The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 25th, 2007

Sentenced to rot in their failed schools

‘An education ought to be very good, to justify depriving a child of its liberty.” I copied this down as an angry schoolgirl, when I was reading John Stuart Mill, though I am no longer sure it was he who wrote it. In any case, it is true.

There can be no justification for sentencing children to long hours in schools that are no good to 11 years of compulsory boredom, mismanagement and bad influences. There can be no justification for spending billions on this long incarceration only to let the prisoners out, having blighted their best years, unfit to deal with the world. Yet that, in this rich country, is precisely what we do.

All too many children leave school at 16 – and later – barely literate and numerate. Employers complain about school-leavers’ “skills gap”, meaning the wretched young things are so ignorant, incompetent and ill-disciplined that they are useless in a job, and need basic remedial training.

Colleges and universities complain that students arrive unable to construct a sentence, let alone write an essay. The brightest of undergraduates – the cream of our education system – need remedial teaching at university. Meanwhile the number of Neets – young people not in education, employment or training – has risen by a quarter since Labour came to power. Surely the disgraceful failure of education in this country is now an established fact?

Yet what is the response of the education secretary to this astonishing failure? It is to make it compulsory for all children to stay in our abysmal education system until the age of 18. Alan Johnson announced plans last week to raise the school-leaving age from 16 to 18. Children must choose between school, college, apprenticeships or work-based training. Teenagers who refuse to do so will face on-the-spot fines, Asbos and even jail. Employers who do not comply with work-based learning schemes will face sanctions, as will parents who put their children between 16 and 18 to work, without offering them training.

It beggars belief. Of course in an ideal world, all children should receive education until at least 18. Tertiary education or training ought to be available to everybody, according to his or her interests and abilities, and I firmly believe the taxpayer should pay for that. However, in the real world of British education, it makes little to sense to impose, by compulsion, the tedium and misery of British schooling for two more long years on those whom it has already failed and humiliated.

If the Department for Education and Skills cannot now make people literate and numerate by 16, if our schools cannot avoid producing disorderly children who wreck classes or play truant, how does it expect to change anything by enforcing two more benighted years of the same damn thing?

Bright schoolchildren and their teachers often talk of the relief they feel when the Asbo set leaves school at 16, so they can get on with their A-level classes in relative peace and quiet. Forcing class-wreckers to stay around would damage still further the chances of those children who want to study. The same applies to sending unwilling teenagers to colleges; they will undermine them. As for workplace training, the government has been making ambitious promises about apprenticeships for 10 years; why does it expect, suddenly, to be able to fulfil them now?

It is hardly fair to anyone to impose angry and unwilling 17 and 18-year-olds on schools and colleges they don’t want to go to. School is simply all wrong for some children. It is economically unsound to impose them and their needs on employers who would rather not hire them. Though these teenagers need help and attention, forcing them to stay in education against their will is not the answer.

The real answer, which seems beyond this government or its predecessors, is to make early education work. What all children need is basic literacy, numeracy, good manners and self-discipline. Everything can follow from that, in or out of school, whatever the child’s abilities. Since, however, we must despair of schools producing children who are educated in this fundamental sense, we are I suppose looking at damage limitation.

What do you do with problem teenagers of 16 to 18? Clearly it is a good idea to give them something constructive to do, and keep them off the streets. I often think it would be a good idea to offer them something that was fun, along the lines of what privileged children do. I mean extreme sports or adventure holidays. People usually harrumph with indignation at delinquents being taken by social services on expensive rock-climbing and whitewater rafting adventures, like rich kids. But these things develop character and confidence. They teach cooperation (which is why rich parents pay for them).

It is particularly good for children who have been neglected on sink estates to have some good clean fun – something more interesting than drugs and gangs. If I were education secretary I would be funding activity clubs for the Asbo set, like the Rugby Portobello Trust near me in central London, which would be so much fun that Neets would go to them willingly, and maybe get a little education by stealth. The Rugby Portobello offers sessions in music, IT, cooking and even mentorship for young people in running a charity.

Above all, as education secretary, I would consider why so many children, particularly boys, come to hate school. I do agree with the suggestion that the model of schoolroom teaching is unsuitable, after a certain age, for some children, many of them boys, and many of them the least bright or the most bright.

Mixed ability teaching is of course a nonsense, and so I suspect for many children is the feminised, politically correct conventionality and Gradgrind tedium of what passes for liberal education. So are the national curriculum and the mark-grubbing GCSE and A-level. I wouldn’t blame any child of mine for opting out.

The education secretary, clearly a fairly able man, ought to understand this. He opted out of school at 15, without any qualifications. Forcing teenagers into this nonsense for still longer, until 18, is an unjustified assault on their freedom.