“…little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”
The above quotation, taken from Chapter One of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, is forever etched into my brain thanks to my English GCSE, for which I studied ruthlessly back in 2005. Today, as documents outlining Michael Gove’s proposal to scrap GCSEs and replace them with the old system of O-Levels have been leaked to the media, this quotation seems ever more ominous. Pressed into pages, Dickens’ commentary on the industrialisation of education is buffered by its fictional nature – but it is becoming alarmingly relevant.
I want to preface the rest of my thoughts by saying this: the GCSE system – in fact, the whole exam and school system – needs serious reform. The replacement of blackboards with interactive whiteboards over the last five years symbolises the wider takeover of technological progress that now characterises how we work and learn; the double-dip recession has sparked endless debate on the nature of Britain’s skilled – or unskilled workforce. The international scope of business and enterprise, thanks to worldwide travel networks and the internet, means that everything is globally connected, and bilingualism is rapidly becoming an invaluable boost to prospects. The schools system in the UK needs to change and adapt to these challenges if it is to remain – or rather, re-become – the coveted school system of the West.
Some of the changes proposed by the government in recent months haven’t been entirely awful. Their premise is often correct – but the ideas miss the point. So for my own benefit, I’m going to outline some of them, including the changes today, as I understand them, and then explain why they fall short:
1) Foreign languages to become compulsory from the age of seven.
Good: as I said above, because of the internationalisation of the working world, languages – even a familiarity with widely spoken languages such as Spanish and Mandarin – will set people up well later on in life, and it’s better to learn them when young. The study of languages also involves the study of different cultures, provoking interest and promoting understanding.
Falls short: Michael Gove places seemingly equal emphasis on Latin and Greek as languages to be studied from a young age, which hearkens back to an antiquated curriculum. Now I’m not knocking the classics – although I was awful at Latin in school I absolutely loved Greek and Roman mythology, and I also studied Homer and Virgil in my first year at University; there’s a phenomenal amount of history there and of course our own culture is indebted to classical civilisation. However I think Latin and Ancient Greek, as languages which are no longer spoken, shouldn’t be awarded equal emphasis as MFL, and certainly not from the age of seven. Pupils should be given the option to study them at secondary level and University if they wish. Although I can’t remember the source, I also recall that the number of students studying classics at A-Level and University continues to decline; which begs the question – who is going to teach the kids of the future if classics is to become a classroom staple once again?
As my mother always said when I moaned about my Latin grammar, “Latin is a language, as dead as dead can be – it killed the Ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me!”
One final point about MFL from a young age – the balance must be struck between proficiency there, and ensuring that English literacy is prioritised. This is of especial importance for EAL kids – but for everyone, as English literacy is currently a huge concern in schools nationwide and must remain the focus.
2) Poetry, above all: children as young as five will be expected to recite; renewed focus on spelling/grammar.
Good – I bloody love poetry. And good grammar and punctuation, as we know, saves lives (let’s eat, grandma! vs. let’s eat grandma!) In all seriousness; spell check isn’t a reliable fallback, despite technological advances – and I don’t know about you, but if I were reading a CV and saw a grammatical error that would immediately affect my opinion of the applicant. I’m mean like that. Did I mention that I bloody love poetry? It brings sheer joy to my day, every child should access that – especially as very few kids are read to by their parents or even have access to books at home.
Falls short: my first instinct regarding poetry is to say is that I’d rather kids were able to read and discuss lots of different poems – as well as having a shot at writing their own – rather than spending that time memorising one or two. I think learning to speak confidently is incredibly important – but recital isn’t necessarily the best way – or more accurately, the only way – to learn this skill. Equally, reading poetry (and all other literature) aloud is very important; it helps you understand meter, it allows you to put expression into the words – I think the emphasis should be on that rather than “by heart” reproduction.
