Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hands-off education

Ironic that one of the most common FAQs asked of home educators is: "but how do they do science?" When science teaching in schools is becoming increasingly hog-tied by a combination of safety fears and budget cuts. Take this, from today's Observer:

Leading UK scientists say the output of talented science students is in worrying decline. 'If you have not got students excited about science by the time they are doing GCSEs, there is no chance you will engage them later on,' said physiologist Dr Douglas Corfield, of Keele University.

Pupils once experienced laboratory work by handling chemicals and apparatus and indulging their natural curiosity. But health and safety rulings, a strict curriculum that allows no time for extra investigations and lack of funds for laboratories, now prevent them from finding things out for themselves.

Science isn't the only thing that is suffering. A combination of curriculum demands and budget allocation have squeezed all but the most basic experience of music, drama and art out of many schools, while antipathy towards interests that are not of direct value to industry have reduced them to 'hobby' status.

While Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which the UK has actually ratified) talks about each child's 'right to education', what that actually means is defined in the next breath by Article 29:"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". How can this possibly happen when learning is reduced to indirect experience?

Several years ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education warned:
“The objective of getting all school-aged children to school and keeping them there until they attain the minimum defined in compulsory education is routinely used in the sector of education, but this objective does not necessarily conform to human rights requirements."
Well, quite. Bums on seats is not learning, and it's hardly surprising if a substantial number of children don't find the education they are receiving particularly relevant or worthwhile. Although much is currently being said about 'personalised learning', there is a real danger that this is merely shorthand for greater use of IT to deliver 'the curriculum' - which won't solve the problem of dwindling access to hands-on, practical and creative activity.

It would be nice to think that the current review of primary education might halt what seems to be a backslide to the Victorian idea of public education: a means of producing a compliant workforce with good basic skills. But if we are to escape the service-delivery approach that reduces learning to a passive experience, we need serious investment in more than literacy and numeracy, a rather more robust approach to risk, and a level of trust in children and their teachers that isn't evident at the moment.

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