by Arifa Akther
“The paradox of education is that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which (s)he is being educated” – James Baldwin
I got lucky with education. First and foremost, I had parents who never studied further than GCSE standard, my mother married before she completed her O-Levels exams. As a result, both were adamant to give me and my siblings the best education. Secondly, my father worked incredibly hard and created a highly profitable business in which he chose to send me to private school rather than spending it on buying a Ferrari. From a young age they both encouraged me to study hard. They went as far as setting homework for us, consisting of store bought handwriting books and learning the times tables off by heart before the age of 8.
In all honesty, I fell in love with learning, to the point of being called “try-hard” as if it were some derogatory term for having tried my best in every exam I sat. Knowing facts and getting high scores in all my classes gave me a much-needed confidence boost. I was great at finding information, memorising it and regurgitating it in exams and this method worked for me all the way through from primary school to my GCSE’s where I attained 7A*’s and 2A’s. Despite this, I stumbled during my A-levels as it wasn’t the case of learning and regurgitating anymore, but using information and applying it to questions. However, due to the current system, you had even more content to memorise and less time to practice questions. This was the case with A-Level Biology, where teaching all the content meant we had no revision time in class. The exam questions, by contrast, were all applied science questions which we had no time to practice in class. Geography was the biggest leap: with memorising information to the analysis of that information and applying it to real world context. Even though Geography was the biggest setback in my A-levels, I realised that it was the subject that really tested the important aspects of a 21st-century-student. The ability to extract information, analyse its social, economic, environmental and political influence then to suggest a real solution to the current problems facing our world today. After resitting, I was accepted by the University of Warwick to study Politics, International Studies and Global Sustainable Development (PAIS + GSD).
During my first-year at university, I only completed core modules. Nonetheless, the freedom to choose what I studied further in those modules is my favourite aspect of higher education. In my summative assessments I attained 1sts as well as in my oral presentations. In my exams I achieved 2:1 resulting in me achieving a high 2:1 overall, pulled down due to the politics exams. Despite the fact I had written 4 formative assessments in which I achieved a first overall, the Politics department decided to make our year grade 100% dependent upon our performance during the summer exams. I achieved 65% and a 1st in GSD. During the week running up to my exams, as I sat amongst the other thousands of students in the library memorising the exact answer I would regurgitate when asked “what makes a revolution?” for my Introduction to Politics module, that’s when I realised even at uni, it’s a case of being back to GCSE, and memorising information to regurgitate under exam conditions.
An outdated system.
This system of education is outdated. The 150-year-old compulsory state education system’s linear development to the current British education system has become one which has destroyed creativity, individuality and resulted in normal children today reported to have more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s, studies show. The source of the problem is how the current system prepares students to be effective workers who aid the industrial revolution in the 19/20th century and claims it “prepares students for the future” when it is no longer appropriate for the 21st century.
Dr.Inglis broke this down into “6 purposes of modern day schooling” including:
1. Adjustment– “Schools establishing fixed habits of reaction to authority- precluding critical judgement completely.”
2. Diagnostic function– School determining each child’s social role.
3. Sorting function– Schools sorting children by training them for that specific social role.
4. Conformity– making children to be alike as possible, to assist markets as people who conform are predictable.
5. Hygienic function– School is there to accelerate Darwin’s theory of natural selection by identifying those most “unfit for education” so clearly via displayed exam grade, “bottom set classes” and D grades results- enough to make them drop out of the system, accepting the school’s judgement of their inferiority to others of their age.
6. Propaedeutic– where a fraction of children- eg those in the “gifted and talented schemes” to be taught how to take over management schemes to perpetuate this system naturally.
John Taylor Gatto, links the “Hygiene function” to Julius Caesar’s “Divide and Conquer” strategy – “by dividing children by school class, age grading, by constant ranking on tests and many other more subtle divisions from one another and one’s own self; the ignorant mass of mankind, divided in childhood would never re-integrate into a dangerous united whole in adulthood.” Poor Marx didn’t see this preventing his workers to unite against the Bourgeoisie.
Due to the rise of technology, Artificial Intelligence and global competition, the future is one no one could have foreseen. Most jobs are estimated to be replaced with robots within 15 years. What we need to do, is stimulate creativity, innovation, ingenuity and human culture. What makes us human? Well, I believe this consists of our ability to debate, create art and music as well as performing theatre. Currently art is facing the biggest loss of funding (-30%) due to the Conservative’s policy, who would rather keep up this factory farm of graduated students with the same level of Maths, English and Science skills without any investment in new careers of the future in renewable energy or coding etc.
No, instead, we keep the same setting for education. In a seat, for 8 hours a day, with a lunch break being taught what to think (not how) and raise your hand if you want to speak whilst rushing to get every note on the whiteboard copied onto your book. This way, you can complete your homework properly at night because clearly, 8 hours in school isn’t enough time that a child should spend on education. No they need 10-12 hours of studying and 8 hours of sleep meaning 4(/6) hours to: socialise, do sports, do extracurricular activities such as drama, help their parents at home, have a part time job, volunteer, eat, shower and of course, relax. Is it any wonder why suicide rates are at “their highest level since at least 2007, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. These figures – for 2014 – show 130 suicides in England and Wales among full-time students aged 18 or above.” Oh, and even if you do all of that, keep up and complete all your work, you actually have to do BETTER than everyone, as the marking system is on a curve- only a set amount of people can attain an A grade. Brilliant.
