest problem people have with getting things done well.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 30/12/2010 - 08:49

I would beg to disagree about "Hard Times", which I see as very relevant because we do have a system which treats children like empty vessels which are needing to be filled up with knowledge; the Gradgrind approach does still exist in our classrooms today, particularly when teaching to the test. Warwick Mansell has shown this in his excellent journalism and recent book; although I disagree with him that this means we should abandon exams altogether, I feel his points are very valid.

Having "initiative" as a learning objective is beneficial when allied to other objectives/tasks. So, for example, when having a lesson where you are teaching how to write an essay/creative piece/article etc making initiative an explicit objective makes children think about finding out information for themselves, without relying on the teacher giving them the answer. I find in the current system that many teachers "scaffold" essays etc, basically providing pupils with the relevant research, the essay plan, the mark scheme etc. Asking pupils to do this for themselves has real value and means that they have to use their own initiative. I think many UK children don't have much initiative and, as a consequence, leave school unable to find jobs for themselves, develop business ideas, work on their own projects. We don't have an education system that engenders independence of thought. That's why the explicit teaching of initiative is important.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 30/12/2010 - 11:26

Have you actually read the aims for the new National Curriculum? Have you seen the bizarre schemes like Building Learning Power or Brain Gym that have become normal in our schools? Have you noticed how many exams have been either abolished or widely replaced with coursework in the last few years? Have you noticed how unfashionable it is actually get kids to memorise things?

I can't think of anything more removed from Gradgrindism.

As for initiative, saying that kids don't show it is not a justification for claiming it can or should be taught when we have no reason to think it even can be taught. I don't deny that teachers bend over backwards to make work easy for children, however, I think this has a lot to do with low expectations of *effort*. To pretend that we can tackle this problem by pretending we can teach initiative is an obvious cop-out. The only thing that will make children apply themselves (with initiative, concentration and deep thought) is the expectation that work will be challenging and that they will need to work hard to get it done. Dumbed-down qualifications, replacing learning objectives with vague aspirations and trying to "motivate" rather than educate is what has got us in to this mess and it is not going to be solved by more of the same.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 30/12/2010 - 11:56

I certainly agree with you about the paramount importance of stressing "effort". Personally, I don't think things have dumbed down. I've just been teaching Terence Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy" to my Year 8 class; it's not a particularly "easy" play, but I noticed that the pupils were much more willing to have a go at it than those I taught ten years ago. The difference in their literacy skills was noticeable; they are, on the whole, better readers.

I haven't seen these things you mention in the National Curriculum, having really only looked at English, but I would be very interested in seeing them if you have the links to hand.

Dan Scott's picture
Thu, 30/12/2010 - 22:35

Francis, can I put a different spin on all this. I have heard the 'empty vessels' argument before, as the constructivist view is then put forward. You mentioned Vygotsky some time ago in a previous post as a champion of the new construcivist experiment that has torn through schools these last 10 years. He was in fact a social constructivist who believed passionately that the very history and traditions of our culture were passed down through our language and education. 'Experts' were essential in this process as this accelerated the process of understanding of our place in society. Chomsky also seems to believe this in the case of language. The ultimate constructivist of course was Piaget, who believed that we were logical organisms that would always meet 'cognitive conflict' in a logical and therefore reforming manner and limitations were only set by developmental readiness. This always seems to me to miss the point of what it is to be a human - we are far more complex than that. I see the whole target and objective-driven nature of modern education in this light.

Some years ago I read an excellent book called the Twilight of American Culture, by Morris Berman, a social commentator and historian. In it, he argued that historical analysis of the end of previous civilisations (Roman, Egytian etc) were always preceded by a period of rejection of the intellectual traditions of that culture in favour of utilitarianism and mass entertainment, leading ultimately to spritual and cultural death. What then follows was collapse of culture and ultimately 'dark ages'.
He argues that forgetting the intellectual traditions of our culture would be catastrophic. He has observed the replacement of tradtional subjects in favour of education-as-entertainment in America with alarm. He discusses how this will result in mass dislocation from western culture, to be replaced by ...... what? When the opening of the first McDonalds as a historical fact holds equal footing with the signing of the Magna Carta, or the estblishment of the Holy Roman Empire, then we're all stuffed. And I see no other outcome here in the UK as we erode the very learning traditions that gave rise to the Enlightenment and replace it with utilitarian skills-based education (whatever that means) and fun.
As Ibsen once stated, the majority is always wrong. I know he was a misery guts but...

Just an alternate view, but surely one that demands discussion.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 02/01/2011 - 22:16

I am surprised that everyone seems to think this is an 'either/or' debate. Is it beyond possibility that children could memorise information, learn traditional subjects and also develop valuable functional skills all in the same lesson?

I've just written a Citizenship lesson for this week. Some will scorn at this subject because it is new and therefore must herald the end of 'intellectual tradition' or be an example of 'dumbing down'. Actually the lesson involves examining the current role of Britain in the EU and UN, with an emphasis on evaluating whether membership is truly 'optional' and the costs of making agreed upon policies or resolutions. Given that similar questions are considered in the first year of the "Prime Minister's degree" PPE, any charge of dumbing down can be put to one side for now. Citizenship, after all, is just another name for Politics - a reasonably traditional activity.

In the planned lesson there are some facts students will need to learn straightfowardly. Terms like 'security council' or 'caucus' will be new to them so I introduce them as vocabulary in a reasonably old-fashioned way and they will need to learn it verbatim initially. But, as the lesson goes on, students use their understanding of the new terms as we re-create a UN meeting and look at the complexities of getting to a resolution before, in homework, considering why certain agreements have not been upheld. In doing so students learn facts, they learn skills (negotiation, diplomacy, listening to the views of others) and their memory of the material is supported by active learning.

If I taught them directly I would rob them of the skills AND the likelihood of remembering things (given that we remember more when we are involved). Likewise, if all I taught was 'negotiation skills' it would be a fairly wasted lesson. So why the divide in views?

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