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Modernisation and Education


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The most irritating term ever used by politicians is the word "modernisation". Language is elastic for the powerful, who can make words mean whatever they want, but some notions of modernity defy belief. Worse, those against modernisation, as conceived by its protagonists, are labelled "conservative".

In October 1999, Tony Blair used a speech to new headteachers to attack the profession, saying a mindset existed within teaching that was "one of the most powerful forces of conservatism in our society". This accusation was hurled at a profession that had implemented dozens of "initiatives" emanating from successive governments.

The prime minister had made a similar attack on doctors. Significantly, it was during a speech to venture capitalists that he said he bore the scars on his back to prove his battles with public-sector workers. The message seemed to be: you business folk are progressive, the professions are conservative. Five years later, he was being treated for heart problems by some of these same "conservatives". Presumably they stuck a leech on his bum.

Some professional people do resist change, but some politicians impose "modernisation" that isn't. What is modernising about making schools introduce uniforms and a house system? It is like inviting people on to an ocean liner and then giving them an oar, or modernising their bicycle by having a massive wheel at the front and a tiny one at the back.

The modernisation ploy is accompanied by Big Lies. The first is that current practice is hopeless, when in fact some of it might be good. In his attacks on public service in 1999, Tony Blair said "Ten years ago, a 15-year-old probably couldn't work a computer. Now he's in danger of living on it." It was a lie. British schools had led the world in introducing computers.

I chaired the national planning group of the Domesday Project, run by the BBC in 1985-86, to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book. More than a million young people in over 12,000 schools took part in a detailed survey of their own locality, using computers to collate their data. By comparison, many businesses at that time were light years behind in their use of technology.

Another Big Lie is that whatever is being proposed actually constitutes a modernisation, when it may be the reintroduction of an old prejudice. What is forward-looking about telling teachers precisely what they should do every few minutes, as happened in the literacy and numeracy hours? When the cap on top-up fees is removed, as it undoubtedly will be, what is progressive about making university students pay a fortune to be educated at an elite university? Are those who oppose the "modernisation" of early-years education, through the introduction of 117 tickboxes for every five-year-old, merely wreckers and conservatives?

A third Big Lie is that the modernisation has worked. Thank goodness educational improvement in Wales has exceeded that in England, without some of the celebrated modernisation paraphernalia, and improvements in science exceeded those in literacy and numeracy, even though teachers were not told what to do in every few minutes of a lesson.

The worst current modernisation is the use of classroom assistants to teach classes on their own, as part of the workforce agreement. Although there are many brilliant people assisting teachers, they are not qualified to teach alone and should not be expected to do so, especially given the relatively poor remuneration. Allowing unqualified people to teach classes was precisely what happened in the 19th century. Other professionals, such as dentists, may have assistants, but they do not permit them to fill teeth and insert bridges.

In this modernised world, teachers are required to apply to the minister to innovate, according to the 2002 Education Act, public schools are invited to run inner-city comprehensives, and fees for higher education reach prohibitive levels. If you are not a wrecker and force of conservatism, touch your forelock now and say, "I remain, sir, your obedient servant." It's the modern thing to do.

http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/co...1367650,00.html

Edited by Ted Wragg
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Ted writes:

In his attacks on public service in 1999, Tony Blair said "Ten years ago, a 15-year-old probably couldn't work a computer. Now he's in danger of living on it." It was a lie. British schools had led the world in introducing computers.

Agreed! The early 1980s were a boom period in the UK. I travelled a lot in the 1980s, with my BBC Micro in my carry-on flight bag, demonstrating British educational software to teachers all over Europe.

Ted writes:

I chaired the national planning group of the Domesday Project, run by the BBC in 1985-86, to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book.

What a great project! I demonstrated the Domesday videodisc all over Europe too. It was way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it only worked on British hardware, and the kit was a bit Heath-Robinson: BBC Micro or RM Nimbus linked to a Philips-compatible videodisc player, but it worked marvellously. Recently produced CD-ROM-based multimedia packages still haven’t caught up with the Domesday Project. Read more about the Domesday Project here:

http://www.atsf.co.uk/dottext/domesday.html

The valuable data gathered during the duration of the project was in danger of being lost, however, as both the media and the hardware are no longer widely available. This has resulted in a major rescue operation: the CAMiLEON Project (University of Leeds and University of Michigan):

http://www.si.umich.edu/CAMILEON/

Data preservation is an area of major concern these days, as both hardware and software quickly become obsolete – in contrast to the original Domesday Book of 1086. See the Long Now website:

http://www.longnow.org/

As for modernisation, I suppose that making modern foreign languages compulsory for children in schools in England only up to the age of 14 constitutes “modernisation” – in an expanding European Union, where virtually all children in our partner countries study at least one foreign language up to school-leaving age. Knowledge of modern foreign languages is already becoming the preserve of the elite in England – just as it was in the 19th century.

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