Think For Yourself

Old School

There will be no poetry in England’s schools. Children returning from the COVID lockdown will be taught a stripped-down core. There’s no poetry in it. That’s the latest news in the UK.

People are saying they think it is terrible that poetry will be dropped from the COVID curriculum, but they don’t. They think it is an acceptable sacrifice and the lesser of two evils, and it isn’t: there is no need to drop it.

Schools think they must concentrate on the core because they are terrified to get bad results. This has been the case increasingly since league tables for schools were introduced under conservative education secretaries Kenneth Baker and Kenneth Clarke.

In fact, poetry is shorter than prose and easier to teach in a short stint online. Poetry can evoke imagination in a way young people like. Poetry often concerns values and principles. Young people care about them.

Teachers are petrified to miss their quotas and targets. That has been the mentality increasingly since the job was professionalised under New Labour education secretaries Charles Clarke and David Blunkett.

In other words, the profession was made into a job (while the opposite was claimed, to disguise that reality): targets, not formation; quotas, not character; guaranteed outputs, not individual thought. A business model which belongs to other sectors has automated schools long before COVID did.

Meanwhile in Scotland, Scottish students have had their exam results. Their marks are all down on teachers’ predictions. It seems that down-grading for schools in poorer areas has been more severe even than for the richer places.

It is hard to know whether teachers in some schools cannot assess or make good predictions, whether COVID disrupted coursework on which predictions could be made, or whether even good teachers fail to second-guess the famously unpredictable exam boards.

Certainly in England the exam boards were made commercial and suffered the same staffing changes that schools began to face. The business model that was imported to schools relied on rapid turnover of lower-paid staff. It applied intense performance pressure which can only work for any individual over the shortest term. Teachers and examiners were in a revolving door but everyone gets tired eventually. Appeals against boards became frequent. Scandalous examples of bad questions have become notorious in recent years.

A rapid staff turnover is incompatible with the notion that a teacher will be a presence in children’s lives over the time they grow up. If an English or Scottish child spends five, six or seven years in school, but most teachers flee after just two or three, that inevitably follows. The old thought that teachers were in loco parentis lingered even after legislation changed it, in 1989. It is altogether gone today.

There will be no poetry in England’s schools for the same reason that they have squeezed away religious studies, philosophy, critical thinking, politics and citizenship — matters of direct relevance to how students will lead their lives (and ours). The reason is that it does not belong to the core. The core is producer-led. As the students grow up they become adult consumers of education for their own children and they disregard these subjects too, because they have been taught to do so.

What has survived is ‘wellbeing’, ‘happiness’, ‘mindfulness’ and other forms of conversation with children that involve no examination. The posts that thrive in schools are pastoral and management roles: jobs which are attractive to young professionals because they pay people to take notes on their colleagues and the children’s complaints rather than to face the music themselves. (Music! That’s been dying too. And art.)

This had been going on for thirty years by the time the virus struck. That was how I was able to predict that the curriculum would be slashed as early as April: in Teachwire, here.

Schools in the UK are in a crisis of integrity so profound that nobody wants to know. Happily for them, a crisis of integrity poses philosophical questions and those are now off the curriculum. Technical knowledge has become higher knowledge. Like the Romans, we will say we admire the Greeks. Like the Romans, secretly we despise them. Like the Romans, we will be bent on conquest, dominion, acquisition and self-glory. There will be no room in the newly Roman world for what Pliny once called ‘the effete luxury’ of an education.

Is there hope? Yes. Il faut cultiver notre jardin. Man’s difficulty consists in being unable to sit at peace in his room. Let your books be your garden and their pages the myrrh. These sentences from Voltaire, Pascal and the Sufis can be easily found by ignoring the education system and doing the job yourself.

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Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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