Some scattered thoughts on this recent video of Noam Chomsky talking about the different interpretations of 'education'. This largely got me thinking about some of the functions of the schools I've worked in, and the effects on students
Chomsky displays his Enlightenment sympathies in his conception of education and his criticism of currently-existing educational systems:
"There have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, more vocational training, imposing a debt, which traps students and young people into a life of conformity… That’s the exact opposite of [what] traditionally comes out of The Enlightenment. And there’s a constant struggle between those. In the colleges, in the schools, do you train for passing tests, or do you train for creative inquiry?”
The 'vocational training' aspect is something about education that irks me daily. I teach both 'vocational' and 'academic' science courses. Despite the fact that we're technically a 'comprehensive' school (not that it ever meant much) the middle managers, under pressure from the head, 'direct' kids into either of those categories. If kids aren't 'progressing' fast enough, based on questionable testing, they're coerced away form the academic courses onto the vocational.
The vocational subjects now, for example BTECs, equip kids with generic, transferable, menial skills that will make them perfect workplace fodder. On a course like this, in science say, you would be asked to design a powerpoint on the Periodic Table, but not ever have to learn anything about the Periodic Table. Or perhaps you would make a poster about Radiation, but not have to ever know anything about it. Across subjects, these activities get done, a box gets ticked, and an easy qualification is obtained, which massages a school's leage table position,
There was a time when vocational subjects would have been more practically based, hands-on things like woodwork, metalwork etc. That's less the case these days, because it's not what the labour market requires, with manufacturing largely gone in the UK. What few jobs do exist for school leavers, will often be service/hospitality or menial admin - hence we now have BTECs in 'Travel & Tourism' or 'Hospitality & Catering'.
Conversations with pupils on these courses reveal an interalised label of themselves as second-class within the school:
"Why couldn't we do the proper GCSE?"
"No colleges take BTECs. I want to do nursing but they want GCSEs"
"I hate this course, we just print stuff off laptops"
And this is across subjects. And across schools; my previous schools students echoed such sentiments, and friends that work as teachers or teaching-assistants in schools in other parts of the country have come across the same feelings from pupils.
Now, the academic, more test-based subjects aren't necessarily much better - as Chomsky points out, they may have some uses, but:
'a person can do magnificently on every test, and understand very little... you can study very hard for a test, and forget it all a few weeks later'
So while the 11+ exam* is long gone in most areas of the UK, we simply have selection within schools, rather than between schools. Rather than 'less academic' pupils going to 'secondary moderns' and 'smart kids' going to grammar school, we simply seperate them within the school, from day one.
And you can sure as hell bet there's a class component, as well as the ethnic and racial baggage that can come with that. In a mixed school in London where I used to teach, the 'top' sets, the kids who would do GCSEs were predominantly white middle class, with a few asian kids and the odd black kid - but certainly, for that borough, a disporoprtionate amount of white pupils in top set. The 'bottom' set was, no joke, entirely turkish, afro-carribean, with the odd eastern european... and almost entirely boys. They will all go on to do the 'vocational' courses and will be unlikely to do anything but the compulsory GCSEs.
So with all the bullshit about progress and getting the best for kids and that Blairite carry-over from the cringeworthy 'EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION', all I can think is 'SAME SHIT DIFFERENT DAY' as we divide kids nowadays as much as we ever had, to meet the whims of bosses and politicians, and whatever they see fit for the next generation.
I can just about imagine that enlightenment idea of education that Chomsky alludes to; that of learners guiding themselves, studying things that excite them and discovering things as opposed to being told what to think (and schools actually attempt to co-opt progressive ideas, but more from an individualised atomstic perspective) but I've yet to actually see it, because it's simply not what capitalist schooling is for.
* for non-UK readers this is a form of academic selection at the end of primary school - you pass, you go to 'grammar' school for five years; you fail, you go to a 'comprehensive', or back in the day, a 'secondary modern'.