Saturday, September 4, 2010

Education and David Willets

It appears that David Willets, a well-educated man who is generally held to be intelligent, has said that universities should mentally knock a few points off the exam results of middle class applicants, in some kind of levelling exercise to get (yet) more state school pupils doing degrees. He talks about ‘balance’, and picking students on ‘potential’ rather than ‘performance’. He doesn’t use the expression ‘social justice’, though he might as well. He is, of course, talking nonsense, but then, he is a politician, a member of a highly unstable government that isn’t at all certain that it has real support among the electorate. (The electorate isn’t too sure, either).

Good universities did choose students on a variety of criteria, including what Willets presumably means by potential, as much as on exam results. They held interviews and entrance exams which were intended to tell them much more than what A Level results alone could. Then they made specific, personal offers of places to students. They were more or less prevented from doing this by Labour governments who thought it benefitted the wrong sort of people. Now we have a government that wants them to start doing it again, but only if it benefits the right people, who are, broadly speaking, the sort of people whose votes they can’t count on but think they might win over. Why is he wrong?

Is it a good thing that all those capable of getting a degree in a serious academic subject, and thus increasing their options in life and having a chance of being more successful, which in turn will be good for the country as a whole, should not be prevented from doing so by their parents’ lack of money? Most certainly it is. You don’t have to be a socialist to recognise that.

But reducing inequality by shooting the rich doesn’t work. As Willets obviously realizes, state education is, in general, very poor. There is much variation, and some good schools but large numbers of children in Britain with the potential to do well have to more or less educate themselves as best they can, forced as they are to put up with classmates who don’t want to learn, teachers who can’t teach and an education system that structured and operated for the benefit of politicians and trade unions rather than for the children (or the taxpayer who foots the bill).

It’s a mess, it leaves millions of children with empty heads and no hope of anything but drudgery or crime and it needs to be completely recreated from scratch. Denying any kind of decent education and opportunity in life to generations of children, deliberately condemning the poor and unfulfilled to remain that way for ever, purely for reasons of ideology, is one of the highest crimes of British socialism against the people it claims to represent. But pretending that young people who do not know things and have not demonstrated a particular competence have in fact done so is not the solution.

And David Willets is well aware of this. He simply wishes to shift the blame onto the universities, which the great majority of people haven’t attended and treat with distrust, and to avoid having to do anything meaningful, which would be difficult or, worse still, ‘brave’.

The whole idea of education needs to be completely dismantled, depoliticised and rebuilt. What it is for, how it should be paid for, what forms it should take, now and in the future, who should do it, and how to deal with the problems caused by people who don’t want it.

To be continued...

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