What is the purpose of a school? One should perhaps make a distinction between state-run and independent schools, but if considering the former you can award yourself a bonus point if you would have said that the principal function of a school is to facilitate the nationwide screening system that weeds out unsuitable candidates at strategic intervals. Education, if it takes place at all in a typical state school, is an incidental by-product.
Two years ago, then UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announced plans to abolish the current General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), examinations for which are sat at the end of Year 11 (age 16) and which constitute the first of the sieves alluded to in the previous paragraph, and replace it with a ‘more rigorous’ General Certificate of Education (GCE) ordinary level (O level). It will not have escaped the notice of those who follow the English education system that O levels, which had been introduced in 1951, had been scrapped by a previous Conservative government, in the 1980s.
Part of Gove’s motivation was his desire to reintroduce a ‘world-class qualification’, which should stand as a reminder that politicians, who invariably think they know more about education than the professionals, can have a dangerously destabilizing influence on a country’s education system. Qualification? The BBC’s education correspondent used the same term, but passing an O-level exam is not any kind of qualification, although you will get a certificate that records your success.
Looking at Gove’s other initiatives, it is clear that he has no understanding of education as an organic process and is motivated almost entirely by ideology. His introduction of academies and free schools, which are beyond the control of local education authorities, have total control of their curricula and are allowed to employ unqualified teachers, is clear evidence of that, although these schools are subjected to scrutiny by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).
Unfortunately, the schools landscape has changed considerably in England during my lifetime, invariably at the behest of politicians and rarely for the better. The Eleven Plus examination, which was used to decide whether a child went to a grammar school or to a secondary modern school, was introduced following the 1944 Education Act. However, both the exam and the grammar schools it fed were seen by the political Left as divisive and elitist, and the exam was abolished in most areas between 1964 and 1979, and most grammar schools were either closed or converted to comprehensive schools, which as the name suggests were intended to provide for the educational needs of all children, although I’ve always suspected that the architects of this policy were more interested in pegging back the brightest children by a notch or two rather than in raising the level that could be achieved by the least able.
Secondary modern schools were a new concept for the postwar period, the idea being to provide a technical education that purported to meet the needs of those children who were not academically inclined. The reality is that many became mere dumping grounds for those who didn’t make the grade, they were starved of funds, and they were regarded as providing a second-class education, especially by those who did make the grade.
I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as a ‘qualification’—the world would be a dangerous place if teachers, doctors, lawyers and accountants were able to practise their professions without a long and rigorous training period beforehand—but the notion that an O-level pass in English literature is any kind of ‘qualification’ is risible in the extreme, although a good mark in the A-level (advanced-level) equivalent will entitle you to apply to study the subject at university.
Another area where some form of certification is desirable is in skilled manual work: no one would employ a cowboy builder, plumber or electrician, you would think, although I regularly see examples of shoddy workmanship by the jacks of all trades (and masters of none) who build village houses in Hong Kong. The photograph below is of a wall that I watched being built a few years ago and is entirely typical. As you might guess from the undulations in the lines of bricks, no spirit level was used, and the structure consists of a single thickness of bricks with no interlocking, so its structural soundness is doubtful. A qualified bricklayer, in practice someone who has served a lengthy apprenticeship, could have been relied on to do a far better job, although his services would probably have been considered too expensive.
You will have noted that in the last example I suggested that experience is an adequate replacement for a piece of paper stating that you’re ‘qualified’. I can reinforce this point from my own experience: a few years ago, I learned about a course that one could enroll on to become a ‘qualified’ proofreader. I believe that it isn’t possible to teach someone to be a competent proofreader unless they already have some natural aptitude. But what’s so difficult about proofreading? Surely one only needs to be good at spotting mistakes.
However, the hardest part of proofreading lies not in spotting errors but in deciding whether or not the errors you have spotted should be flagged up. This will probably sound strange to anyone who has never tried proofreading, but if a mistake is the fault of the copy editor, then the publisher will have to pay for it to be corrected. Mistakes are rectified free of charge only if they were the typesetter’s fault, so the proofreader has to decide who to blame, and if it was the editor, whether the error is sufficiently trivial that it can be ignored.
But here’s the rub: although I’ve proofread hundreds of books, I’m totally unqualified for the task, if by ‘unqualified’ I mean that I don’t have a certificate of competence. On the other hand, given the way publishing is organized, a freelancer can get more work only if they can be relied upon to do a good job, and I was never short of work, so I take this as evidence that experience is a better indicator of ability than a piece of paper.
Since I started this essay, Michael Gove has been replaced as education secretary. Although it is too early to assess whether this change will have a significant impact on the education sector, it is reasonable to assume that we will hear more railing against that traditional right-wing bête noir, ‘trendy teaching methods’, using the now familiar buzzwords ‘rigour’ and ‘standards’, and a perpetuation of the myth that it is possible to learn more about a person’s intellectual capabilities from their answer to a question in a three-hour, sit-down exam than from their answer to the same question if given a week to write 5,000 words on the subject drawing on whatever documentary sources they deem necessary to construct their argument.
It is more important, and a more valuable skill, to be able to construct a rational argument than it is to memorize the information that supports that argument. However, helping pupils to develop such a skill really would be education, and both the present Conservative government and the last Labour administration have been more interested in a rubber-stamping process of training. And training is not education.