Saturday 15 October 2011

Education as Empowerment(?)

About a week ago (more now my birthday’s been and gone), hemmed in between headlines on economic Armageddon and the Tory party conference, you may have noticed briefly the call from former Chief Inspector of Schools for England, Sir Chris Woodhead, for the school leaving age to be reduced to 14. This is in order to give the ‘less academic’ a chance to learn a trade, because those children require just ‘basic literacy and numeracy’. Hopefully, as we all peered over the economic precipice with the less than comforting sounds of George Osborne (‘quantitative easing is the last resort of desperate governments’, circa 2009) putting us off Manchester for the week, no one was listening to Mr. Woodhead.

To let a child decide their own fate not long after having become a teenager would be a tragically short sighted step, not just for the child, but for society. It would reverse us to the Fisher Act which made this the uniform age in 1918. The children who are ‘less academic’ at this age are frequently those whose parents are ‘less academic’, and so we would be shutting repeated generations of the same families and areas away from both the obvious and hidden benefits that education can bring; and so one of the effects would be to cripple our already poor social mobility. A taste for education and its values has to be something that the individual is given time to discover, and may still end up being ‘less academic’. It is foolish to imagine that the impact of circumstance upon one’s attitudes can be ignored to this extent. Despite the best efforts of my very middle class parents, my own work ethic prior to a few years at university was a drunken smudge compared to what it is now.

I’m not an economist, but I’m aware there are other for and against arguments to altering the age in some way. I’m also fairly sure that there isn’t the labour shortage that we had when the age was raised to 15 in 1947. History would tell us that Woodhead’s fears of mass truancy and juvenile crime should the age be raised again are ill founded, as they were in 1947 and then 1972, when the age became the current 16. If these changes have failed in anyway, it is because, despite education being longer, its intensity has dropped. I did an eleven plus the other week, and it was really hard.

There are other, less obvious benefits to mass education to a high standard. To me a true a sign of intelligence is not just to see, but to accept that are two sides to every argument. To this extent, and beyond, education acts as a calmer, provides a desire to reason. Aggression is the result of a feeling of a lack of control over circumstances, and consequent anger is an attempt to right ‘injustices’, or at least show the potential to. Consequently anger is often more a reflection of self than circumstance and many people, though they won’t admit or know it, simply choose to get angry. When I worked behind a till I used to call it the Daily Mail syndrome. I like to think it’s why the atmosphere is so different when I watch Yorkshire play cricket as opposed to when I watch Rotherham United lose at football (I’m happily going out on a limb here and saying that one set of fans is more ‘educated’ than the other; you can decide which). In this way education is an empowerment; to control aggression through a sense of a better ability to engage with the world around you. This is certainly how the unions saw it through their valuable inputs into adult education. Finally, education deepens an inert sense, a need, to analyze and consider points constantly, to reveal problems to us that need answers.

However it can go too far, depending on how much you value it. The longer people ‘educate’ you, the more you come to value all points of view until there is often no right answer; the more you realise some barriers, regardless of how much you engage them, are simply insurmountable; and the more problems are revealed to you until, cynically, you notice them at every turn, to the point where even personal relationships are examined due to habit. Talk to any academic and you’ll find them constantly counterbalancing and qualifying. In Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, the Controller is the one who stares reality in the face, and who has to think so that others can be happy.

Of course I digress excessively; however, by Chris Woodhead’s desire to stop academic education early he risks another Huxilian condition. Huxley believed that social happiness and stability were not linked to social mobility, but with getting people to be content with the lot that they were born with, and freezing their development there. Now I should add, in case I haven’t made it clear, that I could never discern any ‘lot’ to be worth any more or less than any other in terms of its experience, value or skill; however, it would be a massive mistake if all options were not open to be tried and experienced by all.