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Thursday, June 23, 2005

failing the youff


Kevin Drum takes exception to the idea that it is only teenagers who have a lack of knowledge of their history, or even maths. I agree with him that the problem is not limited to our children; a significant part of the adult population probably does not know half the things they perhaps should. Though I would extend a little latitude and suggest that this may have something to do with forgetting a lot of what was taught in many cases.

However, it got me thinking, are we really failing our children?

In the UK the government is very keen on interfering with the school curricula and introducing testing at whatever levels they can. They view this as the best way to teach children. At the risk of being flippant I would suggest that teaching is the best way to teach children and that constant messing with a curriculum helps no one, least of all the children. I have some knowledge in this: my mother was a primary scholl teacher and for years and years her job was made progressively harder and more stressful until eventually she had a heart attack and ended up retiring on medical grounds.

It seems to me that schools today suffer attacks from all sides. The government wants to keep interfering, the kids are more and more unresponsive (mass generalisation, I know) and the parents are all too happy to blame the teachers when their children don't do well at school when in fact I would argue that the parents have bred a culture in which their child feels no personal responsibility. When I was in school there was a phrase that was starting to sound around the classrooms whenever teachers attempted any form of discipline:
'I know my rights'
This was invariably followed with statements such as: 'my dad says you can't do anything to me...'. The parents seem quick enough to defend their children's rights to say or do what they want in school but are seemingly reluctant to support the effort to educate their children. It is very depressing. So perhaps the system is not at fault in as much as the lack of support for said system from one of the groups of people who really count - the parents.

Now I am more familiar with higher education. It is 10 years since I first went to University as an undergraduate. In that time changes have occurred: it is no longer free to go to university, top up fees are now a major issue, even though I know of no one outside of the universities themselves who support them (except for this wonderful equality-loving Labour government). Top-up fees mean that some students from poorer backgrounds have to take out student loans to pay for their fees and their living expenses. But its okay, Tony thinks that starting a career with a big pile of debt is a good thing; it's probably character building.

Also Tony wants 50% of school leavers to go to university: this is a target. How utterly ridiculous. What are these 50% going to do with their degrees? Are there that many graduate jobs out there? Surely something like this should never be about the numbers, rather it should be about the ability: everyone should have the opportunity to go to university depending on their ability.

But, it gets worse. Universities are now businesses. They need to generate more money themselves and to do that they need to attract students to fund their departments.

How do you do that? By offering entry onto courses that require much lower grades.
How do you keep the students in? By dumbing down the courses.

That means that degrees offered now in some places are not worth as much as degrees from a few years ago. Its very depressing.

Additionally it gets harder and harder to simply fail someone from a course, since to do that removes a source of funding. Plus some of those fee paying students come with the attitude that since they are paying the fees we have to ensure they get a degree at the end of it. Again, lacking in personal responsibility.

There is also the burden on unpopular subjects. Physics departments and chemistry likewise, are closing around the UK. Why? Students don't like what they perceive as the harder subjects and there is now more choice of degrees in other subjects. It is crazy, it really is. The system is destroying itself so much so that in a few years we will have lost our future science base and a few years after that our engineering base will disappear as well.

So are we failing are children? Damn right we are; but I just don't know what to do about it.

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