Gordon is pushing every child off the learning curve

Melanie Phillips Sunday Times

Gordon Brown's onslaught upon Oxford for turning down the state school pupil Laura Spence was not merely a farrago of ignorance and prejudice. It camouflaged a far more devastating truth. Ministers are failing to address the fundamental weakness that has undermined our entire education system; even worse, the government and the chancellor himself are encouraging the kind of thinking that lies at the heart of the rot.

Whether pupils have 10 A or A* grades at GCSE and five predicted A grades at A-level is unfortunately no longer relevant. The question is whether these young people can actually think. The dismaying fact is that while more and more pupils are getting full hands of perfect grades, many university tutors are privately aghast that so few of their students know anything, can write a literate paragraph or can think for themselves.

This is because both the GCSE and A-level are being turned into formula exams - hoops through which smart schools can train pupils to jump with ever-increasing precision. They are no longer a reliable guide to whether pupils have the vital quality that Oxbridge in particular seeks: the ability to think laterally and originally. Not just state pupils, but plenty of children from independent schools with top grades are turned down because they fail to display those intellectual characteristics Oxbridge requires but which are tested less and less by public exams.

Why? Because the exam system now perches at the pinnacle of an establishment which has been taken over by ideas that are profoundly anti-teaching and anti-education. Indeed, such ideas were aired at an eye-popping seminar last week. Two think tanks, the Adam Smith Institute and Demos, were propounding a postmodern version of the very ideology that has brought education to its knees. The striking thing was the venue of this seminar - in the chancellor's drawing room at No 11 Downing Street - just as the absent Mr Brown was preparing his blast against elitist Oxford.

The seminar was supposedly about fostering creativity among pupils. Now, the alleged lack of creativity in schools was the great fallacy that lay behind the ideology of progressive education. The theory was that children's innate creativity was harmed by being taught in any structured way by adults. Teachers had to become "facilitators", taking a back seat while children "discovered" knowledge for themselves. The result was a catastrophe in education.

Yet here was the old progressive chestnut being served up in a postmodern sauce. The seminar was told that creativity, defined as identifying problems and solving them, had to be set free from elitist things such as exam standards. Schools "controlled knowledge from above", which seemed to mean that teachers had the audacity to teach. This was out of joint with the new "knowledge economy".

This "knowledge economy" is a particularly ripe piece of Blairite mumbo jumbo popularised by the writer Charles Leadbeater in his book Living on Thin Air. It appears to mean that society now revolves around communications and computers, that people must become mobile entrepreneurs and that they must take responsibility for their own educational development and work opportunities.

Yet when was knowledge ever not integral to the economy? The idea that changes of this magnitude are new shows a disturbing contempt for history. The seismic shifts of the industrial revolution and the birth of the modern age knock the internet into a cocked hat. People have always adapted, precisely because knowledge was "controlled from above" and taught to succeeding generations.

Yet as Laura Spence's headmaster himself observed, Brown is hostile to academic institutions that seem to stand in the way of this "knowledge economy". At the seminar, such hostility appeared to go much further and become an assault on the nature of education itself.

The seminar was told that computers or videos were the key to the new creativity because they could respond to children's "multiple intelligences". In other words, interactive electronic education packages meant a child could conjure up pictures or graphics to explain things. This denigrates linguistic or mathematical intelligence as no more important than the visual or spatial ability which lets a child click on a mouse and be entertained by the resulting images. Yet without mastery of language and number, a child isn't going to get very far - on computers or anything else.

Worse, the child would be put in charge of its own learning process. The startling suggestion was that computers would liberate children from teaching. Teachers would only be needed part-time, it was claimed, and would have to reinvent themselves as "facilitators" to enable children to access the technology.

What rot. Teachers cannot be replaced by computers. Far from being more "democratic", as was claimed, this abdication of adult responsibility would further disenfranchise children who would be hopelessly lost without proper guidance. Moreover, it is only by being taught hard facts that children learn those lessons about objectivity, evidence and argument which help identify problems and solve them. The cult of "creativity" has produced a classroom orthodoxy that has replaced challenges by feelings, independent thought by spoon-feeding and propaganda.

Knowledge is now said to be "obsolescent". Skills are increasingly being taught in a knowledge vacuum and then dressed up as pretend knowledge, to be tested in public exams. Of course the world is changing fast; but unless we all have basic knowledge, we can neither build upon it nor adapt to new challenges.

The chilling assault on education in the drawing room of No 11 was conducted at the heart of a government which constantly boasts how tough it is being in restoring traditional education standards. Only last week it promised to divest yet more councils of their education services after Ofsted added to the litany of education authorities that were profoundly failing their children.

What, though, is the point of punishing directors of education, of devising city academies, of all the multitudinous targets, the naming and shaming, the action zones, the performance-related pay and the whole managerial bag of tricks, if with the blessing of the chancellor of the exchequer a pernicious ideology is being promoted which strikes at the heart of education itself?

The Laura Spence row is merely the latest example of the way Oxbridge is being relentlessly bullied by old Labour's class warriors, intent on fanning the flames of social resentment to cover their own intellectual and political bankruptcy.

We now face a truly appalling vista: from the very top of the university sector, the state is forcing the whole of the education system into homogenised mediocrity. Public exams are becoming ever dumber to allow more pupils to get higher passes, so that they can all have places in universities where standards are adjusted ever downward to produce more graduates with degrees in the skills needed to live on thin air.

Welcome to the knowledge economy, the new totalitarian utopia.



This Page was created on 12th July, 2000