A class less education

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The Independent Culture
I THINK John Patten would approve of my education. In fact, if every child in Britain received the schooling I got, Mr Patten's ludicrous fringe (yes, John, that early Eighties Essex soul scene was really, really great, but . . .) would quiver with delight. I passed my 11-plus, I went to a boys' grammar school, I got loads of O-levels, I stayed on at sixth-form and went to university. In fact, I did well only in English (I had a brilliant English teacher); I was OK at languages, and I was pretty mediocre at everything else apart from the science subjects. Science and I . . . well, we didn't really get on.

It is no exaggeration to say that what I now know about maths, history, geography, RE, physics, economics, biology and chemistry, my eight (eight]) worst subjects at secondary school, would not fill a page of A4 paper. I know this is no exaggeration because for the last hour I have been trying to fill a page of A4 paper with what I know about maths, history, geography and so on and have failed dismally.

This is what I have retained from an estimated 2,000 hours of study between 1968 and 1975 in those eight subjects. (Try this game at home] It's fun, and it doesn't take long).

Maths: Area of a circle is y r2 . Circumference of a circle is 2 y r. y is 3.14 (approximately). R = radius. The radius is half the diameter. You have to look up sine, cos and tan in a log book.

History: The Chartists had six points: universal suffrage, secret ballot and four others. Mr Huskisson was run over by a train.

Biology: You dissect a frog by snipping up its stomach. Petri Dish.

Chemistry: Bunsen Burner.

Geography: The name of my Geography teacher was 'Boggy' Lee.

Physics: - .

RE: - .

Economics and World Affairs (A-level): The name of the American pilot shot down over the Soviet Union was Gary Powers. Cost push inflation. Demand pull inflation.

This is not, I feel, a lot to show for 2,000 hours of unspeakable boredom; in retrospect, I would have been better off setting aside half-an-hour on a quiet Monday morning, rather than a fifth of my life, to pick up this sorry scrap of a paragraph. My complaint is not that the information is useless - I'm all for useless information - but that there simply isn't enough of it: two Trivial Pursuit answers at best, although if I ever have to name my geography teacher to get a blue chunk, I'll be ready.

The smart response to this complaint is that education is about skills, not facts, that I may not be able to remember four of the Chartists' six points, or the purpose of sine, cos and tan, but school has equipped me to deal with a whole range of historical and mathematical problems. This, I am afraid, is just not true in my case. My school was about facts, not skills; for the most part, my teachers dictated notes that they had prepared years earlier, and we went home and wrote them up in the form of essays. This enabled us to pass exams, and these exam passes enabled some of us to go to college, and once we were at college it was safe to forget everything, because we were then entitled to work for advertising agencies, or newspapers, or firms of accountants. We could even, if we so wished, go off and prepare our own notes for dictation - schools were looking for people like us.

It was a perfectly, beautifully pointless process. It hardly mattered then whether we were attempting to memorise the Chartists' six points or post-war Grand National winners, and it certainty doesn't matter now. It was the sort of old-fashioned, back-to-basics, no-nonsense, best-of-British, they-don't-like-it-up-'em (and of course there was corporal punishment) education that would have those mad people who wave flags at Conservative conferences moaning in ecstasy. It produced a nation of ignoramuses (cf me, and those mad people who wave flags at Conservative conferences), and it failed not only those who cannot remember anything now, but those who couldn't remember anything at the time, and consequently got neither exam passes nor an education.

I have always been vaguely disquieted by those programmes like Catweazle or The Return of Adam Adamant in which characters from the past find themselves knocking around in the present; it took me a while to realise that it was my own ignorance that disturbed me. What would happen if someone like Newton or Copernicus was allowed to spend one afternoon in contemporary Britain, and, through some bizarre set of circumstances too complicated to relate here, came knocking on my door? What would I be able to tell them about my TV, or video, or hi-fi, or microwave oven? What would I be able to tell them about my bedside lamp, even? 'It's like, well, you press this switch here, and that kind of . . . releases the electricity - you know electricity, it's the stuff you get in love affairs and acrylic jumpers - and the electricity sort of floods up the flex and into this bulb thing, and lights it up. But . . .' - I could show off here - 'don't use a 100-watt, or you'll burn the lampshade.'

I could, at a push, talk to any of them about plays and poems that had already been written by the time they were born, but they would probably look upon that as a wasted opportunity; I might, if I thought about it hard, be able to explain the basic principles of the Chubb lock, or the garlic crusher, but I don't suppose that would thrill them too much either. On the whole, it would be better for Newton if he went next door.

When I became a teacher, only a few years after I had been a schoolboy, I was intrigued to discover that history lessons did not have to consist of dictated notes, that science lessons were not necessarily incomprehensible, that RE lessons could tell you about the world, and not just the correct order of the Ten Commandments. I learnt, in fact, that it was possible, with a bright, young, imaginative staff, to produce bright, well-rounded and inquisitive young people. But I taught in a trendy-liberal PC pinko comprehensive, and we know what we think of those: not much. Test 'em] Flog 'em] Bring back the 11-plus] Put 'em into streams] Vote for Patten, and yet another generation of morons who will spend their schooldays staring out of the window and dreaming.-