Michael Gove’s reforms have taken a turn for the worst. What was arguably the most promising department to deliver real change and reform is quickly throwing up one bad policy after another.
The expansion of the Academy programme and the ability to create Free Schools were a great boost to education, allowing greater choice and a real competitive element to drive up standards. Changes to teacher’s pensions and pay, extra grants for better qualified graduates, giving teachers more discretion, all of these were steps in the right direction.
Recently however, we’re seeing a move towards the worst of central planning, with a number of outdated, ‘traditional’ methods being introduced.
Firstly there’s the plan to bring in former members of the armed forces to teach in classrooms. The none-too-subtle implication being that classrooms are lacking discipline and some stern, no-nonsense domineering by soldiers will keep the children quiet and obedient. Short of ritual floggings, it’s a policy straight from the Daily Mail column section. People seemingly haven’t considered the fact that children are distracted in class because the way they’re educated is not conducive to focus, or because many of the topics are irrelevant and boring to them, or because they’ve been raised badly without having things talked through with them and instead have just been shouted down. Do I think this policy would make classrooms quieter? Possibly. Will it improve education? No. Will it potentially harm child development? Absolutely. We should be moving to a system of greater freedom of learning for children, of more open discussion, of a more equal relationship between children (who after all are the consumers in this relationship) and teachers, who are supposed to be providing them with a service, not scaring the life out of them so they remain silent to be lectured at for hours on end.
Secondly, there’s the change to exams. Now in this instance I’m slightly in agreement that something needs to change. The grade inflation problem certainly needs to be addressed, but this can be done through a much more simple change of raising the pass marks. However, all sorts of other policies are being proposed which are wrongheaded and deeply problematic. For instance, coursework being largely scrapped, exams being taken at the end of two years rather than as a modular format, fewer resits etc. This idea is nothing sort of ridiculous. The pressure it puts on children is immense. Their entire future can be decided in a couple of days and it only takes one or two slip ups or bad exams to ruin years of their lives. The worst part about this is that it’s completely unnecessary. School is designed to prepare children for ‘real life’. But in real life there are almost no instances where you’re put under this kind of pressure. There are some career paths where this is the case, but those are limited, are well paying and are voluntary for the people involved. In other careers you can write reports over a period of time, you can check sources, you can ask help and advice etc.
The fact is, the reforms are placing children in a position in which they’re being forced to adhere to one very narrow interpretation of skill and achievement. If you can cram and recite masses of (largely useless) information in an absurdly high-pressured environment you get a good life, if not, bad luck. We should be moving in completely the opposite direction. Make sure children learn the information, help them pursue the goals they’re interested in.
The next big issue for libertarians has to be the case of children. Why should they be the exceptions to the rule when it comes to promoting freedom? We cannot expect to produce generations of children with centrally-planned, authority driven schooling that does nothing to promote individuality and hope for them to suddenly embrace freedom later on. Their formative years need to prepare them for the world we hope to create. Libertarians often complain about schools being a problem for teaching biased information to children, and this is true, but the problem extends well beyond the curriculum. The problem is in the system itself, it’s the way children are taught, not just what they’re taught. If we want children to be well-rounded, thoughtful individuals, we have to fundamentally rethink the way we educate them. We can’t promote freedom for adults while we continue to deny it for children.