Education used to be such a simple term. In fact, it used to be a concept rather than a thing. 100 years ago parents wouldn’t say to their children ‘you ought to get an education!’ — rather, you were considered educated, or not. Education was something that just happened, by living, by interacting, by experiencing; education happened everywhere. Today that couldn’t be further from the truth. Education is formalised, measured, assessed. Somehow, from this pinnacle of civilization that we pride ourselves on reaching, we can now measure the efficacy of education. A board of faceless experts, prodded and cajoled by a lambasted government, has decided what constitutes an education and how to go about getting it.

Of course we’d be kidding ourselves if it actually worked: it doesn’t. We spend more on education today than ever before — every country does — but do we see improvements? Is our society more educated today than 50 or 100 years ago?

The problem with politics in general, and bureaucracy in specific, is that everything must be measured. You must have a metric, some way to measure success or failure. The thinking goes something like this: without tests and scores and league tables it’s impossible to definitively state that the quality of education is improving. This leads to classifications, archetypes, subjective measurements of what you should know. A child might know the inner machinations of plate tectonics in the Earth’s lithosphere (perhaps he researched it after the Icelandic volcano?), but because exams don’t cover that topic, it doesn’t count. Attempting to measure how educated a nation is is beyond futile. Britain has ‘lower scores’ than Sweden — but how can that possibly indicate which country has a higher level of education? Maybe Swedes have exams that focus on the Vikings, while Brits examine geography and poetry. How can a score come anywhere close to an accurate reading of education levels?

Back to my previous point: are we more educated today than 100 years ago? Does it matter?

Therein lies the problem: it matters. Not to you or I per se, but it matters to the media – and thus it matters in politics. The Labour Party has had higher education scores than the Conservative Party, thus they are better. Does that mean they’re better at teaching our children or readying our young adults for life, or that exam scores are simply higher than before? If you throw more money at schools does education improve? Again: how do you actually measure it? Why must we measure education?

We haven’t always measured education, as I said. It’s a recent thing. A mass-media, modern-politics thing. Historically, you either went to a college — Oxford, Cambridge — or you were apprenticed in a field that interested you. You would be asked where you studied, or who you studied under. If you were a crafter, you would be assessed by the quality of your wares; an artist by the beauty of your work.

Today it’s almost impossible to measure someone’s actual skill. GCSEs aren’t worth the paper they’re written on and A-levels are a joke. Potential employers, with the inflation of undergraduate degrees, are now seeking students with postgraduate degrees. Where does it stop? It has got to the stage where we are reaching adulthood without the skills needed to survive. Not to put too fine a point on it: the system has failed. More money won’t help it. Throwing good money after bad won’t work. It is a flawed system with a broken scale, where difference is quashed and actual, real knowledge is almost impossible to obtain.

But what can be done about it?

  1. Remove exams, or at least remove their significance and any kind of comparison between individual students or schools. Test scores in their current form have a value very close to zero. At best they give a student something to be proud of; at worst they provide an entirely false measure of knowledge and intelligence.
  2. Authority of knowledge must return. Teachers must become authorities in their class room. In a geography class, the teacher is the authority when it comes to geography. Students must look to their teachers or lecturers — currently, teachers have zero control over what they teach or how they teach it.
  3. Specialisation must return. Schools and colleges should be specialised. Rather than having 100 schools that all produce templated, archetypal mediocre students, we need schools that have specialities. If someone wants to learn engineering, there should be a school or university for that. Children are stripped of their interests and tendencies at a very young age at the moment — instead, a child that likes art should be identified and sent to an art school.

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As you can probably tell from the intensity of this post, education is an important subject for me. I wrote this in about 25 minutes — that’s how much crappy education riles me up. Blood and spit and bile flows from my fingertips!

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Sebastian

I am a tall, hairy, British writer who blogs about technology, photography, travel, and whatever else catches my eye.

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