Tuesday 18 September 2012

Dumb for the Dumber

It’s as predictable as spotting the first cuckoo of spring.  No sooner has the television news broadcast students celebrating success in the annual school examination round than a reaction follows, a wave of laments over ‘dumbing down’ and the general decline in standards.  The whole thing is just too absurdly easy, the cry goes up, as universities struggle to winnow out a superabundance of hopeful candidates.

Now Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has said hold, enough!  The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), taken at the age of sixteen, is to be replaced with an English Baccalaureate, placing far greater emphasis on traditional ‘hard core’ subjects, away from the soft social studies porn favoured by school boards anxious to make their mark on league tables, things which measure quantity rather than quality. 

It’s a start, I suppose.  The aim, apparently, is to restore faith in the examination system, to stop schools ‘teaching to the test.’  “It is time for the race to the bottom to end,” said the Education Secretary. “It is time to tackle grade inflation and dumbing down. It is time to raise aspirations, restore rigour to our examinations and equip children for the 21st century.”

I admire his courage.  He has set himself a Herculean task that will need more than a little labour to compete.  Ah, Labour, yes, there is Labour, slavering away in the wings.  Falling off the tree, Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, contradicted Gove, saying with machine-like predictability that the plan will not work, that it does not meet the needs of society or the modern economy.  “We need to face the challenges of the 21st century,” he said. “I don’t accept that we achieve that by returning to the system abolished as out-of-date in the 1980s.”

Instead we will have more of the same, those pictures of jubilant students, with excellent grades in all sorts of media studies, who turn up for employment, fully armed…and unable to express themselves in the most rudimentary forms of written English.

Yes, a Herculean task because the damage goes back decades, further back than the 1980s, right back to the trendy educational theories of the 1960s, right back to a wholesale campaign to destroy the grammar school system, no more than an act of petty spite which, paradoxically, reduced the life chances of so many talented people from modest backgrounds. 

I know that GCSEs were introduced by the Tories but the greater harm was the work of successive Labour administrations from the time of Harold Wilson onwards.  As one respondent to the Daily Telegraph report noted, it was Tony Blair’s government that reduced examination standards to the point where even that grade-A thicko John Prescott could pass.   If iron rusts what will gold do? 

Passing, that was the thing; everyone should pass; no-one should fail.  But examinations are as much about failing as passing, otherwise why have them at all?  In passing almost everyone on the nod the whole point of an examination is lost, measures that measure nothing other than mediocrity and the great spirit of collective stupidity.  The best are not raised.  They are taken, rather, to the lowest common denominator, because common denominators are all that matters.  Whereas the Germans have been able to separate out academic and technical ability for over a century, with no loss to either, we could only cook up a soggy porridge, with loss to all. 

University is not for everyone, academic excellence is not for everyone.  Let me be even more candid: there are those born to failure and no amount of tinkering and social engineering will alter that basic fact.  But this is a truth that dare not speak its name, at least in political circles, and of course among the wretched teaching unions, the dumb for the dumber. 

Good luck, Mister Secretary; you will certainly need it.  Just one piece of advice – please be mindful of the fact that you cannot build a cabin without breaking twigs. 


  1. I was born to failure.

    Here is 'The Rejected Poet: Alexander Pope & Lady Mary Wortley Montagu' by William Powell Frith, 1863). You can also see the recently discovered study for this work here.

    For thee we dim the eyes, and stuff the head
    With all such reading as was never read:
    For thee explain a thing till all men doubt it,
    And write about it, Goddess, and about it:
    So spins the silk-worm small its slender store,
    And labours till it clouds itself all o'er.

    (Alexander Pope. 'The Dunciad' iv. 1744).

    1. I think, Rehan, you disprove your own point; your obvious talent disproves it. Cream will always float.

    2. It's friends like you that make life worth fighting for.

  2. The State has no legitimate role in education. The education machine, as developed in the 19th century and modified in the 20th, is a political tool that destroys liberty - not by accident, but by design.

    Here's a starting point anyone interested in the real history of state education: http://www.johntaylorgatto.com

    1. As always, Calvin, I find your links invaluable. I intend to look at this in detail.

      Incidentally I enrolled myself among the the Cumberbitches, maenads one and all. :-)

  3. Yes, the Germans are superior, quality vs quantity.

    1. In their system of public education, certainly. They have been trying, poor dears, to emulate the English independent sector for decades. :-)

    2. Reasonably well educated population in contrast to select elitism ?

    3. A reasonably well-educated population is certainly the ideal. There is nothing wrong with elitism, though.

  4. Here here! No amount of hand-wringing (or Guardian reading) is going to change the fact that some people are born more academically able than others. To say otherwise is as ridiculous as saying all babies are born gender-neutral. The mistake is perhaps the amount of emphasis our society puts in academia beyond basic literacy and numeracy

    Gove's system seems like a good start. Let's hope it works and isn't kicked into the long grass before the benefits begin to show.

    1. Yes, but with the Millipede and the Twig waiting in the wing it may all come to nothing.