Thursday, November 08, 2007

Education is about more than economics

Gracchi writes that education should be about more than economics. He is absolutely right.

I went to a comprehensive school. I'm not going to tell you a sob story. It was in a nice town in Hertfordshire and I was never stabbed, no one tried to sell me drugs and I emerged with no serious personality defects I'm aware of. My school wasn't remarkably good or remarkably bad. It was pretty average. I'm middle class enough that I was never in any real danger of dropping out anyway.

However, in my time at LSE and since I've met people, Gracchi one of them, who went to the very best public schools. Some of the best in the country. They are much better educated than I am. I can see the truth in what Gracchi is saying in what I miss, the benefits that I might have taken from a better education and really wish I could enjoy.

I don't miss the exam results. I did pretty well, well enough to get into the LSE. While I could certainly have done better it seems an increasingly minor issue now I've entered work and am proving my ability more directly.

I don't miss the skills. When I arrived at LSE I had, despite having done no end of supposedly high-quality coursework, no real idea how to write and structure an essay. In other ways I definitely had a lot to learn of the basic skills required to be a successful student. That meant a lot of catching up in my first year. However, it doesn't seem likely to prove important in the long-term.

What I really miss is the broader education that those from a really good private school have enjoyed. I am absolutely certain I spent too much time being taught to the test. Not because my teachers were lazy or inept. I think they were generally very good and a few I have very fond memories of. Some of them had little else to offer but I think most taught to the test because the system created an imperative for them to prioritise the narrow understanding required to reach an adequate standard for exams instead of taking the longer, but ultimately far more rewarding, route that treats exams as important but not the central "point" of a really good education.

As a result I just haven't had the same broad exposure and introduction to subjects beyond the exam, to the broader current of human knowledge, that many public school students have. I labour at remedying this but I'm starting from quite a distance behind.

Now, it might seem that my support for a broad education which puts non-economic priorities at its heart contradicts my support for school choice, extending a market in education. After all, aren't markets supposed to kill or corrupt our higher instincts, isn't the vulgarity of the market supposed to diminish everything outside of the "cash nexus"?

Clearly not. Private schools, that need to attract fee-paying students to survive, are the ones that offer that broad education. When parents are given the choice right now over how their children are educated they choose the broad education with non-economic benefits that they do value. While some might say that this is only due to the character of the particular group of parents who are choosing right now I think it speaks to something deeper in most parents' aspirations for their children.

4 comments: said...

Here’s an incentive structure for you, matt: someone very close to me teaches at a comprehensive school. Every pupil they teach who is in an exam year has a predicted grade assigned to them. If the pupil is assigned a C and achieves a B, the teacher gets one point. If they achieve a D, the teacher gets minus 1 point. At the end of the year, if the teacher is in minus numbers, they have to explain themselves, get all their lessons reviewed etc. etc. The person close to me has one class who are all predicted A*s, so they are guaranteed to get punished as long as just one pupil “only” achieves an A.

I’m not necessarily saying that that system is outrageous, its just a good, real example of how exam-obsessed teachers are incentivised to be.

If you think that example is too tame, here’s a better one, to do with unusual government targets. There is a very downtrodden, very deprived comprehensive school in the north of England. It doesn’t even have a sixth form: a very large proportion of its pupils will never study beyond the age of 16. The school gets about 35% five A*-Cs. It is not infrequent for pupils to be arrested while they are on the school site for things like assault and theft. Obviously, they have a massive truancy problem. It’s pretty hard to address, seeing as most of the pupils who truant do so with their parents’ consent (“Why are you ringing me up to tell me my kid’s not in school? I don’t care”). The school is a specialist science school and gets extra funding for this. If a school fails badly, it goes into “special measures” and loses its funding. This school is about to go into special measures because of its truancy, will lose its extra funding and won’t be able to build a new science block as a result.

Perhaps the school should be closed down entirely, but that’s not the point. The point is that linking funding to not going into special measures was intended as an incentive for the school and its teachers to try really hard to get the best results from their pupils, but by having odd, unintended things happen like going into special measures through truancy, the school suffers and ultimately the pupils do too. The teacher I know told me it was absolutely heartbreaking teaching the few kids who did want to learn only to have every lesson ruined by the majority who disrupted lessons, started fights, smoked and drank in school etc.

I seemed to have rambled on a lot. I was just trying to give a couple of real-world examples of things that are happening in schools today that aren’t ideal.

Anonymous said...

great post very true

Devil's Kitchen said...


Very true. But I shouldn't worry too much about the broader education. Look at it this way: you have much to learn; I have merely forgotten it all...


Gracchi said...

I'm with DK on that! Seriously old fellow you seem to have the advantage of me on quite a few subjects- economics in particular.