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Mark Ellse: An academic education serves many pupils badly

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Do not be deceived. There is no doubt. Today’s comprehensive schools are, in fact, grammar schools. Every child in a comprehensive school is required to follow a grammar school curriculum. In the old days it was only the grammar schools that taught O levels. Other children had vocational training, learned home economics, child care, woodwork and metal work. And a greater proportion of their time was spent working on the core English and mathematical skills that they needed. But nowadays, under the stringency of the National Curriculum and the English Baccalaureate, all children are required to follow a grammar school curriculum. Dumbed down they may be, but GCSEs are the replacement for the old grammar school O levels. Schools, and teachers, are judged on how well they get their children through these grammar school exams.

Of course, it’s impossible for teachers to get everyone through GCSEs. In essence, these are exams targeted at the top of the ability range. If you are a good teacher you can raise the results a few per cent. But not much more. Only if you have bright children can you get them high grades. If you collect the bright children together and put them in schools-for-bright-children and call these schools ‘grammar schools’ or ‘independent schools’, you can think you are doing a tremendously good job. But really all you are doing is teaching the ones that are easy to teach.

The Educational Fallacy, believed by secretaries of state and the vast majority of those who comment on education, is that somehow, if teachers only got their teaching right, all children – sow’s ears or not – can be transformed into silk purses.

A Conservative councillor approached me some years ago about the GCSE results in his town. He was concerned that the comprehensive schools weren’t getting half their pupils through the benchmark five A-C grades. Surely, he thought, this must be because of bad teaching. Gently, perhaps not gently enough, I tried to explain that the pupils in comprehensive schools didn’t have quite the same ability as those in the school he studied in.

When black pupils perform badly in schools, the cause is ‘institutional racism‘ and we must tackle the failure of teachers, rather than look for something in the group that is performing badly. It is difficult to suppress a chuckle when one realises that the underperformance of white children can also be attributed to schools spectacularly failing working class boys rather than any characteristic of the boys themselves.

The Educational Fallacy, that all can be taught, ignores the intrinsic difference in ability that exists between different children. What it breeds is the idea that any failure is the fault of the teacher. And children in schools know this only too well. A young teacher remarked to me the other day about the low aspirations of a bright set of fifteen-year-olds he is teaching. ‘The reason they don’t work hard is because they know that, if they fail, it won’t be seen as their fault: it will be the teacher’s fault.’

There are two big and obvious failures in our current education system, both stemming from the egalitarian view that in some way all children can be educational successes. The first failure is that all children should be subject to an academic education; this deprives weaker pupils of an education that could equip them so much better for life.

But the big educational failure at the moment is to attribute so much responsibility for educational outcome to teachers. Our society expects far too much of teachers and not nearly enough from children. As a result, our schools turn out spoilt brats. It is difficult to see how one could worse prepare the next generation for the world of work.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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