What goes on in English schools?
I mean, how do teachers and students actually spend
their time, every day, five days a week, forty weeks every year in these
supposed temples of learning, these laboratories dedicated to the production of
a generation we will increasingly rely on to protect the national economy, and
our way of life, from the threat of competition from rising super-powers of
infinite and ruthless ambition?
I ask the question because every time I pick up a
newspaper, it seems my eyes are drawn to headlines above doom-laden articles explaining
how badly English schools are ‘failing’ our children, the text dotted with
phrases like ‘lost generation’ and ‘functionally illiterate’ and ‘unprepared
for society’. And it’s not just in the
past year or so that I’ve been reading these grim messages; attacks on our
apparently dysfunctional schools by education experts, inspectors and leaders
of parent bodies have been rife for as long as I can remember.
And whenever a spate of such articles rouses us to
shock or indignation, you can bet your school fees that the departmental minister
will stand up in parliament, or appear on television news debates, earnestly pledging
massive new investment in our education system.
Prime ministers, too. Remember
Tony Blair’s second general election campaign, when he announced that his
government’s priorities would be focused on “education, education, education”.
Well, we all know now what Tony’s promises were worth,
but in fairness he wasn’t the first or the last to clamber up into the
The warnings about our being overwhelmed by
intellectual giants from foreign climes strike me as far from mere
scare-mongering. A couple of years ago,
attending my daughter’s doctoral graduation ceremony at University College
London, I was taken aback by the proportion of graduating students from Asia. As if to
emphasize the point, the poor woman announcing their arrival on stage to
receive their diplomas was overwhelmed by a list of names that she stumbled
over pronouncing, to the extent that her attempts were greeted with embarrassed
titters from the audience. There were palpable sighs of relief when a rare
Johnson or Williams came along.
At some elemental level it’s emblematic of Britain, isn’t
it, this trouble coping with systems that might once have been the envy of the
world but have long since fallen into disrepair. That we don’t build cars, or planes, or
machines any more isn’t necessarily tragic – we know we’re entering a post-industrial
phase – but we still need, to pick an example close to our everyday lives, an
efficient and affordable railway system to carry us to work. Somehow it seems beyond us.
In that context, the phrase ‘neglected infrastructure’
gets bandied about. But bandying it
about is as much as we seem capable of doing.
Why do we never actually get around to fixing it?
My father worked on the railway back in the 1950s,
which reminds me that even then there was constant talk about the need for
upgrading track, signaling and rolling stock and even of producing a coherent national
transportation plan. The result of the
latter initiative was a certain Dr. Beeching, who applied all his skills as a
corporate cost-cutter to shutting down all the branch lines that didn’t make a
profit (many of which we’re now wishing we could reopen).
Our schools could do worse than introducing curricula
that might produce graduates who will be capable of building things. That would
mean, de minimus, producing graduates who can read, write and count. But that’s another gripe for another rant.
Until something happens to break the mould – le mot
juste, I think – we’re probably fated to commuting to work on a German-built
train, running on a track owned by a Swiss-Chinese consortium, reading a
newspaper owned by an Australian media mogul, and arriving at a station owned
by an Indian industrial conglomerate.
And if we want to know what time the trains run, we’ll talk to someone
at a call centre in Bangalore who’ll ask us how
to spell Waterloo.
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