Intellectual Elitism Barrier to Excellence for All.
I went to see my bank manager last week, and in time-honoured fashion, when he found out I was a teacher, he took the opportunity to tell me about his children’s experiences of school. His son, with a degree in accountancy, was busy carving out a successful career in the financial sector, while his daughter, equally successful, was set to become a teacher. Both had had very positive experiences of school, a local comprehensive with an excellent reputation, and father had nothing but praise for the school and the staff – almost. There was one incident which had obviously stuck with him and he was keen to relate it. His daughter had always had a passionate interest in drama and was involved in various community groups from an early age. Her father was keen to encourage this interest, and like her was disappointed to learn that there was no provision for drama at the secondary school, so he raised the subject at the first parents’ meeting. “This is an academic school,” was the headteacher’s assured response, “and parents expect us to focus on academic subjects.” One can only assume that in his mind, drama does not come into the category of “academic”, presumably because it involves lots of moving around rather than sitting around scratching one’s head with a pencil.
It is unreasonable to expect schools to provide everything under the sun of course, but what I think this anecdote reveals is the unspoken hierarchy of importance which has been attached to the traditional subject areas in our secondary schools for too long, and which will continue to be a barrier to real change if it is not challenged at every opportunity. If further proof were required I suggest you try this experiment: stop the first ten people over the age of sixteen you meet today in the street and ask them to list the subjects they took at school in order of importance. I think I have a rough idea of the answers they will give and I think you do too. Sadly though, this intellectual snobbery is not only reflected in the street but often in the workplace, in most of our major institutions and, dare I suggest, in some of the dustier corners of our staffrooms.
The origins of this emphasis on a particular set of skills in preference to all others are not too difficult to trace. In Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century Howard Gardner puts it like this: “Having a blend of linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is no doubt a blessing for students and for anyone who must take tests regularly. Indeed, the fact that most psychologists and most other academics exhibit a reasonable amalgam of linguistic and logical intelligence made it almost inevitable that those faculties would dominate tests of intelligence. I often wonder whether a different set of faculties would have been isolated if the test developers had been business people, politicians, entertainers, or military personnel.”
For some, the opportunity to challenge this long-established hierarchy was created by the publication in 2004 of the Curriculum Review Group’s A Curriculum for Excellence. However, by the arrival of Progress and Proposals in March 2006 it became clear that there would be no radical shift in emphasis, but rather it would be “open to schools to organize the outcomes and experiences differently, taking account of local circumstances.” Conservatism was suddenly the order of the day, and in those schools where the curriculum remains inappropriate for significant numbers of young people, the inclination to remain focused on “academic” subjects was reinforced.
There is currently a national task group looking at the “recognition of wider achievement” and its recommendations will be critical if we are to make further progress towards an excellent curriculum. Inherent in the use of the word “wider” is an already dangerous assumption that we begin with a central core which comprises attainment (or exam results) and works outwards to bring in other, possibly less important, aspects of personal development. Let’s hope that this proves not to be the case, as ironically it is within our schools that a young person’s wider achievements have always been recognised – it is the rest of society which has some catching up to do.
This article was published inTES on 9 November 2007