Sunday, August 12, 2012

On games and green ink

What is needed in state schools is more sport: that is the conclusion that the Tories have drawn from the Olympics, with Dave and Boris disagreeing only about the means by which this end might be achieved.

Supporters of state-education have responded by pointing to the fact that all of the medal-winners in athletics went to state-schools, as well as remarking on the dropping of compulsory PE from the curriculum in England, cuts in funding and the sale of school pitches and so on.

Reasonable enough points, although they struck me as being a little defensive. One well-known Nationalist commentator piloted a 'Scotland is more egalitarian' line for the Commonwealth in 2014 by tweeting a comment related to this article, which shows that 70% of Scottish medal-winners went to state schools.

But 30% of them didn't, yet less than 5% of Scots go to private schools.  Instead of pretending that there is no disparity, shouldn't people be asking why the Tories are so concerned about this particular example of inequality of outcome when it comes to education?

 Fact is, private schools do indeed produce proportionately more Olympic medal-winners but they aren't anything like as good at this as they are at making barristers, journalists, doctors, CEOs or members of Her Majesty's Government.  That this state of affairs hasn't led a host of politicians and pundits to call for a reworking of schools' timetables prompted an uncharitable thought: could it be because they believe running around a track is a more suitable ambition for the lower orders to harbour, rather than having them entertain ideas about running things?

The other point is that, in as far as there is a relative under-representation of state-educated pupils at events like the Olympics, the explanation offered by the Conservatives has rightly been dismissed out of hand.  If I said Latin, Classics and sport were on the curriculum when I was at school, there are not a few people who would conclude that this formed part of a private education, rather than the comprehensive one I actually experienced.  It would be a reasonable enough assumption, given the sheer volume of competitive sport obituaries the average newspaper reader is likely to come across in any given year.

I think I have probably taught in more schools than the average politician or columnist has even visited.  An astonishing number of people have appeared genuinely surprised when I tell them I have never once been told to correct pupils' work in green rather than red ink.  Fewer would raise an eyebrow if I said none operate a 'prizes for all' regime, nor have any eliminated competitive sports from the curriculum.

These are easily-recognised elements of a right wing narrative about state schools, although it certainly isn't exclusive to the Conservatives.  Speaking at the end of the 2008 Olympics, Gordon Brown spoke about the need to end the 'medals for all' culture he had apparently come across somewhere.  It's a cross-party problem of a political class who have had contemporary state eduction described to them - by people who know very little about it themselves.

This is part of a wider phenomenon - one that has to do with the extent to which our representatives live and move in a sphere which rarely touches even tangentially to the place where the rest of us are.  Hardly a novel observation, I appreciate - it's just I've been struck by the way it seems to have increased so sharply in recent years.

There's a strand in thought about representative democracy that argues this doesn't matter so much.  While we might want politicians to resemble us to an extend, this should be trumped by expertise.  We wouldn't hire a lawyer or an accountant because they were like us, after all.

The problem with this is, even if it ever existed, this doesn't seem to be a trade-off one can make any more with a political class who generally seem to possess neither of the aforementioned characteristics.  If they were even remotely like us, the spectacle of them trying to behave as ordinary people do wouldn't be so excruciating to watch.  And they don't seem to know very much these days either.  They certainly don't know much about us - this being on account of them not being like us.

None of this is a prelude to a solution, only to record the sense that our representative system isn't working so well at the moment.  We seem to have government of the people, for the people - by the really spectacularly otherworldly.  The observation that this is vastly preferable to other forms of government is one I would agree with but it doesn't stop me from wondering how sustainable it actually is?


Richard T said...

I'm not sure whether she started it but Melanie Philips certainly articulated the 'all shall have prizes' fiction in one of her polemics. This does seem the only one of her notions that has not been debunked, perhaps because it is useful to the advocates (in England) of centralising education and introducing the notion of independent schools.

Mike said...

1) In the Seventies, schools held Sports Days to give the non-academic a chance to shine. I was told this explanation at the time. However, there was no "prizes for everyone": you had to win your race to get a prize.
And there was a social divide between the academic and the non-academic, between "good and bad at games" or "jocks & geeks". Academic was prized over non-academic because it led to better jobs. All-rounders were prized above all. No doubt some were no good at either: they didn't get any prizes.
2) The truth is that non-academic matters: to avoid middle-age obesity, to maintain a house if you can't afford to hire someone else to do it. In the Seventies, boys were not taught cooking or basic needlework, like sewing on a button, and they should have been. We missed out.
Whereas success in academic studies was always encouraged, success in non-academic studies was never encouraged: you were either "good at it" or you weren't. Again, we missed out.
3) The primary colours are Red Blue Green. We wrote in blue ink so marking in red or green ink provides maximum contrast. But I never saw green ink and I don't understand its significance, unless it's supposed to be encouraging (red for stop, green for go). Praise written in red ink is just as effective.
4) You hire a professional for their specialist knowledge. So if Government is for the benefit of the people, you should elect politicians who know the travails of ordinary working life.
In truth, Government is of the people, for the benefit of those that can hire lobbyists or influence media operators, by an academic elite.

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