Does a poem’s value increase if it is memorised? I honestly don’t think so. I happen to have a lot of poetry committed to memory because I was lucky to be raised in a household with a voracious appetite for literature – my mother’s ability to commit verse to memory continues to astound me; but she never made me feel like I had to learn it. I never consciously sat down and memorised poems, and yet I can call Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”) to mind almost as easily as breathing. Tellingly, I never studied the poetry that I now know by heart. Remembering poetry and allowing it to fold new layers of understanding into my life is something that I value on a daily basis – but for me, a love of poetry needs to be fostered before it is committed into memory.
I don’t have anything against the proposals regarding spelling and grammar per se; as long as the balance between speaking, listening, reading and writing is well-thought out. I will say this though: I very much doubt that any of the proposals have seriously and thoughtfully taken children with learning difficulties and/or English as Another Language into consideration, since they involve a huge amount of factual, hard-and-fast rule-based learning which those children may not be able to absorb as fast as their peers.
3) Exams to be taken after two years
Good – supposedly more time for learning, less pressure on students in their first year of the course.
Falls short – conversely, puts more pressure on students by the end of their second year and makes academic success contingent on fewer assessments.
4) The scrapping of the National Curriculum, allowing head teachers to set the school agenda
Good – Head Teachers, who actually have a qualification in teaching, know more than Michael Gove. Might allow schools to adapt to the circumstances of their teachers and learners, fewer hoops to jump through.
Falls short – actually, it’s a pretty terrible idea. If every school had a different curriculum, if students -and indeed, teachers – needed to transfer schools, they could be thrown into a whole new system and inevitably fall behind. It would also embed inequality in the education sector, which is already rampant – as the success of students would be entirely dependent on the ability of their head teachers. Additionally, when it came to applying for Further and Higher Education, how on earth would FE and HE institutions assess applications, if they came from vastly different backgrounds in terms of curricula?
4) The scrapping of GCSES, to be replaced with O-Levels and CSEs.
Good – GCSEs have become hoop-jumping exercises, and the exam system needs reforming – especially in terms of re-takes.
Falls short – instead of innovating, Gove is basically proposing a return to the old system, which essentially doesn’t make any sense. So much for the Conservative tagline of change…Also, the division of O-levels and CSEs isn’t necessarily a bad thing in principle – however the likely outcome is that vocational education (known in the right-wing press as “soft subjects”) will become even more demonised than before. The ripple effect will include the self-esteem of kids not deemed “academically able” to nosedive faster than Nick Clegg’s political mandate – leading to snobbery and segregation in classrooms and essentially shutting “non-academic” kids out of HE and FE. Although to be fair, the reforms that are already taking place in those sectors will ensure that in any event. Premising the future of children by enforcing an academic-vocational dichotomy is exceptionally damaging for career prospects and personal development – neither field should be seen as more valuable than the other, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive.
A final point on this reform: GCSEs have supposedly gotten “too easy” – this is based, of course, on the fact that kids are getting better grades. It can’t possibly be because kids are becoming more aware of the need to work hard for their future, or because teaching standards are going up. I’ve got news for you, Michael Gove: GCSEs are bloody hard. I went to one of the best private schools in the country. I had exceptional teaching throughout my school days and fantastic support from my parents, including their paying for extra maths tutoring when I was in primary school. I worked my socks off for my GCSEs, and I came out with 6 A*s and 3As. But that achievement was difficult, it was the result of months of solid, gruelling revision and years of hard work. Don’t you dare say that GCSEs are easy, because I’m pretty damn intelligent and I didn’t exactly breeze through them.
I’m starting my teaching career on Monday. Six weeks of intensive training with Teach First, and then off to teach English in a secondary school come September. I am absolutely determined that even if the proposals turn out for the worst (and I’m not optimistic that they will turn out otherwise), I will not let the kids that I teach be turned, as they are by Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times, into “little vessels” to be filled with facts and diktat. As W.B.Yeats put it, “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. I don’t need to memorise that. It’s just the truth.