Friday, 8 February 2008

The Regimentation of British Youth

I have realised that I am beginning to feel rather guilty that a lot of my postings are simply responding to news items I see on television, the internet and in a single newspaper. I feel that I should be out there scooping up much more of what is going on from a range of sources. If you live in the UK and travel abroad and watch the news as I often do, say in France or Germany, you are very much aware of how many more news stories they cover in an average bulletin. In the UK we often have the view that 'there isn't much news today' when in fact there is always tons it is just the UK channels cannot be bothered, do not have the interest or the resources to report it. This does not only go for international news (I have not seen anything on Afghanistan or Iraq or Zimbabwe or Pakistan reported for many days now, though I am sure that a lot is currently happening in all these countries) but also within our own country. The clearest example of levels of news in a country, that I have seen, is in Belgium. There you kind of step down the hierarchy from international to national to regional to your town news. While there I literally watched the news for the town I was staying in. They also have specialised news sections, for example, I saw the military news section of the programme and they have weather for people sailing as well as standard weather reports. You might say Belgium is small and has to make the most of what news it had. However, I would argue that all towns have things going on and in the UK often you do not find out about them even though they may impinge on you more immediately than big international stories.

Sorry, I am well off track now, the news was not the focus of today's posting, rather it is a report that I heard of today which fits in with many of the themes I have been exploring over the past few months about British society and especially education within it. If you do not know, whilst the legal age that UK children must start school is 5, most now go to proper school at the age of 4 to join 'reception' which proceeds Year 1 but is no less rigorous and certainly my housemate's young boy was expected to be able to write in joined-up handwriting before he even reached Year 1! Reports today contrast this start date with Sweden which has much better academic results despite the fact that the children do not start school until the age of 7, three years after their British counterparts. At the age of 7 in England (Wales and Scotland have scrapped this, but England covers 83% of the UK population) they sit their first exams, called SATS. They do more at 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. The age of 18 is now the age children are permitted to leave school in the UK. English children are the most examined in the world, now even outstripping the Japanese. Whilst see these tests as much a monitor of the quality of teachers (and according to government statistics 17,000 'incompetent' teachers are in post teaching 100,000 children in total) they also put immense pressure on children from the start. There is no appreciation of the different ways in which children learn or the different ranges of abilities with different skills or the differences between girls and boys which is very sharp at this age (notably the desire for discussion vs. desire for activity).

The British government, however, has dismissed the latest findings because they go against their whole philosophy of constant testing and people attaining 'standards'. I would be happy to be corrected, but as far as I know the UK is the only country to have set targets for children under the age of 5. Yes, there is the so-called Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum which was launched in March 2007 and covers anticipated levels of achievement for children aged 0-5. Nursery schools who do not comply with the targets for 3 and 4 year olds will lose state funding. Apparently handwriting should begin between 16-26 months old! If you are interested in the targets, 'The Daily Telegraph' newspaper has an online list of them:

I think one motive for the government supporting children starting school at 4 is because as I have commented before they want more mothers in the workforce and effectively they see schooling as childcare, given that the cost of actual childcare is beyond the incomes of most even middle class people let alone working class ones. The Blair governments and the Brown one which has followed also have long clung to the belief that quantitative measures of things equals qualitative gains. Of course that is sometimes (or often depending on the circumstances) not the case. Human nature cannot be squeezed into tick boxes. None of us want a poor education system but neither do we want every aspect of a child's life from the moment they come out the womb under scrutiny. I can envisage that before long we will have guidelines about what music should be played to the foetus to help its language skills development.

There is no evidence that the government's requirements are bringing any benefit to English school children. We still have the highest level of teenage pregnancies in Europe; we still have half our pupils leaving school with not a single qualification. I accept that many of these things are caused by the anti-learning attitude prevalent in UK society. What we do see is record numbers of suicides among teenage boys and whilst much of this may come from societal pressures, given that such behaviour is characteristic of Japan which for decades is renowned for the pressure it puts its young people under, there seems to be some connection. I know this government's simplistic attitude is that to slacken requirements is to lead inexorably to increased failure. However, we are dealing with people not machines. The USSR tried to plan its economy through 5-year plans throughout its history and ended up with an entirely wrecked economy. The UK is trying to plan its children's personal educational development and I fear is going to (or is already) facing a similar outcome to the Soviet economy. The British population is increasingly obsolete in global markets and this attempt to pursue regimentation of children along some 'Brave New World' model seems to doom them to even worse standing. The government needs to swallow its pride and look at the more relaxed and far more successful examples of successful educational approaches which are around us in Europe let alone across the world. Of course the Blair regime wallowed in utter arrogance which allowed it to concede nothing to any challenge and the Brown government has remained as hard-faced and as short-sighted.

No comments: