School is Dying

This article was published in Scottish Review on Tuesday 17 August 2010.

The past couple of weeks has seen the annual media frenzy around the publication of exam results in Scotland, with the usual accusations of ‘dumbing down’ from the usual suspects. Official results show an improvement of a fraction of one per cent in most areas, which is just about what suits politicians, teachers, students and parents, as it demonstrates that kids are getting slightly smarter year-on-year. Which they may well be, in terms of learning how to pass exams, but there can’t be too many percentage fractions left before ultimate perfection is reached and exam results become completely meaningless. Because, let’s face it, the whole purpose of exams is less about demonstrating knowledge and understanding as it is about separating the sheep from the goats, or those who will henceforth be qualified to label themselves ‘successful’ from their friends and peers who will spend a considerable part of the rest of their lives trying to demonstrate that they aren’t actually a ‘failure’.

And isn’t the whole charade just a distraction from the real issue, that school is dying, becoming less and less relevant in terms of learning, a grand, expensive child-minding scheme with elements of social work thrown in, or at the other end of the social scale, a training ground for future leaders whose role is determined before they even enter the system? Recent reports have suggested that despite half a century of comprehensive education in Scotland, despite Munn and Dunning, despite the national survey which resulted in the Curriculum for Excellence reforms (still early days some would argue), your chances of success in the current education system are much more likely to be determined by who you are and where you were born than the amount of effort you are prepared to put in.

Most of the above may or may not be an absurd caricature of the current state of education in this country. Either way, let us consider the context in which secondary school children and teachers in Scotland return to the chalkface this week, a week which sees the official launch of Curriculum for Excellence. We live in interesting times: the world is becoming bigger and smaller at the same time. As the amount of information, and the number of communication tools available to us, far exceed what we are able to process comfortably, we now have the technology to carry it all in our pockets. A recent survey by Pew Internet in America demonstrated the fact that although local television channels are still the preferred medium of most Americans for the delivery of news, online media are snapping at their heels. Almost 50% of those interviewed said that they receive their news via at least four different media in the course of a day and social networking sites like Twitter tell it literally as it happens.

The availability of news twenty-four hours a day is a good illustration of how information-rich we have become, and when you add Wikipedia and internet search engines like Google into the mix, you realise that the way we access information today could hardly have been imagined twenty years ago. All the more crucial then, in an age when most of us now look for information online as a matter of course, that young people learn to make informed judgements as early as possible, as reflected in this outcome from the literacy framework of Curriculum for Excellence, the new curriculum guidelines for Scotland:-

“To help me develop an informed view, I can identify and explain the difference between fact and opinion, recognise when I am being influenced, and have assessed how useful and believable my sources are.”

Now consider the fact that in a 2009 Ofcom report on media literacy, it was revealed that 32% of British schoolchildren believe that Google search results are ranked according to how true they are. Do you imagine the figure would have been significantly different for their teachers? If we are serious about developing literacy skills in this country these are the issues we need to get to grips with. When HMIE, the schools’ inspectorate, report that a significant number of teachers are not confident in their literacy and numeracy skills, I suspect they are thinking about that use of the apostrophe, or the mental addition and subtraction of big numbers, important enough in themselves, but nothing like the real literacy deficit, which is about an understanding of how communications media work in the early years of the 21st Century. The good news is that in this territory, teachers and learners can work together, since neither has a monopoly on knowledge and understanding, which is just exactly as it should be in a new age of learning.


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