The best days of our whole lives
Sit up at the back. the subject is education—always a difficult one for the British. Last week, former Education Secretary Michael Gove argued in The Times that schools that serve the ‘children of plutocrats and oligarchs’ don’t deserve charitable status. He forgets that, if VAT were imposed, making fees 20% more expensive, such schools really would become the exclusive preserve of plutocrats and oligarchs.
the willingness of some families to pay fees reflects the importance they attach to education—motivated families get better results. Children of high-achieving parents become high achievers themselves, whatever the regime under which they’re raised. it’s a law of nature that no government has succeeded in altering.
When achievement is equated solely with exam grades, however, it’s time to ask whether we’re pursuing the right goals. it’s understandable that, at a time when the competitor economies are producing children who are notably better at maths and science than our own and the jobs market is tightening, education has become narrower, with schools rigidly focused on GSCE and A-level attainment.
Pupils will be happy to get into their desired university, but they may not find it to be quite the place of wide-ranging intellectual discourse, even experiment, that it was in the past century. Faculties and their staff, which are increasingly being judged by measureable outcomes, are guiding their students’ study and lives in a way that turns what should provide young people with their first taste of intellectual freedom into an experience akin to boarding school.
the students would rather close down debate on sensitive subjects, such as gender identity, abortion and even Brexit, than expose their ears to unwelcome opinions. Clever and undeniably hard-working, they’re in danger of becoming one-dimensional.
Mastery of defined tasks is promoted at the expense of breadth. this trend is exemplified by the proposal that some university courses should be reduced to two years. Students worried about debt will welcome it, but with predicted longer life spans and an obligation to work into what would once have been considered old age, the superqualified graduate can look forward to 40 or 50 years of employment.
We say ‘look forward’ advisedly. Let’s hope that they enjoy what they do, because it’ll be a long time at the coalface. they’ll need the flexibility and resilience to change careers—no more jobs for life. increasingly, they will be self-employed or pursuing portfolio careers. then there are the sunset years, which will, to be rewarding, require more self-reinvention.
throughout their lives, they will need to draw on an education that has provided breadth and encouraged a spirit of individualism and self-reliance. this is hardly a description of what our exam-obsessed schools and universities are delivering today. We’re rushing education. We have a Slow Food movement; is it time for Slow Education? (Interview, page 36 and schools special, page 90).
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