Standardised failure

Almost no one now pretends that Labour has achieved its ambitions for education. Government ministers continue to trot out their stale statistics about how much they have spent and how much the average grades have improved, but very few are fooled into thinking that this statistical trickery equates to a real improvement in educational standards. We are all aware that the huge increase in funding (52%) has largely been wasted, with grade improvements being achieved largely by submitting children into easier subjects, and coaching them to pass their tests rather than giving them a broad education. Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth have administered the last rites to any remaining delusions of political adequacy amongst education ministers, in an excellent article in this week's Spectator.

Their claimed success does not prevent ministers from searching for solutions to their failure. There is no shortage of voices offering to help. Today's Times gives prominence to two suggestions:

  1. Mick Waters, Director of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), wants a complete overhaul of how schools structure their lessons, with some being combined (e.g. science and PE, languages and music, or history and geography), some being narrowed to short, repetitive sessions (say ten minutes of a language three times a day, five days a week), and some being broadened into a fully immersive week of tuition (e.g. a week of ICT).
  2. Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust ("the country's largest independent funder of biomedical research"), advises that teaching techniques need to be tested by controlled experiment before being rolled out.

Though both are well-motivated suggestions, they conceal the assumption that is at the real heart of our problems - the idea that someone in a central position of authority has a solution that fits all. This was undoubtedly not the intention of Mr Waters, but the fact that the Director of the CQA saw fit to pronounce on scheduling in its generality revealed the subconscious reluctance to allow headteachers to determine the curriculum and schedule for their school. The implication of central control was less concealed in Mr Walport's suggestion - controlled experiments to establish best techniques imply standardisation once the results are known.

Yet even the limited degree of flexibility implied by Mr Waters' suggestion was too much for Alan Johnson, the current Education Secretary. He has a list of "untouchable" subjects including (for history) the world wars, the Holocaust and the slave trade, (for maths) algebra, geometry and equations, and (for English) Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Hardy, Defoe and Eliot. Whilst a list of foundation topics in maths and the natural sciences is only sensible, Mr Johnson must have a rare form of telepathy to know instinctively to which topics and authors in the humanities children will respond en masse. The inclusion of Hardy in a list of essential reading for all 11 to 14-year olds suggests, however, that his sixth sense may be on the blink. Regardless of the undoubted merits of their works, there will be many children who simply do not have the patience, experience and empathy to appreciate Hardy, Austen or Eliot. Is it better to put children off reading by forcing high culture down their throats, or to encourage them to read what they enjoy, in the hope and expectation that an appetite for reading, once developed, will grow to appreciate the greats?

Some children will doubtless benefit from Mr Johnson's selections. Others will not, will become bored if given no alternative, and will be lost to education. His prescription will perpetuate the division of the education system into winners and losers. The solution to improving educational standards is not finding that one mythical key that unlocks the potential of every child, but recognising that every child has its own unique lock which it is the job of teachers to pick. That means allowing teachers flexibility to teach in the way they judge best to communicate with the specific children in their classes, taking account of their (teacher's and pupils') enthusiasms, backgrounds and abilities.

Like all the great central ideas before them that were going to save education, these prescriptions are in any case fundamentally flawed.

It is all very well talking airily of ten-minute lessons in Mandarin and combined science and PE, but a headteacher has to manage a timetable to make best use of resources. Regular periods and rough rotation of subjects allow teachers and children to plan their days, to minimise time lost between lessons, and maximise the amount of teaching that can be fitted into the day. If the Mandarin teacher is teaching ten-minute slots, how are other lessons to be organised around those slots, and what will the Mandarin teacher do with the rest of the period after their brief contribution? Will PE teachers really prove expert at anatomy, or science teachers necessarily know how understanding of the physical parts of the body can be converted into better physical performance on the pitch? Will we have to train them up in the confluence between subjects, and if so, will relevant confluences be defined or will they have to be trained in all the possible combinations? Would it not be better to leave it to a headteacher to recognise the PE teacher with science skills or the science teacher with an appreciation of sports, and to deploy them accordingly without assuming that all PE or science teachers will have those skills?

Mr Walport, being a scientist, repeats the positivist error common amongst natural scientists venturing outside their natural realm into the human sciences. He assumes that, because there is a regularity in the behaviour of the objects that he studies, so there will be a regularity in the behaviour of children. He clearly does not have much experience of people and particularly children to fall for that delusion. Our experiments in the natural sciences will indicate rules that will accurately predict the behaviour of passive objects in specific circumstances. Our experiments in the human sciences will do no more than suggest trends in responses to circumstances - trends that a significant minority will often not follow. It is a strange response to the failure of the minority by education policy to want to ensure that policy is set more rigidly according to how it suits the majority.

The real response should be to recognise the rich variety in human personality and behaviour and allow those at the sharp end (teachers) to tailor their approach to the specific needs of the individuals. Given flexibility to adapt lessons to suit the class, each classroom becomes a laboratory in which the optimal solution to the conditions is discovered by experiment, experience and empathy. Successful experiments can be shared with colleagues and applied to the extent that they are applicable to the different circumstances in other classrooms. More widely applicable solutions will demonstrate their efficacy through the superior educational performance of the school where they are implemented. Where schools are independent and competitive, this should result in rapid dissemination of the technique to the extent that it has wider applicability.

The errors of positivism and scientism (not to mention collectivism, authoritarianism, determinism, historicism, materialism, monism etc.) were explained far more clearly than I have expressed them above by Ludwig von Mises in his book Theory and History (the following long quote is the whole of section 3, Regularity and Prediction, from the Introduction to that book):

"Epistemologically the distinctive mark of what we call nature is to be seen in the ascertainable and inevitable regularity in the concatenation and sequence of phenomena. On the other hand the distinctive mark of what we call the human sphere of history or, better, the realm of human action is the absence of such a universally prevailing regularity. Under identical conditions stones always react to the same stimuli in the same way; we can learn something about these regular pattenrs of reacting, and we can make use of this knowledge in directing our actions towards definite goals. Our classification of natural objects and our assigning names to these classes is an outcome of this cognition. A stone is a thing that reacts in a definite way. Men react to the same stimuli in different ways, and the same man at different instants of time may react in ways different from his previous or later conduct. It is impossible to group men into classes whose members always react in the same way.

This is not to say that future human actions are totally unpredictable. They can, in a certain way, be anticipated to some extent. But the methods applied in such anticipations, and their scope, are logically and epistemologically entirely different from those applied in anticipating natural events, and from their scope."

Treating people as individuals frees them, while treating them as a lumpen mass enslaves them. By centralising and homogenising teaching methods, we destroy the hopes and prospects of those who do not fit the standard mould. And yet mankind can only prosper and advance through the encouragement of those who are out of the ordinary. Standardisation reduces us all to the lowest common denominator. It is not only the exceptional individuals, but society as a whole, that loses from the well-intentioned prescriptions of those who think they know what is best for us all.