Friday, 16 October 2009

A study in what, exactly?

I want to offer my initial, tentative support for the new Cambridge University-led study that graces The Guardian's front page today.

Too much too young: start school at six says key report

The report, to sum up, suggests that students in England begin formal lessons too early, and such structured schooling shouldn't begin until the age of six. It also offers a 'damning indictment of Labour's education record since 1997,' accusing the government of interventionism with 'Stalinist overtones' and narrowing the curriculum to a point that would shame Victorian institutions (not generally known for their plural, open approach to education).

Now, I talk to other parents, from a variety of schools, and I watch my son -- only turning six tomorrow, happy birthday Will! -- and his friends at school, all of varying levels of academic ability but generally bright, intelligent boys and girls, and I do see them being put-off school, the idea of education (learning to read, write, do sums, etc.), by what they feel is too much work. They complain of being tired, at the end of the day of suffering from headaches. Though, being five and six year olds, they have a tendency to whinge whether presented with anything other than exactly what they want to be doing at that very minute.  But yeah, I think the ideas in the report that I've read so far sound good: delaying the start of formal lessons until children are six, scrapping Sats and league tables that put undue stress on children, a general review of the ciriculumm and an attempt to introduce a greater variety of subjects (history, music, languages, for example).

But don't believe me. I'm just speaking anecdotally. And, frankly, that should mean jack-shit. In England, you/we seem to privilege the anecdote out of all proportion, with it's phobia of public intellectuals and 'don't confuse me with the facts' mind-set. Hence TheSun's campaign against Labour supported by anyone who have suffered in the last 12 years . I'm sorry, sirs, but having been in the military or having had a relative die in hospital of infection or being stabbed in the face does not give you any particular insight into the political system or how to best plan economic and social policy in this country, and should not entitle you to be regarded as 'an expert', except perhaps as, say, an expert in getting stabbed in the face, and not even then, really, because while you may have a particular insight as to what it's like to be stabbed in the face your experience is still not definitive; other people may have a very different idea as to what it means to be stabbed in the face, and I want to hear from them, too, before making up my mind. And from the looks of it, having endured these tragedies makes your political opinions even less reliable, even more skewed, as bitterness and the desperate search for someone to blame seems to have clouded your judgement.

(My wife keeps promising to photocopy a Joan Scott essay that addresses this -- I'll ask again and offer a review when I've had a look at it.)

So, again, don't take my words as some sort of definitive proof, or refutation, for this report. Read The Guardian's report. Or the BBC's.  Or anyone's. Read them all. Read the report itself, which I haven't yet done which is why I'm reserving judgement.

The government, alas, can't be bothered, and has dismissed it out of hand. Which is really, really sad. It seems another triumph of narrow, complacent and misguided ideology over genuine debate.

But perhaps this was inevitable. If anyone thinks the Conservatives would act any differently, despite how they are trying to play it, to exact maximum damage to Labour, is very, very silly. (Like, one might suggest, someone's who's judgement is so clouded by being stabbed repeatedly in the face that he thinks crime will be reduced in an increasingly inegalitarian Britain led by the Tories. Poor numpty.) The point is, if I might indulge in a little Foucaultian flourish, the increasingly rigorous discipline and training of our youth, and the increasingly incessant surveillance, management and normalisation of people in all sectors of society, particularly education, are not going to be abated by any report that suggests we move in a contrary direction, no matter how objective, conclusive or well-supported that proposed policy might be. Consider, as The Guardian explains:
The review is the biggest independent inquiry into primary education in four decades, based on 28 research surveys, 1,052 written submissions and 250 focus groups. It was undertaken by 14 authors, 66 research consultants and a 20-strong advisory committee at Cambridge University, led by Professor Robin Alexander, one of the more experienced educational academics in the country.
      Last night the review's conclusions were backed by every education union in England.
But no matter. Power, it seems, will have its way.

So, again, sorry for donning the Foucaultian cilice. It would be nice to see this as an ideological battle, one that we might be able to win by fighting the right fight and voting for the right people, but I don't see it happening. 

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