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Why Class-Based Expectations of Education Need to be Undone

24 Aug

Aditya Chakrabortty writes in today’s Guardian that:

Those from the upper- and middle-classes who go to Oxbridge will do fine – as they were always going to do. But Blair’s dream of a working-class kid getting a degree that would catapult him or her up the social ladder has not come off. Instead, they’ll probably end up doing similar work to their school-leaver parents – only with a debilitatingly large debt around their necks…

the reason the Great Degree Scramble has not paid off in better jobs is because Labour did not try to provide them. That would have required nurturing new businesses and raising conditions for the most awful jobs – the sort of thing Blair and his party emphatically did not do…

Up until the mid-90s, Switzerland – one of the richest and most industrialised nations in the world – sent only 10-15% of students off to get a degree. But it made sure the others had apprenticeships with actual businesses and vocational training. There must, surely, be a lesson in that.

Chakrabortty is absolutely right to argue that Labour failed to do enough to improve working conditions or to provide enough in the way of vocational training. They emphasised the virtues of a university education without doing enough to say why work-based training was worthwhile. But Labour’s aims of increasing working class access to university were admirable despite their questionable means (top-up fees) of achieving those aims.

Critics of the explosion in university applications rarely appear to expect anyone other than the working classes to be the ones who should stop going to university. Chakrabortty follows this trend when he unquestioningly contrasts the failure of the working class students to profit from their university education with the continuing ability of upper- and middle- class graduates to enter highly-paid or highly-valued work. He seems to write with an underlying assumption that it’s normal and right for middle- and upper- class A-Level students to go to university and for working-class students to move into vocational training.

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Uncritical History and National Identity: The Beginnings of a British Historikerstreit?

9 Jun

I attended the Republic Annual Conference last Saturday and particularly enjoyed a panel on ‘Our Republican Heritage.’ Geoffrey Robertson QC and Edward Vallance first talked about Britain’s republican and radical history. But then the Q&A session turned to a more contemporary and immediate issue, namely the teaching of history.

Vallance brought up the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to emphasise the British Empire in history teaching. Gove recently invited the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson to oversee the introduction of a history syllabus which ensures pupils are aware that modern history is the history of “the rise of western domination of the world.”

Ferguson and Gove’s ideas were opposed by Vallance on the grounds that emphasising Britain’s imperialist past would relegate the history of its radicals who fought for the liberties which we so value today. In the Historikerstreit of the 1980s Jürgen Habermas criticised right-wing German historians and politicians who wanted to revise Germany’s Nazi history to create a ‘useable’ German identity. Vallance followed Habermas’s line of attack in his condemnation of Gove’s attempts to rewrite the history school curriculum for the benefit of conservative political goals.

Update — 10.6.2010

The similarities with the original German Historikerstreit are growing already. Seumas Milne has written an article for the Guardian criticising the planned reforms: ‘Part of the motivation appears to be a doomed and perverted attempt to create a sense of national identity out of a historical inheritance that should be utterly rejected.’

The introduction of the history of British radicalism into the curriculum would certainly be worthwhile. Of course, it is healthy for pupils to be exposed to radical ideas but not necessarily as a part of an attempt to increase the number of radicals in British society. The best reasons for teaching not only about the history of British radicalism but also about the less than glorious parts of Britain’s  past are that it would engender pupils with critical mindsets.

History education should not concentrate on trying to achieve a common understanding of history which can be used to achieved a narrowly patriotic national identity. Indeed, the growing embarrassment at Britain’s imperialist past originally led to the marginalisation of the Empire within history teaching and subsequently within British national consciousness and identity. Similarly, teaching of World War Two history tended in my experience to focus on the successes of the Allies and never on more questionable aspects such as the bombing of Dresden or Soviet war crimes.

History should never be an exercise in merely remembering (or should that be memorising?) Britain’s proudest moments. Nor should it be about creating a supremacist national identity built around British victories and European domination of the world. German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Kniefall at the Memorial for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto showed remorse for Germany’s Nazi past but it also offered a more self-critical way of understanding and problematising German national identity. It is deplorable that for the most part Britain does not critically engage with its past and its national identity.

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Why Foreign Languages Should be Compulsory for GCSE Students

8 May

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the University of Birmingham student paper ‘Redbrick.’ The original is available here.

It is no secret that Britain is bad at for­eign lan­guages. Nearly every­one who has taken a hol­i­day in Europe has at some time had to rely on a res­i­dent of their host coun­try being able to under­stand and speak Eng­lish. It seems unlikely that this is going to change any time soon. Just 44 per cent of pupils took a for­eign lan­guage GCSE in 2008 com­pared with 78 per cent in 1999. The sit­u­a­tion is much more severe in com­pre­hen­sive schools where 41 per cent of pupils chose a lan­guage GCSE at 14 com­pared to selec­tive and inde­pen­dent schools with 91 per cent and 81 per cent of pupils tak­ing a lan­guage GCSE respec­tively. In 1996, 6.4 per cent of A-level entries were lan­guages, a fig­ure that had dropped to 4.8 per cent by 2009.

The rea­son for this is clear. In 2002, the Gov­ern­ment removed com­pul­sory lan­guage stud­ies from the post-14 cur­ricu­lum and instead pushed for an increase in lan­guage learn­ing in pri­mary schools, which took a fur­ther seven years to intro­duce. Learn­ing lan­guages at a younger age is indeed cru­cial; our abil­ity to learn new words pro­gres­sively decreases from the age of 10 and those who have learnt a lan­guage find it much eas­ier to learn oth­ers later in life. Unfor­tu­nately, the con­se­quences of mak­ing lan­guages optional at GCSE are dan­ger­ous not just for pupils’ uni­ver­sity and job prospects, but also for the British econ­omy and military.

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Balancing Faith and Sex Education

7 Mar

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the University of Birmingham student paper ‘Redbrick.’ The original is available here.

Learning about sex, con­tra­cep­tion, abor­tion, sex­u­al­ity and sta­ble rela­tion­ships is an undoubt­edly nec­es­sary part of children’s school edu­ca­tion. What is less cer­tain is the posi­tion reli­gious val­ues should take in this. Some argue that chil­dren should learn about these impor­tant issues with­out being influ­enced by ‘out­dated’ reli­gious val­ues. Oth­ers main­tain that schools with a reli­gious ethos should be able to at least tell stu­dents what their reli­gious faith teaches on these matters. Continue reading

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