National Grammar Schools Association
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This article was published in the Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday 14 May 2008

Article by the Chairman, May 2008

Why Ruane would drive Einstein mad

A new transfer system is due to be unveiled tomorrow, but Robert McCartney QC argues against what he calls useless reforms

Educational reformers in Northern Ireland claim that our children will be given a new education relevant to the 21st century, while many parents ask: " Why are they about to destroy a post primary system that is providing some of the best results in the United Kingdom?" Moreover, the proposed new education offers almost nothing novel, but contains much that has been tried, tested, and proved disastrous in both the United States and mainland Britain.

The American experience of similar progressive reforms was one of a failed system in which a large percentage of first year university students required remedial courses in basic reading, writing and maths – a situation that is currently repeating itself in Britain. The erosion of adult authority and teacher control is often down to government interference directed towards achieving political objectives. In one House of Lords case involving Birmingham City Council, Lord Keith remarked: "The history of proposals for secondary school education reorganisation in Birmingham has been a history of changing policies according to the philosophy of the political parties."

Lord Keith might have added "and the parties experience little difficulty in finding alleged educational gurus to support them".

The current reform proposals in Northern Ireland represent Sinn Fein's determination to further its political and social objectives through the schools regardless of the cost and the damage it will inflict. In this it has received support from so-called progressive educationalists schooled in the failed ideas of the Labour Party and Marxist ideology of 'equality of results' in contrast to the existing 'equality of opportunity'.

One of the most evident consequences is that the group of children they prejudice the most are those from socially and economically disadvantaged families.

Two results of similar proposals in America and Britain have been the 'Big School' idea and 'Bloated Curriculum.' Both have largely failed. Big Schools were claimed to offer greater choice of elective subjects needed to cover an all ability intake and providing multiple tracks to children with very different occupational goals.

The down side of 'Bigness' gradually became evident. Students became anonymous; contact between teacher and pupil decreased while bureaucracy increased. Problems of teaching, cohesion, discipline, transport, and control became manifest while the preparation of an all-embracing timetable was a nightmare. This was especially so when the 'Big School' was on a split site or was a combination of different schools under some collegiate principle.

The features now seen in big comprehensives of Britain had been observed in America's state schools particularly in inner cities.

An adolescent society freed from the discipline of academic requirements demonstrated its preference for superficial values like physical appearance, fashion, sporting prowess and a taste for soft subjects like media studies.

Bloated subject-free generalised curriculums containing a wide choice of topics of doubtful value catered for the lowest common denominator. Enlarged curriculums required bigger schools feeding in turn a lowering in many cases of academic expectations.

In England, the failure of large comprehensives can no longer be hidden by dumbing down examinations and inflating results.

One failing comprehensive was said to have a 75% success level of pupils achieving five A to C GCSEs, but when English and maths were included, it fell below 20%.

Gordon Brown has identified 638 failing comprehensives (almost one fifth of the total) in which less than 30% achieve five GCSEs graded A to C.

These 'bog standard' schools, largely in disadvantaged areas, have become dysfunctional, as adult authority of both parent and teacher has been dissipated. For many children, if they are not taught and given standards in school, they are not taught at all.

Some large comprehensives do work but only those in areas where parental aspiration, teacher authority, school discipline, and educational standards remain high. Cambridge University has now dropped the requirement for a modern language as part of its admission criteria.

Government pressure to admit more students from state schools could not be met while the requirement remained. One reason was that many state schools no longer taught languages to the required level, if at all, as more and more students were content to get A grades from softer subjects.

A newspaper recently reported that the National Association of Head Teachers asserted that the National Curriculum with a structure of 14 compulsory subjects should be replaced by a 'minimum framework' that would be 'skills and competence based rather than prescriptive and knowledge based'. The attack would spell the end of separate classes in history, geography, literature, languages, art and music.

Instead, schools would be allowed to teach big themes such as global warming and healthy living. No longer, of course, would those head teachers or their government sponsors be concerned with the unpleasant business of examinations, tests and marks.

The totally depressing aspect of the above is that all of this new education swept America in the 1930s with pretty disastrous results. Then, reformers argued that high schools should offer a 'new education' that prepared neither for university nor for a vocation, but for personal and social growth. Intellectual development was decried as 'narrow', 'sterile', 'impotent and impassive'.

Throughout much of America in the 1930s and Forties the philosophy was of a curriculum based on core fields of instruction adjusted to the needs and interests of the individual rather than a definite number of subjects.

Core studies merged English and social studies to deal with the perceived real problems of boys and girls such as, 'How can we develop a good personality and how can I spend my leisure time more wisely?' The problems of youth and the ills of American society were to be cured by ensuring that as few children as possible studied foreign languages, history, advanced maths, or any science unrelated to the practical necessities of daily living. The result was the meltdown of real education from which it took America decades to recover.

Anyone who takes the time to read Costello's Advice on Curriculum, paras. 4.8 et seq will immediately recognise that it is replete not with new ideas, but with those that failed children in America 50 years ago, and whose baleful influence can be seen in many problems that beset education in mainland Britain today.

Many of the intractable problems that beset Northern Ireland today can be traced to Costello and the advice of the progressive educationalists he relied upon.

What has the resurrection of failed policies got to do with educational progress? The fact that much of this flawed thinking is now embodied in a Westminster Order in Council (The Education (NI) Order 2006) has placed the parties in an educational straitjacket that makes a rational solution well nigh impossible.

Why are the proposed reforms madness? Because, to paraphrase a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein, "Madness is doing the same thing repeatedly, while expecting a different result."