Hey, teaching inspector, leave those kids alone

Teenagers are not being well served by a system that was meant to open doors for them

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The Independent Online

So here we are at the start of another autumn term – three decades out of university, I have never quite been able to rid myself of an antiquated belief that the year really begins in September – and how stands the younger generation of Family Taylor? Well, son number one is about to return to the University of Nottingham to do an MA. Son number two presently departs to the University of Sheffield, while son number three is lately embarked on his two-year GCSE course, having confounded parental expectation by choosing geography over Latin.

My attitude to them these days – the usual paternal feelings excepted – is a curious mixture of mild envy and profound sympathy. Envy for the range of opportunities on offer to them, their apparent self-confidence and a suspicion that teenagers are, broadly speaking, a great deal nicer to each other than they used to be. Sympathy for the inexorable demands made on them by the early-21st-century educational process – this, with the possible exception of technology, being the aspect of adolescent life that has undergone the single greatest transformation since I was living it myself.

And why so? Well, as I occasionally remind them, education to those of us undergoing the experience in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a matter of taking or leaving it. Sometimes the school O-level results were good and sometimes they were bad, but the headmaster’s announcements to this effect went unremarked. You could botch your A-levels, as quite a few of my contemporaries did in the summer of 1978, but proceed to Norwich City College for retakes without the least sense of shame or obligation. The principle of laissez faire at all times predominated and, in any case, it was at this point possible to secure admission to quite decent universities with a couple of C grades.

That education has, in the intervening three and a half decades, become a national, or at any rate governmental, fixation was brought home to me by two of last week’s news stories. The first – a dismal tale of teenagers dropping out of colleges and sixth-form courses – found the chief schools inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, complaining that education and training is not preparing young people well enough for work. “It means they have a sloppy attitude to punctuality,” he lamented. “It means they are far too relaxed in terms of meeting deadlines…” The specimen 16- to 19-year-old dropout was further characterised as “lackadaisical”. As to the likely consequences of this lack of zeal, “If they dress inappropriately, speak inappropriately and have poor social skills, they are not going to get a job.”

In the hot seat: Sir Michael Wilshaw speaks with pupils at an east London school in 2013

The second brought confirmation – if any were needed – that the great Blairite scheme, begun with such enthusiasm in the years after 1997, to expand higher education to  the point where 50 per cent of the  late-teenage population could be included in it has failed. For, according to a survey by the Organisation for Economic  Co-operation and Development (OECD), while the UK now has one of the highest rates of university participation (41 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds) only one in four of those students reaches the highest levels of literacy. Many, the OECD maintains, fail to improve their key skills at all while studying for their degrees.

And how did this particular concerned parent respond to these two jeremiads? My reaction to Sir Michael’s little homily, sad to relate, was that it would be a fine idea if he kept quiet for a while and allowed the nation’s teachers to get on with their jobs and the nation’s children to get on with their work without being made to feel bad about it. As for the OECD study, well, it looks as if Kingsley Amis’s famous dictum, first filed in the 1950s, about more meaning worse, was right. In other words, you can go on expanding the educational process until there is a new university in every village, but this does not automatically mean either that standards will improve or that the students will enjoy the experience – especially if they are all having to work in fast-food restaurants in the evenings to pay for it.

More disquieting even than both these stories was the procedural basis that seemed to underlie them. No secretary of state for education since the post was created has, so far as I am aware, dared to venture any statement of first principles (although Michael Gove once or twice came close), to set down on a piece of paper what he or she imagined the business of sending children to school and university was for. Not that there is now any need, for scarcely any quoted remark these days either by an educational bureaucrat such as Sir Michael, a university vice-chancellor or a government minister can be tugged free of a subtext which quietly insists that education is currently conceived of in almost purely utilitarian and economic terms: to generate income (at any rate, in higher education) for the institutions that are doing the educating and to fill whatever vacancies happen to be going in commerce and industry.

New education Secretary Nicky Morgan

The new secretary of state, Nicky Morgan, has, to her credit, been rather silent in these exchanges, suggesting only that she wants students to study subjects which “would open doors for them in the future”. On the other hand, you wonder which doors she has in mind, for, in the world of Elizabeth Truss, the former schools minister, who spent her time in the post forever being quoted on the need for business-friendly curricula, all portals seemed to lead to BP or the London Stock Exchange: the idea that one might want to study a subject because it satisfied your curiosity or enhanced your understanding of a particular area of intellectual inquiry seemed vaguely outlandish, a kind of left-field hobby masquerading as “serious” work.

There is no point in defending the old humanist approach to academic study – its ability, as my old tutor Sir Keith Thomas once put it, to help us see ourselves in some kind of perspective and, through that objectivity, to become the people we were meant to be. All that is as dead as the passenger pigeon; and the great Victorian historian Lord Acton, who once declared that, ideally, his studies should be “meaningless” – not there to prove an ideological point but to train the mind to think – would be considered unfit to take charge of a primary school. At the same time, the current insistence that schools and universities are merely an adjunct to business ought to be stoutly resisted, for its consequence is a generation of children who will infer, if they are not actually told it to their face, that “learning” is solely a route to employability.

Meanwhile, my sympathies are rather with the legions of 16- to 19-year-olds who are so infuriating Sir Michael by dropping out of their courses – the contemporary equivalents, you suspect, of Mr Gradgrind’s children in Hard Times, to whose exacting father a horse is always a graminivorous quadruped rather than a dusky steed roaming the plains of Araby. You can lead a child to a sixth-form college, but you cannot make him or her obtain a certificate in computer science, or necessarily convince them that the dole is any less desirable than 40 years’ drudgery in some highly polished techno-hub.