Qualification vs unlimited education

In “Adrift in Caledonia“, Nick Thorpe is in the Shetland Isles speaking to Stuart Hill (aka ‘Captain Calamity’).  Stuart says:

“What does qualification mean? … Grammatically, a qualification limits the meaning of a sentence. And that’s what qualifications seem to do to people. When you become a lawyer it becomes impossible to think of yourself outside that definition. The whole of the education system is designed to fit people into employment, into the system. It’s not designed to realise their full creativity.”

Now Stuart may be being slightly cynical and maybe the ‘whole of education system’ is not like that, but sadly the general thrust often seems so.

Indeed I recently tweeted a link to @fmeawad‘s post “Don’t be Shy to #fail” as it echoed my own long standing worries (see “abject failures“) that we have a system that encourages students to make early, virtually unchangeable, choices about academic or career choices, and then systematically tell them how badly they do at it. Instead the whole purpose of education should be to enable people to discover their strengths and their purposes and help them to excel in those things, which are close to their heart and build on their abilities.  And this may involve ‘failures’ along the way and may mean shifting areas and directions.

At a university level the very idea behind the name ‘university’ was the bringing together of disparate scholars.  In “The Rise and Progress of  Universities” (Chapter 2. What is a University?, 1854) John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman, recently beatified) wrote:

“IF I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot;—from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.”

Note the emphasis on having representatives of many fields of knowledge ‘in one spot’: the meeting and exchange, the flow across disciplines, and yet is this the experience of many students?  In the Scottish university system, students are encouraged to study a range of subjects early on, and then specialise later; however, this is as part of a four year undergraduate programme that starts at 17.  At Lancaster there is an element of this with students studying three subjects in their first year, but the three year degree programmes (normally starting at 18) means that for computing courses we now encourage students to take 2/3 of that first year in computing in order to lay sufficient ground to cover material in the rest of their course.  In most UK Universities there is less choice.

However, to be fair, the fault here is not simply that of university teaching and curricula; students seem less and less willing to take a wider view of their studies, indeed unwilling to consider anything that is not going to be marked for final assessment.  A five year old is not like this, and I assume this student resistance is the result of so many years in school, assessed and assessed since they are tiny; one of the reasons Fiona and I opted to home educate our own children (a right that seems often under threat, see “home education – let parents alone!“).  In fact, in the past there was greater degree of cross-curricula activity in British schools, but this was made far more difficult by the combination of the National Curriculum prescribing content,  SATs used for ‘ranking’ schools, and increasingly intrusive ‘quality’ and targets bureaucracy introduced from the 1980s onwards.

Paradoxically, once a student has chosen a particular discipline, we often then force a particular form of breadth within it.  Sometimes this is driven by external bodies, such as the BPA, which largely determines the curriculum in psychology courses across the UK.  However, we also do it within university departments as we determine what for us is considered a suitable spread of studies, and then forcing students into it no matter what their leanings and inclinations, and despite the fact that similar institutions may have completely different curricula.  So, when a student ‘fails’ a module they must retake the topic on which they are clearly struggling in order to scrape a pass or else ‘fail’ the entire course.  Instead surely we should use this this as an indication of aptitude and maybe instead allow students to take alternative modules in areas of strength.

Several colleagues at Talis are very interested in the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), which is attempting to create a much more student-led experience. I would guess that Stuart Hill might have greater sympathy with this endeavour, than with the traditional education system.  Personally, I have my doubts as to whether being virtually / digitally ‘in one spot‘ is the same as actually being co-present (but the OU manage), and whether being totally student-led looses the essence of scholarship, teaching1 and mentoring, which seems the essence of what a university should be. However, P2PU and similar forms of open education (such as the Khan Academy)  pose a serious intellectual challenge to the current academic system: Can we switch the balance back from assessment to education?  Can we enable students to find their true potential wherever it lies?

  1. Although ‘teaching’ is almost a dirty word now-a-days, perhaps I should write ‘facilitating learning’![back]

home education – let parents alone!

It is now some years since our two daughters finished their home education, and we had few problems.  However, we  know that some home educating in other parts of the country had great problems with their LEAs (local education authorities) many of whom did not understand the laws on compulsory education and often thought that it was impossible to educate without a timetable!

We chose to home educate based partly on our own experiences of school and partly by meeting the children of other home educating families and being amazed at their maturity and balance compared to other children of their age.  While we made an explicit decision, others are forced into home education, sometimes through learning difficulties or dyslexia, sometimes through school phobia.

One woman I knew eventually decide to home educate her son when he was 14.  At 10 he became school phobic due to a teacher, who was notorious for making his children unhappy; for four years she cooperated with the local authority as they tried to get him back into school, including being sent into short periods of residential care.  It was only when it was clear that he was going to get to 16 with no GCSEs and no future that she reluctantly took him out of the school system and he eventually obtained several exams studying at home with her help.

My wife and I were fortunate in our dealings with authorities as we were obviously well educated, could write fluently and persuasively, and knew the law and our own rights inside out (and were helped enormously by the support group Education Otherwise).  However, not all home educating parents have our advantages, and the difficulties and costs of home education are exacerbated by sometimes intimidating demands from education welfare officers or LEAs.

My impression was that, during the period of our daughters’ education, things improved and LEAs better understood home education.  However, I recently heard (due to a petition on the Downing Street web site) that, I guess as part of the interminable re-hashing of all sectors of education, things are being made more difficult again by repeated reviews of the legal status of home education.

There are numerous examples of public figures from artists to US presidents1 who have been home educated and all the home educated children that I have known, although having all the pressures and problems of any child growing up, are in their various ways successfully following their chosen paths.  When so many aspects of our education system are under threat, I wonder why on earth government feels the need to meddle with things that have and continue to work well.

The petition:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to to remind his government that parents must remain responsible in law for ensuring the welfare and education of their children and that the state should not seek to appropriate these responsibilities.

  1. another support group home-education.org.uk have  a list of famous home-educated people[back]