Supposedly clever people in positions of responsibility and influence in politics and the media are getting themselves into something of a lather about the introduction of more grammar schools. The debate is characterised with the usual entrenched political dogma from all the usual suspects but it does not deserve the attention and focus that it is receiving in the context of the broader educational debate. Just as we might have anticipated, in circling the wagons around grammar schools areas of more immediate concern are simply being ignored. That is, they are all arguing about the wrong question.
I have suggested on this blog many times over the past six years that social mobility is more challenged now than at any time since the late seventies. Simply put, those who did well over the past thirty odd years pulled the ladder up behind them. While more grammar schools might contribute to correcting the imbalance they are not in themselves a complete answer and they will not suit all areas of the country. Nor will they address the festering problem of the poor white and black working class who have increasingly found themselves to be excluded from what one might call normal life aspirations. In practice, new grammar schools are likely to fill up with a mix of middle class and ambitious and bright immigrant children. Nothing wrong with that in itself and indeed, the influence of bright Asian kids, (and a considerable financial shot in the arm from City based charities), has probably helped the academies in London improve their performance to the point where they are leading the way forward for the state sector nationally. We should embrace and applaud their success and acknowledge that there is no one size fits all solution in a country of 68m people.
Nor is the ritual beating up of the public school sector an answer to anything except to polish the worn and beaten credentials of droopy eyed class warriors. Within their own means, public schools contribute greatly to the public good not least in terms of pushing innovation in education which in time filters into and throughout the state sector. Apart from their considerable advantages in terms of facilities and keeping their students in a disciplined learning environment for longer, (a local school close by ends their school day at 3:15pm three days a week and 2:20pm on the other two days...... unbelievable. As it happens, this Academy is doing well, how much better could it do?), public schools are fortunate in attracting a pool of considerable talent at the headmaster level. Easily the most important and critical component of a school is the head. As Napoleon said, 'there are no bad soldiers, only bad officers.'
The answer to our national educational debate comes in five parts.
First, things are not as bad as they are reflected to be by Westminster windbags and their media drones. Schools seem, to me at least, to be in better shape than was the case twenty years ago and that is a good thing. Moreover, today's generation never cease to impress. They are more worldly, sharper, brighter and engaging than are all who have gone before. We simply need to add refinement, focus and a leg up for the dispossessed to go to the next level.
Second, a rich mix of comprehensives, public schools, academies, grammar schools, University Technical Colleges (championed by Kenneth Baker), and specialist academies, (for example languages and sciences which already exist), with each acknowledging the place of the others and interaction between them all is where the answer lies. Which-one-where will be driven by local resources and local preference with government help and direction only on an 'as required,' basis.
Third, and this is the single most important part of this post, schools must address their teaching to fit the world the students are entering. The question isn't 'where are we teaching?' but 'what are we teaching?' It is shameful for example that most schools, from our very best down, still do not teach children how to code. While some prep and primary schools have the right idea and teach basic coding almost as a language rather than a technical subject we are woeful as a nation in elevating the subject and giving it the importance it deserves and demands in 2016. For a nation which built it's prosperity on engineering we have simply lost the plot. How ridiculous is it that students leave school for university not knowing the basics of Excel, that most basic of tools in any workplace. Having achieved success in propelling maths to its rightful place of importance in the school system over the past fifteen years it is wasteful not to teach the subjects like computer science for which it is most useful and most pertinent.
Fourth, grab the universities by the balls, squeeze and twist until they start doing their jobs to an acceptable standard which offers value for the money they take from students. Some courses at some universities do offer a good value proposition, most do not. Four hours of lectures a week, half of which are usually done by a heavily accented Phd student from the Ukraine is not acceptable. If they expended as much energy in creating a rounded education with good pastoral care as they seem to do in encouraging students to drink their own body weight in cheap white spirits in their first week we would be in infinitely better shape.
Fifth, what do we do about the Lost Boys, those who already find themselves in care, in correctional facilities or those who are on their way to life behind barbed wire but just haven't yet been caught? I have a plan.
Up until about ten years ago a Sandhurst institution existed which had the purpose of taking young officer cadets who were thought to be not quite ready for the full commissioning course. With a focus on adventure training Rowallan Company emphasised leadership, fitness, self reliance and communication skills to help cadets quickly mature. Those who passed invariably went on to do well at the Academy and after commissioning.
We could do the same with what I call the 'Lost Boys,' in a demilitarised version of Rowallan and use old military facilities to house it before they are all sold off. Take 30 young men with all manner of black marks against them, a remote location, six instructors and a couple of academic staff and in 24, possibly 16 weeks you could turn their lives around sufficiently to give them a shot at reentering the mainstream. At the end their street-smart knowledge would be turned into a self reliance and confidence that could be applied to any environment. Think of it as a poor man's Gordonstoun meets Rowallan. This would be the deal. Complete the course and your record is struck clean. You get a shot at applying for military service and they will forgive your past misdemeanours but only if you pass the course and the entrance requirements for the service of your choice, (we're short of recruits by the way), or a government approved apprenticeship scheme. If you take the apprenticeship option you must join the Reserves for three years. After three years you are your own man. Abscond or fail (through indifference not injury), and you go straight back from where you came; end of second chance.
Think it's a long shot? I happen to think not and I'm absolutely not thinking along the lines of some reality television boot camp set up. The approach is much more intelligent than that yet remains a simple one. The thing is, while everyone is running round in circles arguing about one type of school or another it is not addressing a pretty key issue. Or are we just going to accept an exploding prison population and pretend the problem isn't there? The instructors are out there, the facilities and kit are there and there are teaching staff, retired or otherwise, who would put their hands up. The big roadblock here would be attempting to get three different government departments to agree on a policy, (probably never been done before), and getting on with it out of the glare of the media.
I had a great uncle who won an Oscar for his part in making the Dirty Dozen. Perhaps it's time to make it happen in real life but by using the outdoors and books rather than weapons and uniforms, for the good of the individual and the greater good of us all.