| To cure a chronic condition
A stay abroad, however brief, gives a welcome change of perspective to the view of home news. I have just returned from an idle week in Goa where sun, internet snapshots and local newspapers encouraged a sense of the pettiness inherent in contemporary British political life. I always enjoy the alternative emphases of newspapers in other countries but these days the escapism or entertainment value derived from celebrity gossip comes close to overwhelming real events and serious comment wherever you are in the world. There is little in the way of global news to inspire or cheer, so perhaps the ups and downs of the rich and famous are necessary leavening to gloomy prophecies of Armageddon and an inconsequential and illusory barrier to the four apocalyptic horsemen.
Goa itself, from a visitor's viewpoint, seems distant from the mass of India. Its Portuguese and Christian history and its present role as holiday and retirement destination of choice for both Indian and overseas visitors create an air of dislocation from the rest of India in the same way that holiday islands like Ibiza or expatriate enclaves in Tuscany and the Dordogne seem detached from greater Europe. These are the places where escapees can indulge themselves in the long view of their normal or past existence and find it wanting, whilst safely ensconced in the security of non-participation. I suspect we all like to set the world to rights at a safe distance but it is somewhat distasteful to hear the complaining haves at play railing against the ignorance of the silent crowd of have-nots.
In India, education is the holy grail to be sought and grasped by all who aspire to raise themselves above the crowd. Poverty, ignorance and illiteracy breed and regenerate from one another and any opportunity to learn is grabbed hungrily as a passport to a better life, perhaps a rung on the ladder towards the surreal lifestyles illustrated in the celebrity pages. In years of involvement with street children's organizations in India, the value attached to learning and the respect accorded to teachers by children living in the most desperate circumstances never cease to impress me.
In this country, the constant debate on education has produced few concrete results in terms of raising the status of schools and teachers and the enthusiasm of young people for learning. The Indian education system may be old-fashioned and hidebound in many ways, although I think rote learning for the very young is much maligned, but the desire for learning seems undaunted. Perhaps it is simply that education for many is still a desirable luxury, whereas here it is standard and a right. Perhaps values of respect for elders and responsibility to family make the difference. The fracturing of traditional family and social institutions is blamed for the devaluation of educational currency here. Our immigrant populations, who retain family values now seen as outdated, are the ones who continue to excel, unhandicapped by the hurdles in our maimed public education system.
I was talking with an eminent educational psychologist this week who feels that our children are being let down by this system that creates expectation but does not inspire personal endeavour. She also feels that the lack of respect towards teachers in public education is inevitable when teachers' hands are so tied by political correctness that they are unable to demand that respect in any meaningful way. When children in a classroom have more rights than their teacher, it is unlikely that they will accept him or her as a figure to respect. The view here is that teachers are underpaid to the extent that the most gifted will find a better use for their talents, leaving only the second-rate in state schools. I am not convinced that the argument holds water, but they are certainly not rewarded to the level where the vocational desire to impart knowledge and love of learning to the young overcomes the suffocating weight of regulation and record-keeping surrounding the national curriculum and school league tables.
Even in private schools it is hard for the eccentric, the unconventional and the uniquely inspirational teachers of the past to survive the life-sapping standardization that now exists throughout the education system. There is a bizarre dichotomy between an intensely exam-based system, where tested results take precedence over broader educational horizons, and the lack of competition now built into the process so that failure is no longer an option. Parents and children expect results that will lead to university places almost regardless of their child's ability. In extreme cases, children have gone through their years of schooling and examination while almost illiterate, due to the pressure on their teachers and school to show the right results.
The implementation of a new university fee structure for September 2006 has already made a difference to the numbers of young people applying for places. This is a good thing if it means that those who are more suitable for vocational training do not, as a natural course of events, do academic courses for which they are not suited. But it penalizes the poor on financial grounds rather than dealing with the question of who actually deserves to gain university places.
The new government education bill will attempt to reinforce gains in education since Tony Blair first voiced his 'education, education, education' mantra on his arrival at Downing Street in 1997. It will try to offer great choice of schools to parents and pupils, particularly those in poor areas with poor schooling; to give teachers greater powers and status; and to deal drastically with failing schools through greater involvement of private service providers and new investment. Some areas of the system have already been improved by better funding and government focus but the underlying problems remain, corroding cosmetic advances. The chief inspector of schools, David Bell, has found that serious discipline problems have increased from 6 per cent in 1997 to 9 per cent today. Sixty per cent of young people from non-professional backgrounds lack the qualifications and ambition to go to university while the middle-classes monopolize opportunities. However devalued a first degree is with the glut in the job market, young people are nervous of bucking the trend. In effect too, the best alternate practical use of student years that offers a unique selling point in the job market is also more readily available to the affluent.
Social class is still a barrier to educational success and thus political parties are torn over education issues along party and inter-party divisions. A hangover from the Sixties' desire for equality that led to the destruction of the Grammar School system wars with an unspoken understanding that excellence requires competition and reward. Those who are less able need to receive equal opportunity in less academic areas. Our children are let down by a continual reform process which attempts to rebuild the system from the top down and never clears out the old political and ideological gremlins lurking in the foundations.
The prime minister has had a surprisingly easy ride through the ups and downs of the past week or so. The wholly unexpected defeat for Labour in the byelection in Dunfermline by the Liberal Democrats, who (vide last month's Westminster Gleanings) were believed to be in their death throes, has been exquisitely glossed over in the press. The passage of anti-terror, anti-smoking and ID bills has gone surprisingly smoothly and the prime minister-in-waiting, Gordon Brown, has been supportive, albeit this has led to gossip of a shared premiership in all but name. It will be interesting to see how Blair survives the controversy surrounding the latest education bill once it enters the parliamentary process.
Whether the implementation of a new law will cure the critical problems in the system or merely offer more palliative medication for a chronic condition remains to be seen. Early publicity of disagreement does not encourage optimism in that respect. I hope to be back in India next month where perhaps the distant view will make me more complacent about the future of an educational process in which my own children are still embroiled.