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
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The Independent Culture
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.