Back to the 1950s: Episode 2 – The CBI

It is bad enough having a Secretary of State for Education who has had his chin removed by selective breeding, and seems to think that the way to solve all of society’s ills is to make our schools like the (admittedly hilarious) Molesworth books. But now the CBI have waded into battle on the first day of their conference. In a move clearly designed to grab newspaper column inches (though it’ s likely to struggle against Gaza, if we’re being frank), the organisation’s director general, John Cridland is quoted as saying:

“In some cases secondary schools have become an exam factory.

“Qualifications are important, but we also need people who have self-discipline and serve customers well. As well as academic rigour, we need schools to produce rounded and grounded young people who have the skills and behaviours that businesses want.”

I’m not going to disagree with te bit about “exam factories”. Our pupils are chronically over-assessed. But that’s where our paths will diverge.

Call me old fashioned, but the second half of the final sentence of Cridland’s quote “we need schools to produce rounded and grounded young people who have the skills and behaviours that businesses want” bothers me.  A lot. And the reason it bothers me is a thing that has been happening now for over thirty years: our increasing thrall to the corporate world.  The business world seem to have the idea that the primary function of education is to produce people to it their needs.  I not only think that is wrong, I also think it is positively ruinous to this country, its economy, and most important of all to our culture.  Listening to the radio this morning, the general tone as that businesses wanted pupils coming out of school who would fit in to a business environment. While it’s indisputable that teaching kids to speak the correct type of English in he right context, and to understand the differences between the informal environments where they hang out with their friends and the formality of the work place, is nothing but good, I’m less that comfortable with the unsettling feeling eliminating from the business community that this should be placed above all other things. Do we want all of our 16 year-olds behaving like they want to be on the Young Apprentice, capering like shaved chimps for the world’s grumpiest ewok?  I certainly don’t.

The CBI are saying that Gove’s changes to the system are “heading in the right direction, but are not sufficient on their own and must go further and faster.” There is also much concern about the long tail of underachievement and that the brightest are not being stretched enough. Some of the self-same problems were one reason for the scrapping of the grammar system that Gove seems to want to sneak back in: the long underachieving tail existed in the secondary modern system, and will keep being repeated again and again if the current reforms continue the way they are.  GCSE is clearly a system with a dual personality and not fit for purpose, but the “reforms” proposed by Gove are not coherent enough, nor do they address many of the major problems.

Those who know me will know I  teach in the university system. One of the things I teach is a course collaborative working. One thing we do during this course is to roughly test our students to see where they fit in the Belbin Team Inventory.  In successful teams one would expect a variety of skills: ideas people, leaders, resource finders, those who dot i’s and cross t’s in projects. Over the last few years, however, we’ve noticed a worrying trend: more and more students have a dominant strand of “team player”. And this is very nice, but doesn’t give any real dynamism or shape to a group’s work. It seems as if we are producing a well-drilled generation of corporate workers who will be able to think enough to do the job, but won’t be able to think hugely creatively, or critically to question whether what they’re being asked to do is sensible.  Maybe that’s precisely what some people do want.

Well, excuse me, but that’s not my job. And it’s not the job of the schools either. Our job is to teach people how to think. If, as a by-product of that education, they gain skills that may be useful to the corporate world, then everyone wins. But it not my task to provide grist for the corporate mill. We might offer the grain for them to make their own grist, but that’s between the student and the employer. If an employer wants to shape a school leaver or a graduate to their own required form, let them do it, but don’t presume it is our job to do it for you.

Once again, it seems that corporate Britain is trying to wag the dog. Well, some of us don’t want to go walkies, thanks very much.

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