The Price

We have a habit of being woken by the radio alarm in the morning. I am generally roused from drowsiness by discussions about political topics and stories that will dominate the headlines for the day. This morning I awoke to a man speaking about the vital need for our educational system to be radically revamped that we might produce a more efficient, confident and ambitious work force that could economically compete with China.

In the discussion, it was suggested that teachers up their game and that league tables and the focus on passing exams at the expense of vocational training should be questioned.  Children should be trained for the demands of the workplace.

Teachers are consistently in the firing line it seems; they have become the easiest of scapegoats in a political environment obsessed with surface and image. Successive governments have been guilty of introducing ever more draconian and self-referencing measurements of success into our schools. League tables are notoriously unreliable methods to judge educational success or failure and the mind-numbing levels of bureaucracy adopted to judge teaching performance and student development are frankly Kafkaesque; it is absurd to assume that we can assess education – or anything else for that matter – with endless tick boxes, collated and analysed by a self-perpetuating layer of management who have come to speak their own Orwellian language of quality control.

The syllabus has become a straightjacket, with teachers given no room for individual approaches  because they are required to follow rigidly laid out lesson plans, each with a dubious series of ‘educational outcomes’ to fulfil, tick and collate. It is a worsening situation that has sent many talented and dedicated teachers running for the hills and, by the accounts of teachers on the frontline, is failing our students.

I welcomed the interviewee’s suggestion that the focus on league tables is disproportionate but I felt disheartened as I listened to his vision for our educational system. This vision came alarmingly close to suggesting that the function of schools were as nurseries to produce ‘pods’ for the demands of industry. Is education really that? A place designed to shape us for work alone? Whatever happened to learning for learning’s sake? I appreciate the need to inform children of the world that awaits them after school, college or university but there is something a little sinister in judging it by its ability to produce industry fodder. Do we not want to teach our children to think independently, to be creative and questioning? Do we not want to expose them to the beauty of knowledge or must it always be tethered, channelled and censored by vocation – and a limited one at that?

The interview was followed by another with a spokesman for Jaguar, a company that has closed its production plants here in the UK – the design teams being the only parts of the company to remain, whilst actual production takes place in India and China. We are a country of service industries; our manufacturing base has been dismantled as big companies seek cheaper workforces in the East. We are repeatedly told that we need to remain competitive in a global economy but many of us find ourselves in low paid, unskilled labour. This all begs the question what exactly will our vocational education be training us for?

I am unashamedly an idealist when it comes to education. I believe in the noble tradition of an education that seeks to enlighten, inspire and expand our minds and imaginations; one that teaches us to think and challenge, regardless of what work we might eventually find ourselves in.

I came from a working class background and was the first in my family to be lucky enough to go to University. My degree was not vocational but traditional. It gave me the opportunity to explore life and my relationship to it without the distraction of vocation. I despair when I hear kids at Uni speaking of their degree as merely a stepping stone to be endured on their way to a well-paying job, which incidentally, for a large percentage of them, will not be available when they leave.

If we judge the wealth and growth of our society in fiscal terms alone then we risk becoming impoverished in other vital ways: we work longer hours and spend less time with our families, less time on the intangibles, all those things that nourish our spirits and speak of life as something more. Surely the true gift of learning is the discovery and flowering of our creative selves? Something more precious than corporate conformity or our ability to fit in to whatever economic framework is in fashion? We all have to survive and the blueprint by which we live often demands that we compromise the expression of who we really are to make an honest buck. That is tragedy enough. How much more so, if our educations are defined by that model too?

My thoughts turn to a quote from Thoreau:

The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it