Sunday, September 24, 2006

Radically more of the same

Alan Johnson has been setting out ‘radical education reforms’ but don’t get too excited: they’re of the “you’ll jolly well sit there until you’ve eaten it” variety. The first Big Idea is to extend the school week to include Saturdays.

Under the proposal, which is common practice in many independent schools, pupils would be able to do more extracurricular activities such as art, music, drama and dance, as well as catch-up lessons at weekends.
Apart from revealing underlying contempt towards those already working in the arts by intimating that their chosen profession amounts to little more than a worthy Saturday sideline, what is the message here for all the children whose future will lie in music, drama, dance and art? There are plenty of children whose inclinations have left their families with no option but to make a hasty exit from the school system.

We hear often enough about a child’s ‘right to education’ (Article 28 of the
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in case you’re interested in the technicalities) but there’s a stunning silence on its Siamese twin, Article 29, that defines exactly what education should be about, as in:
‘States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to (a) The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.'
On that basis the arts should already be a part of the curriculum, not an extra-curricular ‘enrichment activity’ strictly for Saturday mornings.


Quite frankly, an Education Secretary ought to be a great deal more au fait than this with what the UN Convention has to say on education – after all, the UK has ratified it, even if the Government has spent the intervening years with index fingers in ears, singing loudly whenever it’s mentioned. As to the other ‘radical’ proposal:
Johnson also said he was “seriously considering” raising the compulsory school leaving age from 16 to 18 because too many youngsters had little training or qualifications. He said Britain had a big problem with “neets” — the 220,000 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in education or training.
In other words, as with truancy: if something isn’t working, just do even more of it. We already have record levels of truancy; there were nearly 10,000 permanent and a quarter of a million temporary exclusions last year; only half of young people achieve the Government’s own benchmark of 5 GCSEs at A-C.

If young people are turned off education by the age of 16, prolonging childhood and segregating them from the rest of society for two more years is extremely unlikely to achieve very much that is positive – except for the Government, whose ‘NEET’ figures will look better for a couple of years.

What will it take for this - or any other - Government to rip out our dismal education system and replace it with something fit for purpose? Rather than contemplating yet more ways of controlling the children who fall of the conveyor-belt, a good start would be to ask them what needs to be done – now that really would be radical.

One book that I repeatedly recommend is Charlie Cooper’s ‘Understanding School Exclusion: challenging processes of docility’. Some of the teachers quoted turn popular attitudes to disenchanted young people upside-down:
“If we’re telling the truth about wanting to include the most challenging pupils we need to look at what we do about organising secondary schools in the future. The children who challenge because their behaviour doesn’t fit the pattern, many are doing it because there are things wrong with that pattern. They are more able to reject, or not toe the line or take the standard route, and accept ‘this is the way you’ve got to be’. Yes, some are disruptive. But some are the most intellectually challenging of the system and we should listen to what they’re saying.”

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