The rot set in for British education in the sixties and seventies, when teachers stopped being teachers and started being “learning facilitators”. Don’t teach the little darlings any facts or skills — just help them to work it out for themselves.
This was driven by trendy academic educational institutions, staffed by left/liberal “specialists” recruited through the columns of the Guardian, where chairs and tenure go to those who get noticed. And the best way to get noticed? Make a case, however spurious, to show that all the assumptions which previous generations of teachers have made, and have proved in practice, are quite wrong, and instead that theoretical ideas dreamed up over a sherry in the Senior Common Room are the way to go. And hang the pupils first, and the economy later on.
Thus were centuries of experience and human knowledge relegated to the trash-can of our schools system. Thus was the literacy rate of school leavers in the late 20th century driven below the level that obtained in the late 19th century, before the advent of free universal education. Today things are not much better, though there were signs of a tentative return to common sense.
So imagine my horror to see a story in the Telegraph of September 20th: “Ofsted inspections in primary schools could be overhauled to focus less on English and maths, because the regulators fear that pupils are missing out on a broad and balanced curriculum”. It goes on “An over-emphasis on the three Rs often came at the expense of children’s understanding of other subjects”.
No, No, No! You idiots! For heaven’s sake! The ability to read and write (and understand numbers) is not a distraction from other subjects — it is absolutely the key to learning anything, to taking up other interests in school or outside, to getting a job, to career success, to economic progress. These madmen are like a housing developer who says “In order to spend more money on a quality building, we’re going to sell houses without front door keys”. We need to make the three Rs the top priority until children are confident and fluent in them. Then they’re ready to for their “understanding of other subjects”.
My sister spent her career as a teacher. At one time she was taking the reception class in a primary school, and she prided herself that every child, after a year with her, went on to the next class able to read and write. Her reputation spread. Parents milled around at the start of the school year to demand that little Johnnie be in her class, and nowhere else. But the Inspectors said “She was bringing them on too quickly”. Sometimes, I despair.
I am reminded of a book I haven’t read for many decades: Charles Kingsley’s “The Water Babies”. In it, little Tom the Chimney Sweep’s lad has escaped across the moors, and scrambling down from Lewthwaite Crag, the first house he finds turns out to be a dame school. Kingsley describes it thus:
And a neat pretty cottage it was, with clipped yew hedges all round the garden, and yews inside too, cut into peacocks and trumpets and teapots and all kinds of queer shapes. And out of the open door came a noise like that of the frogs on the Great-A, when they know that it is going to be scorching hot to-morrow — and how they know that I don’t know, and you don’t know, and nobody knows.
He (Tom) came slowly up to the open door, which was all hung round with clematis and roses; and then peeped in, half afraid.
And there sat by the empty fireplace, which was filled with a pot of sweet herbs, the nicest old woman that ever was seen, in her red petticoat, and short dimity bedgown, and clean white cap, with a black silk handkerchief over it, tied under her chin. At her feet sat the grandfather of all the cats; and opposite her sat, on two benches, twelve or fourteen neat, rosy, chubby little children, learning their Chris-cross-row; and gabble enough they made about it.
But even more telling is Kingsley’s later comment:
“And there was a new schoolmistress in Vendale, and we will hope that she was not certificated”.
Let’s hope there were no Ofsted inspectors in Vendale, either.