With most people unable to attain the top grades, after having sacrificed so much of their time that should have been distributed to sports, socialising and unwinding we now face problems with obesity pandemics to staggering mental health issues. “Whilst depression has long been the main culprit of mental health problems on campus, levels of anxiety have skyrocketed in recent years to become the number one health concern among students. While nearly one-third of students say they felt depressed during their first year, nearly fifty percent felt intense anxiety to the point that it interfered with their studies and their ability to concentrate.”
All about exams.
Let’s take my example of 7A*s and 2As. This shows I’m smart, right? I’m able to take on information, and give the right answer to a given question. I got 3 As at A level- ok, now I’m able to take on information, analyse it and give the correct answer in a given context, better than most other students because we all sat the same exam, in the same time (equal even if you needed extra time), having learnt the same syllabus. All of these measures have been put in place due to policy makers obsession with standardised tests, except it doesn’t take into account anything that really matters in a student. It doesn’t show how hard you worked – topics could have just worked in your favour. Or, against. Of the 4 topics that were on the paper out of 10 you learnt, two of the topics you struggled with the most appeared and it means you struck out. It doesn’t show how creative you were in your answers. It doesn’t show how you work in a team. It doesn’t show how apathetic you are. It doesn’t show how many languages you can answer the question in. Mr. Frederick J Kelly, inventor of the standardised tests even went onto state how “these tests are too crude to be used and should be abandoned”.
Einstein famously said
“everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Any parent with two children will be able to tell you just how differently they learn. And any teacher, that same fact on an industrial scale. Yet, we don’t account for this difference. And what’s worse, is that we reduce some subjects to be of less worth than others. Let’s take for example science. Science was the first subject I fell in love with. I could name most of the human body bones before Secondary School and the planets in our solar system, from their distance to us to describing their surface conditions. Science has an exceptional importance to our society, it is the subject that helps to cure diseases, grow crops, produce clean energy and create super materials which all have vast benefits for our society. However, our obsession with science has led to a negative attitude to anything which isn’t categorised as a STEM subject. Or even, God-forbid you decide not to go to University at all and enrol in an apprenticeship scheme or work from the bottom, up in any company, or even start your own business. With the education minister Nicky Morgan saying you shouldn’t take arts/humanities subjects to children AGED 10 as “it will hold them back for the rest of their lives” in gaining high earning careers. Ah yes, the main aspect of careers we should emphasise to our children. I’m not going to go on about how money doesn’t matter at all, because obviously that’s a lie- but a job as a history teacher? UN Translator? Nurse? Driving instructor? They don’t make millions but they are of indispensable value to society. What happened to education, for education’s sake? Wasn’t the original point of education meant to be a system in which a child homes in on their strengths and talents, even interests- develop them and achieve their dreams – regardless of the income they’ll be earning in a decade’s time?
What exactly are we competent in after our A Levels? How tax works? How to debate? What non-cognitive skills have we attained? Courage? Honesty? Independence? I don’t think so. Lubberly discusses how childhood has been deliberately extended by 4 years through this current process. “Denying children, a range of associations with the complex adult world, and a dose of responsibility” resulting in a successful economy founded on upon, essentially a “dumb, dependent, fearful and incomplete population.” Hear me out, the current state education system can only encourage critical thinking to a certain extent. Too much of it would result in the breakdown of the economy. For example, you can think critically about how the solution of a sea wall as opposed to a dam would be a better flood defence. That’s fine. Think critically about Steinbeck’s use of foreshadowing in “Of Mice and Men”. That’s fine. Think critically about the banning of medical marijuana which could potentially alleviate depression patients’ dependency on pharmaceutical pills- woah woah woah, a few steps back please. Gatto supports this, stating how schools can’t “encourage reliable morality because too many components of our economy depend upon slackness in this regard, from cigarettes, fast cars, and dirty pictures”. As a result, “young people would grow old but never grow up.”
And what’s worse than the way students are educated? The way teachers are treated.
The latest figures show how teachers are leaving the profession in drones, with “almost a quarter of teachers who have qualified since 2011 have left profession.” Can you blame them? Teachers are the most underpaid and underappreciated people in the workforce. They have the responsibility to educate entire generations and people have the audacity to say, “but they have long holiday hours” … except they have to use their holiday hours planning lessons, so called “after hours” during term time to mark work and sacrifice time with family to act as supervisors during visits and extracurricular trips. Teachers are now in charge of meeting “targets” leaving them incredibly stressed when they have certain students who are so disconnected to the current education system refuse to “meet their potential” when in reality, they weren’t going to in the manner the school wanted them to do so. A teacher is responsible for getting information to a child to prepare them for an exam, when they have class sizes breaking max restrictions due to government funding, it is easy to see why most students don’t get the education I received. Class sizes at A-levels were maxed to 14, preferably never over 12 in the school I attended. Meaning real one-on-one interaction and that teachers were able to truly engage and inspire students to learn, witnessing their interest and passion for the subject. But no, instead we are stuck with policy makers who seem to be trying their best to enforce a curriculum through outdated teaching methods without ever having stood in front of a classroom to teach. I’d really like to see Michael Gove stand in front of the bottom set maths class and get them to engage with the curriculum including vectors… the entire system needs a switch up. Maths has the ability to develop real problem-solving skills through problem-based learning. Instead, we force students to memorise all the equations to answers questions in the exams because we still examine under conditions that assume you will not have access to that information at the tips of your fingers.
What we need to do is reinvent education. Teach students how to deal with large quantity of information, extract facts, confirm it, and apply it so we have a generation who are resourceful. If we fail to address these issues, we will fail the next generation of students who will be forced through the same system of standardisation, destroying any creative or innovative potential they have to offer society.