Skirmishes Around the Edges
It is certainly not a new thing that education should be viewed in this way. The Spartan education system in ancient Greece (called the agoge), for example, was specifically designed to ensure the city-state’s military prowess. Boys left their family homes at the age of seven and were placed in barracks. From that point on they went through a very prescriptive system which was designed to ensure Sparta’s continuing political and military strength. They were, for instance, given little food and encouraged to steal to supplement their diet. If they were caught stealing however, they were punished – not for stealing, but for being caught. It was all about developing the kind of resourcefulness which might be required when on campaign.
Although there are few instances of states going to such extreme measures as the Spartans, all education systems are designed to produce citizens fit for the state. Or are they?
The Hong Kong education system has recently been overhauled. Its new diploma (HKDSE) has a core of subjects which the state feels all students need: Chinese Language, English Language, Mathematics and Liberal Studies. The last of these subjects is a bit like A Level General Studies, which for the meantime is still available in the UK. However, it is also about citizenship and moulding responsible and engaged citizens of the future. It is unlikely we would all agree on the content of this, but the Hong Kong government has made the decision that certain essential elements are required.
At the same time, the American system, although not centralised, has a great deal of cohesion with citizenship and American values appearing to be at the heart of what pupils learn at school. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the political elements of schooling, such as the raising of the flag or the singing of the national anthem.
Such examples suggest politicians and officials sitting down and carefully considering what they want the end product to be and then working out how to get there. It seems a logical way to do things. But has this ever been done in the UK? One could argue it has in Scotland, but it doesn’t seem to have in England. This is partly because education is such a political football, especially since Tony Blair uttered that immortalised phrase ‘education, education, education’ back in 2001. One could argue that Michael Gove has more recently tried to bring more cohesion to the our education system, but it has unfortunately involved him trying to remember what he liked about his school days and imposing this on a new generation. What’s more, he has done it in a big part by trying to reform the examination system, which to my mind is the tail wagging the dog. Surely we need to start with the toolkit we want our young people to possess when they leave school? The examinations should come out of this, not lead the way, especially when the government’s control over examinations is limited. England is one of the few places in the world where there are competing examination boards. Most countries have one, state-run board. In England we have three examination boards following rules set down by Ofqual, an organisation at arm’s length from the government and not always in agreement with the Department for Education.
The government seems to have been unable or unwilling to tackle directly the issue of what we want from our education system, but at the same time they have launched a war around the fringes, expecting schools, including independent schools, to pick up pieces for them. The statutory duties imposed on state schools change by the month and those being applied to independent schools have increased significantly in recent years too. Recent legislation has included the requirement for schools to ensure our education ‘does not undermine the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’. A fair enough ideal, but if we are going to legislate such things shouldn’t we get into a full and comprehensive debate about the nature of our education system rather than rely on skirmishes around the edges?