Permanent revolution trains kids for unemployment

March 10, 2011

BRITAIN-ELECTION/By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

I am unsure about Britain’s education system. Most of the time, I think it is a matter of one step forward, two steps back – but then there are times when I wonder about the forward step.

This morning I heard the glad tidings about the latest ideas for grabbing a much-prized relegation slot in the world’s education league table (predictably enough, the Americans can be relied on to provide stiff competition).

The latest brainwave currently being surfed by a bunch of MP’s is to introduce “financial education” in schools, including for example courses in How to Understand Your Phone Contract. This is not a premature April Fool story. It is completely consistent with the long-established drive to push education in directions which the powers that be, in their infinite lack of wisdom, regard as more relevant, more practical, more immediately useful.

It is hard to imagine a philosophy less likely to equip youngsters for the modern world. My own view, which would once have been accepted on all sides, is that school is where kids are introduced to the ideas they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, enriching them psychologically, culturally and, yes, ultimately in pecuniary terms too. Not nowadays, however. Today’s establishment attitudes to education are so dominated by short term considerations they would shame the lads in front of the trading screens down in the City.

Consider for a moment the implications of the latest proposal.

It is claimed that phone contracts are very complicated. This is absolutely true (though I suspect that most teenagers can find the best deals an awful lot quicker than adults, including the poor teacher) – but since when has the fact that something or other is complicated been sufficient grounds for inclusion in the school syllabus?

Moreover, what on earth is the point of teaching something which is so ephemeral? It is hard to think of anything so intrinsically temporary as a phone contract – the situation changes all the time. The big networks – Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile etc etc – are in competition (thank goodness!), continually manoeuvring to repackage their offerings, so that phone contracts may nowadays involve satellite TV, fixed lines, access to content, and so on and so forth. Taxpayers are presumably now going to have to cover the cost of sending teachers on training courses to learn all this stuff, with updates at least annually, if they are to be any use at all.

Where many people in this country do struggle with this and indeed with almost any other topic in personal finance, it is far more likely in my experience to be a problem of the 3R’s. If they read slowly (all the evidence I have seen indicates high levels of so-called functional illiteracy), if they cannot express themselves clearly in English (a complaint heard from many employers and universities), and, most damaging of all, if they cannot understand the basics of arithmetic (fractions and percentages seem to be a particular problem), then there is simply no foundation for teaching them anything beyond the most menial tasks.

As long as this situation persists, there is no justification for wasting time on any supposedly practical subject. Far better to send kids out into the world with a sound basic education which, while it may not include anything vocational, nonetheless provides a foundation for learning new skills, than to waste precious school hours teaching them things whose value is limited by time and geography to the narrow needs of their current teenage interests or the supposed requirements of the labour market.

Good employers will in any case prefer to train their recruits in the specific skills they require, if only they can find youngsters who have the ability to learn – to read a manual, to be able to work out costings, to know what is meant by an average, and so on. If there are some British firms who are unwilling to cover the cost of training, it is likely to be because for far too long they have been able to count on the taxpayer to pick up the bill.

Is it simply a coincidence that this week saw the publication of proposals to simplify the labelling of medicines? The example quoted was to replace “May cause drowsiness” with “May make you sleepy”.

Perhaps our schools ought to carry the warning “May make you unemployable”.

As ever, we get the politicians we deserve. Parents are often very confused about what they actually want the schools to do. On the one hand, ambitious parents send their kids to private schools (or as we in Britain call them, “public schools”), often attracted by the old-fashioned syllabus, including in many cases subjects as “useless” and out-of-date as Latin and Greek, not to mention large dollops of modern European languages, which in today’s world are almost as useless as Latin. Yet I suspect it is the same parents who demand more teaching of “relevant” subjects. Alas, even ignoring the awkward fact that there are only 24 hours in the day, parents have no idea what is relevant – and nor do I, which is why it is a useless criterion for curriculum design.

The universities and, I guess, the schools are awash with a tidal wave of bureaucratic nonsense about something called “transferable skills”. I have no idea what it means, because I have no faith in the willingness or ability of those who generate this garbage to use the English language in any straightforward fashion, but if it means skills that are in any way transferable in the sense I understand the word, then the most transferable skills are the same ones that were taught in British schools half a century ago – and which still dominate the curriculum in most advanced countries.

Some 25 or 30 years ago, when my kids were at primary school, a number of parents turned to me, as a heavy-duty computer user with a wife working as a programmer, for support in their current campaign. They were trying to persuade the headmaster to introduce lessons in how to write computer programs in BASIC and run them under (I think) CP/M. (If you don’t know what CP/M was, I rest my case.) I told them I thought it was a waste of time, unless the kids wanted to do it for fun, and I have never changed my mind. Since both my own sons now work in IT, I cannot believe they have missed out in any way from not having started computing classes as kids.

If anyone feels inclined to write me off at this point as simply another aging Luddite, backwoodsman,  Daily Mail reader or whatever, let me say now: I have no wish to turn the clock back – there was much that was wrong with what went on in schools (and universities) when I was young. The system in those days had some outstanding strengths, but also some appalling weaknesses. The trouble is that, in the intervening years, the authorities have recklessly dumped much of what was best while expanding almost all that was worst.

I could quote many examples, but the madness of A-levels will suffice.

What was best about them in my day was the formidably high standard they represented – which has been eroded over decades to its current lowly level. (The mantra “A-level standards have remained unchanged” comes next to “NHS the envy of the world” in the list of British National Lies).

Yet, there was one blindingly obvious shortcoming of the original A–level system: the concentration on only three subjects. No other advanced country expects its kids to have to specialise to such a degree so early in their lives (age 14, in my case). It was madness – yet it is a feature which has remained broadly untouched by all the educational upheavals the reformers have inflicted on our schools, which appear for decades now to have been subjected to a near-Maoist regime of permanent revolution.

If one can discern a consistent theme in the education policy of the last twenty or thirty years, it seems to be that the purpose of education is purely economic. If so, it has failed even by its own criteria. Is it any wonder that our rates of productivity growth are low by international standards? Or that our rates of youth unemployment are so stubbornly high? Or that a significant proportion of the most attractive jobs go to public school boys or, more often these days, to immigrants?

But then again, you could argue that, given the disincentives to work for low wages in Britain, the schools are simply accepting the reality – and training youngsters for a lifetime on the dole.

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