Friday, 28 March 2008

Education, Education, Education!

"Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you education, education, education"
Tony Blair (1997)

When Labour came to power over a decade ago, there was great promises to reform the public sector services, to reduce hospital waiting times, to improve transport and to use massive amounts of money to improve the education system. As the saying goes, there are some things that money can't buy and bringing quick fixes to the public sector was one of them. Throwing money at problems doesn't necessarily fix them. If the system that you throwing money at is fundamentally flawed, or wrong then it doesn't matter how much money you spend on it. This is where Labour were short sighted. The public services, were and still are outdated models. The one I wish to discuss is education.

Education is an important aspect to any society. It allows knowledge and ideas to be be spread between people. These ideas and knowledge are in turn are a vital cog that drives the economy. Unless you have an abundant amount of natural resources to trade with such as oil (OPEC nations) then you have to come up with tangible ideas or products in order to trade and generate wealth. All great empires of wealth have been built through knowledge. The British empire was built by the superior ability of Britain's engineering and financial capabilities compared with other fellow European nations. The Industrial revolution was founded on technology and the mass production of products that could be traded throughout the globe. This is also how America has now become the dominant power - it has become a center for scientific and productive innovation that has attracted the best talent from around the globe. Look at the latest technology to drive modern wealth - computers. Virtually all ideas surrounding computers in recent times have come from America.

So why with all of histories examples, has the British eduction particularly in science and maths focused subjects been failing along with the collapse of manufacturing. Why have there been science departments closing in Universities. In fact the whole state of affairs has got so bad that the government is now making these science based subjects easier. Like a vicious cycle, the less people do these subjects, the easier the authorities have to make them in order to encourage people to take them, the more they are actually harming the education system. Twenty or thirty years ago, people took these subjects as they were generally a way to get employment. It's a similar fact in foreign nations now, and I once asked a foreign student why they take mathematical and engineering disciplines as opposed to say arts based or humanities. "Simple" he said, "You only get jobs back home with practical degrees". If anyone who has studied at University realises, the lectures of medical, engineering and Computer based subjects are full of foreign students, compared with say a theatre hall of History or Psychology.

The Service Sector has been expanding rapidly over the past couple of decades and too much in my view. Many service type jobs, as the name suggests only supply a service for example personal shopper, recruitment consultant, fitness instructor there are many others. If you look at the above roles, non actually produce anything to trade and rely on societies wealth. The recruitment consultant relies on companies recruiting and paying for the service. The fitness instructor relies on someone wishing to pay for them to show them how to exercise. These jobs rely on the wealth generated from the disciplines listed above and these are typical jobs that have appeared more and more in recent times. The reason why my friend above did not wish to do a more abstract course is that his economy is still developing its wealth through science and manufacturing. If our country does not recognise this and under invests in these areas then these countries will overtake us and they will realise they don't need our products or ideas anymore, and a reverse in the trade system occurs - we become the subservient ones.

All the time the government sets quotas on the percentages of young people they wish to get through higher education, 40%, 50%, but do we really need to follow these 'targets' that almost seem to pulled out of thin air. I know many graduates end up in jobs that do not require a degree. The government always chases targets in the amount of students that pass GCSE's. We are told how every year that the pass rate is getting higher. Of course it is. It's getting easier and students are literally being taught to pass exams. Education isn't about passing exams - its about developing your mind and your creative thinking ability.

People are just as intelligent now as they were hundreds of years ago. We just have more knowledge now then we did back in the past that we can draw from. So what marks intelligence? What say differentiates an Einstein or Newton from a normal person? Its the creative questions that these individuals ask. When Newton thought about gravity, so the story goes, it was when an apple fell on his head and he asked the question "What force pulls that object to the ground?" and from that question he begun to explore gravity. Similar what differentiated Einstein from his colleagues was the questions he asked. He was traveling on a tram in Bern and saw the towns clock face. He asked "What if I was a beam of light, would time be the same?" and from it he wrote he famous paper on special relativity. All great minds have challenged convention by asking creative questions. Oddly enough people seem to think that if you have a good memory, that is deemed as intelligence, exactly the same as the education system works. If you memorise the curriculum, churn it out for an exam, then you pass this is deemed as 'education'. This is why teachers, quite rightly get annoyed with targets, and placing emphasis on pass rates. It's not exactly the way to develop minds for the future economy. This is why young people shun the sciences and maths - you can memorise all you want, but the exams test understanding and an ability to think creatively - but also with precision which is a difficult skill to master.

Its not just the curriculum. It has gone to such an extreme that the system is not even giving students from poorer backgrounds the chance to engage in social mobility. A friend of mine who worked as a supply teacher for around eight months saw first hand how the system was churning out the 'results' and 'targets', at the expense of children's futures. He spoke to numerous pupils during his time at some of the schools he taught at who were studying for their GCSE's. These schools were typically in deprived areas. He asked them what exams they had. Some, for instance, said they were only taking Art. He asked them why and found out the school relied on getting certain pass rates in key subjects to bolster a better position in the 'league tables' and these students were deemed to not have the ability to obtain the grades the school required, thus were not even given a chance to obtain a full education.

So not only do we have a curriculum that is based on targets rather than developing minds, we have a system that is neglecting the very people who require education the most.

Through the last few hundred years, most scientific advancement has come from Europe and lately America. However more and more the Asian block are catching up at a quickening pace. India's cultural belief in education and a hard work ethic has given them a large pool of highly educated people in engineering and medical disciplines. China too are creating huge numbers of educated people. In fact both countries have placed an emphasis on innovation and R&D - creating ideas that the west once had a monopoly on.

Things have moved quickly in the past couple of decades and education will become ever more important in order to sustain our living standards. Einstein once said,

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

If we are to carry out what Labour stated when they came to power, our education system needs to embrace this statement and scrap targets and manipulated government statistics. The only way to maintain our standards of living is to all roll up our sleeve's and find new ways to create and innovate. As Milton Friedman said "There is no such thing as a free lunch".

No comments:

Post a Comment