The best days of our whole lives

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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).

Pine­hurst II, Pine­hurst Road, Farn­bor­ough Busi­ness Park, Farn­bor­ough, Hamp­shire GU14 7BF Tele­phone 01252 555072 www.coun­trylife.co.uk

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