I want to link Debra Kidd’s passionate blog about academic snobbery here, as I was involved in the conversation on Twitter which I think part-prompted this. I agree with much of what Debra says, although not all, as I’m the Head of of a very successful and very large history department in a state comprehensive and I’m rather less convinced than Debra is that, given the choice between Cromwell and Shakespeare, most students will run towards the bard.
The essence of the argument on Twitter was between some tweeters who argued that schools should impose a very limited range of traditional academic subject choices on students, and other tweeters (including myself), who argued that all students should have as wide a selection as possible of vocational and academic choices. I found myself accused of being in favour of “narrowing” education by suggesting it should be broader, because only traditional academic subjects were worthwhile, and I was thus allegedly guilty of that cardinal sin of having low expectations of less able students by believing they should do vocational qualifications instead.
Of course I wasn’t arguing that at all, I merely argued that it was preferable to allow students more choice, irrespective of ability, and yet found myself accused of wanting to “narrow” the educational chances of poorer children. By the time I ducked out of what was becoming an increasingly bonkers conversation, I found that my belief that students should have more rather than less choice in their options was being equated to a belief that students should choose whether to attend school, or whether to behave in class. Newsflash : I allow my students in class to choose what colour pen to write in, yet somehow have avoided becoming Summerhill.
It all felt a bit through-the-looking-glass, as if the speechifying powerful-but-ultimately-meaningless jargon we’ve become so familiar with in the Gove era had somehow detached itself from reality and started to change the meanings of language itself, where “more choice” = “less choice”, and “fewer choices” = “broader education”.
I actually see this narrow approach to education as a bit of a failure of empathy and understanding, likely perhaps to be found in someone who was always interested in more academic subjects, mixes in a similarly-inclined peer group, and who thus struggles to truly imagine a person with different inclinations (sound like Gove, anyone ?). They adopt something similar to the “false consciousness” argument of the committed Marxist : “They may think they prefer vocational qualifications, but that’s only because they haven’t been made to see the truth by their failing teachers. I will lead them to the true path.” It’s all very in-keeping with a heroic narrative of “saving” children from themselves. I also think it’s not very helpful, because it seems to be based on two very important mistaken assumptions.
Poor kids choose vocational qualifications, which is why there are so many impoverished plumbers. Oh, hang on…
The first assumption is that a preference for non-traditional or vocational subjects is somehow confined to the less able or students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This isn’t the case at all. The fact is that plenty of students, by their mid-teens, have preferences which are not necessarily attached to ability. I was a right clever little sod at school, but hated (and was crap at) languages and had no interest at all in science. I liked writing and reading. I had friends who were also academically able, but thought essays were boring, and preferred dissecting frogs, rearranging tortuous German sentences, or playing music. I see that same pattern reflected now in my school amongst the students I teach. I think when some of these “new traditionalists” are preaching their sermons, they are actually guilty of the very sins they are accusing the rest of us of : they assume that less able children from disadvantaged backgrounds will reject traditional academic subjects while more able ones with greater advantages will pursue that academic menu. Yet actually, I think the more able student has just as much right to reject a traditional subject-set in favour of vocational qualifications as the less able student has the right to choose to do a history GCSE which may result in a poor grade, but he’ll at least enjoy.
My subject’s better than your subject
The second assumption, and an argument put this morning on Twitter, is that there is something intrinsic in these traditional subjects which equips children for better lives as adults, and so by failing to force all children to do the same narrow set of subjects, we would be failing in our duty as adults to guide those students to the most useful outcomes. That would be a strong argument if only it were demonstrable. But it seems to me a rather difficult case to prove. I’m absolutely willing to concede that an ability to speak, read and write fluently is more important than any other skill taught in schools, so I’ve never had a problem with compulsory English Language (English Lit is a different matter). I accept the necessity of basic mathematical skills as a key life skill, although most mathematics taught in schools will never be used again once school is over, and increasingly even basic mental arithmetic is something which is being provided by everpresent personal technology. For me, that’s it.
I know this is controversial, but I’ve never understood why science is seen as something essential for all students, when the overwhelming majority of us will go through life without ever using it in any way – I have three science O-Levels, and I recall almost nothing of them, and have used nothing from them, in the last 26 years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad someone does science, because I’d be useless at keeping the lights switched on, operating on your brain, or fixing my own PC. But I don’t see it as being any more an essential part of every child’s education than any other subject. I’d accept that the country needs more scientists than it needs historians (only here, though, and certainly not in conversation about allotted curriculum time with the head of science), but I think “English Maths and Science” has become an unthinking mantra, and the universally compulsory nature of RS makes the whole issue of “essential” subjects a mockery. A broad Citizenship subject, of which RS should be a unit alongside politics and some basic philosophy would seem a much more justified compulsory subject. But I digress.
And of course, what of those other “traditional” subjects, using Gove’s Ebacc definition : history, geography, languages? Essential ? Really ? You can’t get on in life without a history GCSE ? With the best will in the world, that’s rhubarb. There’s nothing intrinsic in any of those subjects which is essential. Good to have, to be sure. Actually useful, especially in the case of languages ? Absolutely. But are we really suggesting that if a student chooses to drop history as a subject then they’ll be intellectually, socially and professionally crippled for the rest of their life ? I don’t think so.
