The lie at the heart of the education system

By Archie Lacey

As someone who was a teacher for over three decades I was always struck by the essential deception that exists throughout all levels of education. It is a deception that people inflict upon themselves and collectively. It is not even recognised as a deception. There is no awareness of those involved in the system that the deception even exits.

The deception, of course, is that the system is there to cater for the needs of the individual when, in fact, it can’t. GIRFEC is an expression of this mentality that practitioners buy into willingly and with enthusiasm and with good intentions. Why would you not. After all it is a wonderful ideal to treat everyone as an individual and to address their needs honestly and, well, to just damn well get it so right for them…for every one of them. It is a noble ideal.

Unfortunately, the constraints of the system, its rigid practices and customs and its actual, real, purpose of measurement of attainment stand in the way of this ideal.

I am not going to elaborate on these in any great depth but I will say something briefly about each.

Firstly, the constraints of the system. This can be summed up in two words, curriculum and timetable.

The curriculum is limited, it covers only a small portion of human thought and knowledge. If your own interests lie outside of that curriculum, then tough.

As a personal example, in my early teens I developed a fascination with the Second Punic War. I was passionate about it and read everything there was to be had, even the translations of Livy. However, it wasn’t on the timetable. I could have written huge essays on virtually any aspect of those years but it would have been a waste of time in terms of furthering my steps on the education ladder. Why, because the only place in school that deals with History is the History class and they follow a curriculum and that curriculum is narrowly defined. It covers a few periods of history and, guess what, you study it whether it interests you, impassions you or not.

A huge chunk of the timetable is given over to maths. While it is almost universally accepted that people should be numerate it is, at the very least, questionable that everyone needs to be able to do Algebra. By the end of S4 we can all factorise a quadratic and solve simultaneous equations. But to what actual purpose? What does this actually do to address the needs or desires of the individual? The vast majority of people who have learned this stuff never use it again – ever.

I won’t say much about the constraints imposed by the timetable as Sir Ken Robinson has completely nailed that. However, succinctly, to learn something, you need to be in a certain room at a certain time with a certain person at a certain point in your chronological passage through life. If it happens to be something you really enjoy then you are only allowed to do it for a brief portion of time before a bell goes that compels you to stop doing it and move to another room to do something that you might actually detest.

Timetables force teachers to categorise students by age and not ability or interest. They also induce teachers to believe that children need to be a certain age before they have the capability of doing something. I once taught a 7 year old girl how to solve sums like 3x + 2 = 17 in her head by using grains of rice. Another maths teacher thought it was a hoax until he tried a problem with her. His reaction to her correct answer was utter astonishment. He even said, they can’t do that until they are 12.

Customs and practices are well and truly rigid and rigorously enforced. I will sum this barrier to the glory of individual expression in one word – uniform.

The irony is that the word, while simply representing an institutional dress code, also sums up the establishment attitude to learning, behaviour and the development of obedience to authority. It is the epitome of what Chomsky identified as the real purpose of schools, the imposition of conformity.

The enforcement of uniforms, petty rules (I’m not talking about rules of decent behaviour here that everyone would accept as being good but, rather, things like not being allowed to go the toilet when you want to or need to unless you have a medical note that classifies you as defective in the eyes of your peers! (Who may actually end up being jealous and wishing they had a defect that allowed them to go to the toilet when they needed to)), timetables and hierarchical respect structures, means that the suggestion that the needs and desires of the individual are to be encouraged and nourished is like saying you can choose to wear any colour you like so long as you pick it out from this great range of black garments we have over here.

Finally, the real purpose of schools is to measure attainment. This is deemed necessary to allow employers and educational institutions a simple means for sorting the good from the bad.

This is the element that really underpins the mendacity of the system. Yes, we are nurturing you and developing you and getting it right for you but only in a particular direction that has been predetermined and which has rigorous benchmarks that you absolutely must achieve. To hell with whether it interests you or whether you will ever actually use it again, you will learn this stuff even if you hate it because, well because you won’t pass your exam and get to Uni. That’s it, my dear wonderful individual in all your glorious uniqueness. THE most important thing in your life, ever, is passing this exam. It’s what the school exists for, It’s what I am paid to do. It’s what the school is judged on and it is what I am judged on as your teacher. In the end, while I would love to be, I can’t afford, nor can you, to be interested in your own passions. All that matters is the exam.

So, perhaps, getting it right for every child, will, inevitably, be reduced to getting more people passing exams. At that point, everyone will laud its success.

In the meantime, teachers across the country, will continue to deceive themselves that they are nourishing the individual development of every child.

[Discussion on this forum thread.]


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