If the only reason to study a subject is a passing grade, it’s no wonder that many pupils do not want to play the game, says Ben Newmark
Politicians and other key decision-makers have become overly preoccupied in recent years with viewing education through the lens of what happens because of it, rather than as a valuable end in itself. These end-games include sending poorer pupils on to university or making society happier, better and more productive. Well-intentioned as this has all been, we have been too quick to accept these aims – what I call instrumentalist justifications – without challenge.
What we have not faced is the competitive nature of examinations and indeed life in general, which makes instrumentalist justifications a zero-sum game; for some children to do well, others have to do worse, and those most likely to win the education game are those with existing advantage, be it greater affluence, greater bridging cultural capital or greater intelligence.
This overemphasis on certain measurable success criteria, be it better exam results or a higher percentage of children going on to university, creates a context that implies that if a pupil isn’t going to pass a course there is no point in them studying it. But not everybody can pass, which has created an elitist view of many subjects with those unlikely to succeed struggling to see why they have to bother at all. Casting anything below a grade 4 at GCSE as tantamount to a fail is a further discouragement.
The inherent worth of our curriculum should be celebrated
This undermines much of what we try to do in schools, particularly those operating in areas of disadvantage. If the only reason to study a subject is a passing grade, then we create a game that many pupils quite logically do not want to play, especially if they believe the subjects they study are not relevant to them. In the very recent past this may well have led to the detriment of education as a whole, with school accountability measures incentivising schools to play the system by focusing on qualifications that had little value to pupils and served only to inflate a school’s performance.
It does not have to be this way. The value of what we teach is not found in the things that may or may not happen as a result of it. Instead the inherent worth of our curriculum content should be proudly emphasised. If we feel unable to do that, then we should be seriously questioning whether or not we should be teaching it in our schools.
Justifying education in this way may feel unfamiliar, but it is far from new. For hundreds of years people believed an important reason for education was that what was taught had a great value in its own right. All that was taught was seen as a precious jewel to be passed down. This perhaps has been most famously expressed by the poet and inspector of schools Matthew Arnold, who wrote in 1869 that the purpose of education should be for young people to know “the best that has been thought and said in the world”. The same sentiment was expressed by his socialist contemporary Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which he argued that: “What we call civilisation – the accumulation of knowledge which has come to us from our forefathers – is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil . . . it is by right the common heritage of all.”
As I told the CurriculumEd conference last weekend: we do not teach because by doing so we can eradicate the differences between rich and poor, or to educate society, or for that matter to create a better one. We do not educate our children so that they have skills that will make them more productive workers. Our responsibility, as Tressell said, is more profound.
If we are to accept that the reason we educate our children is in the inherent worth of what we teach, then what we teach and how well we teach it assumes immeasurable significance. This is no cop-out. There is, after all, so much to learn and so little time.