Monday, 6 December 2010

Elitist education

Another rant on the subject of education.

It never ceases to amaze me that providing excellent education opportunities to those most academically talented  - as in 'streaming by ability' - is so often described as elitist. And the term 'elitist' implies that somehow, certain others will be excluded and denied an equal opportunity.

In any other field, for example sports or arts, it goes without saying that people are streamed by ability. If those sectors were run along the same idealistic vein as education currently seems to be, the England football team would play roughly like the philosophers in the Monty Python sketch, and museums would be filled with random scribblings, while the Royal Ballet might resemble the X-factor auditions. Giving everybody 'equal access' to training and support in these disciplines would be ludicrous. Participants consider it normal and right that they should compete, train, and consistently be the best in order to get the top position. They learn to win and they learn to lose. They learn to have an accurate estimation of their own skills and abilities. Regardless of sometimes having to admit defeat, they learn real self-confidence and real self-worth, based on real achievements.

Consumers also expect the best. Nobody thinks it's elitist or exclusive to expect the England football players to be the best ones in the country. Most people would be insulted if they came to see a theatre performance, an exhibition, or a professional sports event, and were confronted with a mediocre effort by a bunch of self-confident amateurs who were never challenged and never faced rejection.

However, when it comes to education, the received wisdom is that challenging children is wrong. When faced with a difficult task, they might experience disappointment or even failure. It is seen to be of paramount importance that all levels of achievement are valued equally, so that all can have a pleasant experience and grow self-confidence. Without any challenges they are left with a hollow and meaningless sense of self-worth, based on no real effort or achievements, and they have a completely false view of their own abilities. That bubble will eventually burst and I doubt anyone will feel grateful for it. "I was not taught any skills while I had the chance, but at least I was a happy child living in cloud cuckoo land"? Not likely. The teachers we appreciate the most are the ones who made us sweat.

I wholeheartedly support the idea that all genuine effort should be valued equally, regardless of the resulting achievement. But this is in a moral and a social sense. Two children who both try their very best to complete a reading assignment, one with better results than the other, both deserve praise and recognition for their effort and hard work. In an academic sense, their achievement is different, and this too needs to be recognized.

A football match in a school P.E. class serves to allow all children to participate and will result in varying levels of achievement, but ideally equal levels of enjoyment and recognition. A professional team however will be comprised only of those who consistently achieve well. These talented players are picked up young and trained harder and longer than any other, by the best available coaches. They are selected and streamed by ability, and this is described as a noble thing, as realizing their potential, as an opportunity for children from all backgrounds, etc. It is rarely seen as unfair to those who are less good at football. It simply makes sense.

Ironically enough, all sense is abandoned when it comes to education. Should not academic achievement be handled in the same way? After several years of learning the basics, those that excel academically could be selected and streamed to be trained and challenged by the best teachers in the most difficult disciplines. Should not their potential be realized, should not this amazing opportunity be open to those with the talent for it? This does not imply that those whose talents lie elsewhere are not equally valued and recognized, any more that it is unfair that Wayne Rooney plays for England and I don't.

Universities are to academics like symphony orchestras are to musicians or national teams are to sports-people. Why can't we treat them that way?

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