So what do we want our schools to do ?
What seems to be going on here is a confusion of correlation with causation, and it’s mingled in with a very narrow definition of “success” as being gaining an academic degree in an academic subject and going on to do an academically supported job. Again I think that this reflects the prejudices of the argument’s proponents rather than any reality on the ground. There is a hefty smell about some traditional subject evangelists of “I consider myself clever and successful, and I liked and took these subjects. Therefore you should like what I like, and you’ll be clever and successful too”. You could call it Govian arrogance, if you will. Yet, in my time, I’ve met many clever and successful people who would defy that narrow definition of success, including plenty of politicians.
So what might be a determinant of success, if it isn’t the mostly forgotten details of the Glorious Revolution or the composition of the earth’s crust which you briefly crammed twenty years earlier ? I googled the question, and immediately wished I hadn’t, as I entered a world of smiling Americans with perfect teeth and weirdly solid hair, telling me how I too could be a millionaire if only I adopted their ten-point strategy (and signed over £1000 for their motivational weekend). Good God. For a man who really hates laminated-card banal sloganizing, I’m about as comfortable in this world as a penguin in the Sahara. Nevertheless, I persevered for you, dear reader. And although there are many differences in medium, the message is quite consistent. Key characteristics of success tend to involve : resilience, optimism, motivation and self-confidence. Of course in the UK we should also add “connections” and “being born rich”, but for some reason they don’t seem to make it on to any of the lists. Still, I see the argument behind those positive characteristics making success more likely. Which takes us to the next question : what, at school, is more likely to develop those characteristics ?
“Succeeding at things you like, is better than failing at things you dislike”, says catholic looking suspiciously like Pope.
And here’s the astonishing thing : it seems that self-confidence, optimism, motivation and resilience tend to be generated by early life experience of succeeding, being valued and receiving support in the event of failure. Who’d have guessed it!? So actually being good at something, and succeeding at it, gives people confidence to try something else and succeed at that. Conversely, children who repeatedly “fail” by comparison to their peers are more likely to become risk-averse, lack self-confidence and become demotivated. For all the talk of growth mindsets and the American dream, the most common human response to repeated failure is to avoid trying again. Every parent sees this, and so what every parent does is to try and find what their child can succeed at, because it’s vital to that child’s self-confidence that they can feel as if they can succeed at something, whether in absolute or relative terms. It’s astonishing how success in one area can lead to greater success in other areas.
For example, as a kid I was rubbish at football : not so much two left feet as one left foot and a wooden peg, and I am right-handed. My school only played football. So I grew to loathe PE. I even truanted a couple of lessons, and I was the goodiest two-shoes in the school! I absolutely hated being amongst the last picked, hated being made to look like my feet were nailed to the floor as some nippy little git rounded me, hated feeling so bloody useless. It almost turned me off sport for life. Then at 15, my dad suggested I had a crack at playing rugby league, and it turned out that I wasn’t bad at it. So astonishingly, I became very motivated to play rugby. The rugby gave me confidence in my own physical ability, and I started to experiment in other sports along the way. This isn’t rocket science. My middle daughter, who is in the bottom percentile for most school subjects, has noticeably improved recently. Why? Well, she was identified as a great swimmer (feet like flippers), and promoted to a club squad swimmer. The confidence this has given her is visible, and it is feeding into a greater self-belief in the classroom. Literally : “I can succeed at this, so I might be able to succeed at that”.
So what else can schools do in terms of imparting characteristics which might lead to greater success? Well one thing which might be useful, both professionally and in terms of our own personal satisfaction, is to impart a love of learning, as well as the self-confidence to do something to further that love. Someone I was tweeting with this morning argued that pursuing vocational qualifications was something one could do after school, while school was for “proper” academic subjects. I think that distinction is bogus. You can pursue academic subjects just as easily after compulsory school as you can vocational education. In fact, probably more easily, as many traditional academic courses can be learned from books read at one’s leisure, whereas most vocational courses require equipment and professional expertise. I can imagine an adult teaching themselves about the Crusades from a reading list rather more readily than I can imagine the same adult teaching themselves how to wire a house or plumb a kitchen. And here again, it is surely not unreasonable to suggest that a lifelong love of learning is more likely to originate from a school education which allows students some leeway to explore and follow their interests, as opposed to one which denies them any agency in shaping their own choices, and forces them to study only subjects they find tedious and demotivating ?
So if “success”, insofar as one can summarise it, tends to be helped by self-confidence, self-motivation, and both a love of learning and the belief that one can and should further that interest, then I wonder which kind of approach to the school curriculum would help foster these characteristics ?
“Those who do not learn from history, are unlikely to benefit from being forced to study it” (me, 2015)
Would it be :
- a curriculum which allows a wide a range of genuine student choices of both vocational and academic subjects alongside a minimum core; or
- a curriculum of traditional academic subjects with few choices ?
It’s a tricky one. I think I’ll plump for (a).