We need old Gradgrind back in our schools - at least for now

They talk as though the education of their children defined the problems of our system. It doesn't

I GROANED when old Gradgrind put in an appearance in these pages again yesterday. Here, once more, was the redundant choice that we have been arguing about for decades - machine-fed learning versus creativity, or should that be structured learning versus anarchic under-achievement?

Of course, it's summer, and there's an awful lot of sub-Arthur-Ransome "let kids be kids" romanticism about. We should allow the little ones to spend the golden days of childhood making dams, climbing trees and dreaming impossible dreams; do not force them to sit exams every single year, or to toil endlessly over the inky burden of vast amounts of centrally demanded homework.

And if you want to see where this "schooling for work" gets you, then just look at the Japanese cramming culture, with its horror stories of kiddy suicides and a society devoid of initiative. So cool it with your summer schools, literacy hours, SATs, school performance indicators and homework. Let us hear it instead for exploration, wonder and freedom. Curse Blunkett and his army of inspectors for taking the joy out of education.

That's how the argument seems to go. And it's hard not to feel some kind of sympathy with it. Thirty years ago, when the spirit of '68 met the mediocre inflexibility of the ancien regime, with its "dark sarcasm", its 11-plus, its canes, and its examination syllabus aimed at separating the 5 per cent wheat from the 95 per cent chaff, the good guys were the ones who were arguing for liberation.

It is ironic, of course, that those who seem to be most concerned about children having their creativity throttled from them, are those who privately purchase, procure or provide, precisely the results for their own kids that Blunkett's reforms are aimed at securing for those of others. I can instance examples of parents who complain about too much school work in general, and then cheerfully supplement it by employing a private tutor for an hour or so a week. As ever, they talk as though the education of their children defined the problems of our education system. It doesn't.

For the last few years governments of both hues - and this one in particular - have been wrestling with the catastrophic post-war failure of English and Welsh education. Mr Blunkett is to be commended for refusing to be diverted by such issues as the fate of the remaining 100 or so grammar schools; that discussion, between structural egalitarians and elitists, is yet another blind alley.

Instead, what we're now seeing is a desperate remedial exercise; an attempt to bring our children, in short order, to where they ought to have been, say, 20 years ago.

When, back in May, the Moser committee revealed that an estimated seven million adults in England couldn't find the page reference for plumbers in the Yellow Pages, and that a third of the population wasn't able to calculate the area of a room that is 21 feet by 14 feet - even with the help of a calculator - it was the most extraordinary indictment. And that, for 30 years or so, two out of every five children in our schools were leaving secondary education without any qualifications whatsoever.

Never mind the teachers for a moment; where were the parents? When my eldest daughter first went to primary school I remember bumping into one of her classmates and his mother one morning. The mum was complaining bitterly about the "homework" that had been set - a little reading and counting to be done at home with the parents. At 8.50 in the morning her son had already consumed enough TV cartoons and E numbers to put him on Ritalin for a month. He was wired. No wonder she didn't fancy getting him to concentrate on a book in the evening. Besides, she felt it was the school's job. She liked the homework no more than the teachers fancied constant inspections. They were both wrong.

But we are going to come to a point soon when, having ensured the basics, we must plan to move on. You don't have to accept every new concept advanced by the future gurus, to realise that the claim that a new knowledge revolution is taking place every bit as big as the Industrial Revolution, has a basis in fact. The capacity to innovate, to use ideas, is becoming the most important skill of all.

In that sense pupils who can merely obediently reiterate what they have been told by others will be about as sought after in the next few years as those who cannot read have been for the last few. Once they can read and write, the rest of education must be about how to find things out, where to look, and how to frame ideas.

About creativity, if you like. But not the kind of Kids from Fame creativity that says that everyone can make it by adhering to some branch of the performing arts. It's about giving children the discipline and desire to explore - on their own and collectively. The how, therefore, as I always seem to be saying these days, really is far more important than the what.

Consider the recent silly debate about whether Anglo-Saxon history should be in the school syllabus. This was a glorious example of how we unerringly seek to discuss irrelevant but pleasurable nonsense, while weightier matters go undebated. It does not matter a damn whether children learn Anglo-Saxon history - they'll forget nearly all of it, anyway. The Egs and the Athels soon fade, with the Grims and the Knuts. What count are the skills and processes that they gain or use on the way to finding out about history. And if you cannot grasp that, then you are living on the cusp of the wrong century. Dealing with knowledge is what we need - discovering information, making new things out of the information we have found.

As a former colleague on this newspaper, Charles Leadbeater, says in his new book, Living on Thin Air, all this will require our thinking to be transformed. He advocates beginning with a clear family learning policy. Such a policy would require help with child- care, paid parental leave, the freeing up of Mum's and Dad's time, so that they take the first steps with book and computer to helping their offspring. Current small businesses may rail against such entitlements; future ones would only thank us.

And we will certainly have completely to reconsider the notion of "qualifications". When I worked as an executive at the BBC, interviewing hundreds of job applicants every year, I stopped looking at the formal qualifications on their CVs. They told me virtually nothing that I needed to know about the person sitting in front of me, and they certainly didn't argue anything useful about the quality of their ideas. That, I could discover only by asking the right questions.

So here we have a paradox. In the short term we must put up with a bit of command education, so as to put the basics in place and make good the damage we have done. But over the longer period any residue of Gradgrindism, of a longing to go back to regimentation in education, must indeed be expunged.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone