Thursday, July 29, 2010

Layer 336 . . . The Politics of Education, Graduates, Sweat, Debt, and Disillusionment

Oh well, it's back to keeping up with politics, beginning with the politics of education.

Peter Preston, loud-mouthed supporter of SATs and league tables, and scourge of trendy lefty teachers, as he imagines them, is suddenly concerned about children and students actually enjoying life. Why? Well wouldn't you know it - he's been awarded an honorary degree (why?) and he wants us to know about it. Being at a graduation ceremony has caused him to focus on real students and their experiences of the education system.

University: learning to enjoy life

Witnessing the hope of a graduation day, I remember that education is about more than sweat and debt

He remembers!!! At last!!

Actually this piece is only concerned with university students, and I suppose it's too much to expect him to think laterally to what also goes on in schools, and whether pupils enjoy their lives within them. To do that he'd need to actually go into a school, having been awarded an honorary GCSE or maybe an honorary Level 4 in English.

So what does he have to say about learning and enjoying life?

University isn't a mere staging post to a well-paid job . . . Nor is it just an investment in Britain's future, so we can compete with Beijing by 2020. It isn't wholly a practical slog, either, a skill box of computer or engineering skills. University is an experience, often a life-changing one. You leave school a spotty child, and three years later, you're sort of grown up. You have friends you'll probably never lose. You've looked after yourself. You've sweated through exams. If you're lucky, you've learned how to think – the best boon of the lot.

Yes Pete, old duck, IF YOU'RE LUCKY. Because even at undergraduate level there's still no priority given to learning how to think. What we have is still a grim determination to force young people to swallow a curriculum, memorise its content, and regurgitate it in exams.

In fact, this happens even at postgraduate level! A friend's very bright son decided to bale out of his Masters course as soon as he realised that there was still no scope for self-directed learning and research, and it was still a bloody boring exam treadmill.

Pete goes on:

When did we begin to forget such things?

When did YOU forget, you old bastard? Some of us have been saying this stuff forever. Beginning with primary schooling.

He goes on to blame education ministers for making "degree courses seem like tests for national survival."

This is the man who talks about Primary tests and league tables as though they're essentials to national survival!

And there's more. He concludes:

Is school, and then college or university, there as an obstacle race, a slog of tests and hurdles? Is it just a rehearsal for 50 years of frustration, sweat, debt, disillusion and staffroom tears?

The danger is making education seem unutterably grim. The hope – see that beaming [graduation] queue of something achieved – is that happiness has a part to play. For learning in this crunched, short life means learning to enjoy yourself, too.

Thanks to people like Peter Preston, Melanie Philips, Chris Woodhead and their politician friends, schools and universities HAVE become unutterably grim results factories where pupil and student wellbeing, as well as their social, emotional and spiritual intelligences, have been increasingly neglected and marginalised - in the rush to "drive up standards".

Learning to enjoy yourself? How can you enjoy yourself when you're racking up debt doing stuff day in and day out that's basically cramming for exams, with little or no opportunities for self-directed creative experience?

What a fucking idiot.


There's more evidence of the university system being useless and actually harmful to young people's life chances reported in the education section of the Guardian this week.

Should universities teach students how to find a job?

Sarfraz Manzoor has been following the fortunes of six young people who graduated last year. How well do they feel that university prepared them for today's economic realities?

The class of 2009 left university knowing they were facing the toughest battle for jobs in a generation.

That was, at least, the dire prediction, but what was the reality? I have spent the last year documenting the post-graduation lives of six students who are among the class of 2009. The six studied at the University of Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan University, and agreed to keep audio diaries throughout their year in which they recorded their hopes for the coming year as well as their reaction to the reality.

By the end of the year, the six students were scattered around the world and were far more cynical about the value of a university education than they had been on graduating.

For a start off it's interesting that none of the six was interested in using knowledge gained from their degrees - they all wanted to pursue careers in areas like sales, journalism and the media - careers that had nothing to do with the subjects they'd been studying. Given the likelihood that they'd originally chosen those subjects for their interest and enjoyment, what does that say about the universities making them somehow utterly tedious and uninspiring?

Page and Ali both left the country to seek work in Cyprus and Saudi Arabia, while Del Core found the soul-crushing business of being rejected hard to take. "I've looked for jobs in newspapers, at the job centre, on the internet, and by word of mouth," she says. "I've had several interviews, some of which I got to the second stage, but I never got past that. It has been quite disheartening – some positions I applied for were more the dream job than a means to an end, and I was very upset when I didn't get those. I was in tears."

Having spent time with the graduates, I was struck by how much they seemed to have believed, at least at the start, that they were entitled to a well-paid and fulfilling job simply because they had been to university. "When you look at the people who are going to university," explains Professor Kate Purcell, of Warwick University's Institute for Employment Research, "they have been encouraged to think that education has given them employability skills, so as well as learning about history or English or business studies they are also learning problem solving, developing communication skills, so they are pretty confident about themselves."

This confidence is not necessarily well founded.

A lot of people go to university for the sake of it because they think it is the right thing to do. So that makes lots of graduates. Universities are still selling the idea to people that if they go to university they are guaranteed a great job at the end of it, and that is just not the case any more.

The increasing number of graduates entering the job market has meant that employers are often insisting that prospective employees pass psychometric tests as a way of selecting candidates, and it has also led to claims that too many young people are being herded into university.

"When I think about a university course, I think of something that teaches people a skill so that they are qualified to do a certain job," says Gerrard. "But, in reality, after my degree I don't feel qualified for anything – degrees don't indicate someone's common sense or people skills, and I don't think you can get through many interviews without a little of both."

Just a little? It's pathetic really - these young graduates aren't even properly aware of what they're lacking. Common sense? What's that? People skills? Such as?

What's more, it's not their fault. They've been told since Primary school that high attainment is all that matters - and too late they find it isn't. What's more, they don't really know what does matter. And they're not the only ones. Politicians and university bosses don't know either. Their assumption is always that a first class honours or a 2.1 degree will get you anywhere in life. Beyond that, they haven't a clue. Well - that's what got them a meal ticket to their high status, was it not?

And it's no wonder that employers put more trust in 'psychometric tests' than university attainment in subjects whose facts and figures they won't be using anyway. The poor bloody students think that having a degree tells people they're "bright". Actually it doesn't. It's just as likely to say they're a dull swat, a boring little library-goer, a self-regarding 'academically able' nonentity with little experience of life, proper work, or real people. Possibly a dull conformist who's unable to think for themselves, unable to think creatively and imaginatively, unable to work well in a team, or communicate effectively, or write well, or show any empathy, intuition or instinctual intelligence. Common sense indeed.

The New Learning Revolution is about developing all of these intelligences and skills. How come the people who run education in this country don't realise that yet? How many more generations of our young people will go through our education system deprived of the sorts of learning that are taken for granted in countries much smarter than ours?

What's more, they're deprived of their human right to enjoy learning for its own sake, and to be free of undue pressure and stress within the education system.

This country used to be known for its creative and innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Not only have other countries overtaken us, we've actually been going backwards for the past 20 odd years.

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