It takes someone very clever to be that stupid
There is a certain sort of well-educated, liberalish, middle-class commentator (in this case Mill Hill and Oxford) who seems intent on denigrating the worth of their own education, in order to argue such a good education should be deprived from others. Simon Jenkins is the latest such voice to take issue with those who are trying to bring higher academic expectations to our state schools.
These commentators are terribly complacent regarding their own good education. They cannot even come close to imagining what it would be like to be amongst the almost one in five pupils who leave British schools aged 16 functionally innumerate.
Jenkins argues that despite studying maths to a high level, it turned out to be ‘pointless’ having left school.
I learned maths. I found it tough and enjoyable. Algebra, trigonometry, differential calculus, logarithms and primes held no mystery, but they were even more pointless than Latin and Greek. Only a handful of my contemporaries went on to use maths afterwards. Our teacher told us it was for “mind training”, the last cry of the desperate pedagogue.
This is a common argument from those who attack knowledge based curriculums, but it is desperately weak. Firstly, just because you didn’t happen to use a subject after school, at least you once had the option to do so. Jenkins was fortunate as a youngster to have the choice of either dropping maths, or studying it at a higher level. To anticipate in advance what will be ‘of use’ to a child and limit their education choices accordingly would be terrible. One has to learn a widely and indiscriminately at a young age, to stand a chance of finding one’s true talents and interests later in life. Jenkins’ argument is akin to finding a husband or a wife, and angrily denouncing all of that time you wasted with other spouses.
More importantly, those who put forward the ‘what use was that?’ argument against academic subjects repeatedly underestimate the fruits of their education. Therefore, it is highly ironic that Jenkins tries to argue the irrelevance of mathematics by attacking the statistical significance of the PISA research. Interpreting the data produced by PISA is precisely the sort of exercise that requires a high degree of mathematical literacy, and well educated journalists simply take for granted. It is an exercise barred from the great majority of our low attaining school leavers.
That being said, Jenkins’s attack on the validity of PISA does not stand up to scrutiny. He calls the PISA tables ‘rubbishy’ and writes,
These global surveys are notoriously unreliable. Barely 15% separates the top 25 Pisa states, meaning that sampling discrepancies can move countries wildly up and down.
The percentage difference in mathematics point score between Shanghai (1st) and France (25th) is not ‘barely 15%’, but 19%. Unsurprisingly, the inference Jenkins draws from his dodgy statistic is also invalid. PISA has been testing OECD nations since 2000, and the ranking of individual nations does not move ‘wildly up and down’. It stays pretty stable. PISA admit that due to sampling size nations should be seen in chunks of seven or eight, but the gulf between 1st (Shanghai) and 26th (Britain) cannot be dismissed with ‘sampling discrepancies’.
Jenkins is not only guilty of bad maths. He is guilty of bad history. He accuses Gove et al of having a vision of education resembling both Gradgrind (the central character of Dickens’s Hard Times) and Tom Browns Schooldays. Firstly, how painfully unoriginal. Secondly, within nineteenth-century education, Gradgrind’s ‘model school’ and Dr Arnold’s Rugby (where Tom Brown is set) represent two competing ideals. The fictional industrialist Gradgrind founds a utilitarian model school, in the northern location of ‘Coketown’, to teach all that is ‘eminently practical’. In contrast, Dr Arnold was head of an Anglican public school with a Classical curriculum, who was so opposed to ‘practical’ education he did not allow the teaching of science. Jenkins is resorting to lazy allusions to promote the tired old cliché that Gove favours a desks in rows, rote-learning, cane-wilding ‘Victorian’ education (boo! hiss!).
Perhaps the greatest crime against history that Jenkins commits is to suggest that our teaching methods and curriculums remain ‘Victorian’ today. He writes,
Nobody has a clue what ought to be taught in schools. Britain’s curriculum, like its teaching methods and school year, is stuck in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Confused education ministers default to “What was good enough for me is good enough for them”. We should all go back to rote.
Has he been to a state school in the last fifty years? As the recent furore over Ofsted reports is finally bearing out, progressive education is firmly established as the in-house ideology of the education establishment. Within maths alone, the dominance of ‘new maths’ means that ‘discovery learning’ and ‘relational understanding’ are the stock in trade of today’s teacher, whilst teachers who stress memorisation, algorithms and repeated practice are thin on the ground. Jenkins refers positively to Stiener Waldorf schools, and promotes ‘progressive education’ as some noble route not taken. This is an argument Jenkins likes to make, as he did here in 2012, but it is simply the disease masquerading as the cure.
I tend to like Jenkins’s output, but this piece was shoddy. He has thrown together a rag-bag of existing prejudices (a love of the arts, a dislike of central control, a sympathy for progressive education) and concocted an argument completely detached from the reality of state education. I recommend Jenkins reflect less upon his own school experience, and more on the tens of thousands of innumerate pupils churned out by British schools every year. Perhaps this would allow him to appreciate that Britain in 2014 needs a little more China, and a lot less Stiener.