The shortcomings of a linear education of the pre-internet age

TL:DR Responding to a call from the Children’s Commissioner on the purpose of exams, ministerial assumptions that university learning is primarily for future employment, and Dr Jana Bacevic’s musings on an online University for the Left.

A number of us, myself included were taken aback to find that one of the most highly regarded political and electoral analysis accounts was being run by an A-level student.

The responses were heartwarming.

The other thing that struck me was how so many people in politics and academia were effectively saying “Sod the exams, the quality of your work here more than sets you apart from the competition. We’ll take you”.

This is something I’ve written about before in the case of young musicians in and around Cambridge – one of my first case studies so to speak of was Ellie Dixon.

Around the time she took her GCSE exams, Ellie produced this piece.

Fast forward six years later and she now has a degree. In Maths! And then recorded “Ugly”

Ellie got back to me with a short but powerful point on our education system.

“We have a very linear education system, a complete mismatch as soon as one enters the real world”. Ellie Dixon.

I am both a product and a victim of that very linear system – as is my generation. Thus I am interested in how I ended up in that situation, and more importantly what needs to be done and by whom in order to prevent future generations from suffering a similar fate.

“Middle Class is Magical?”

How much of this song from the old BBC Mongrels applies to you?

Above – from the BBC Proms 2011.

In my blogpost on Dr Anna Bull’s excellent book on Class, Control & Classical Music, the linear approach that Ellie Dixon mentioned was reflected in my experience of music in school: It was a linear approach based on grades & exam results based on a very narrow musical repertoire and curriculum. And I responded accordingly to the incentives. I’d get a treat for every exam I passed. (1, 2 and 4 on the violin). The concept of playing music for the love of it was never even discussed. Thus I became one of so many teenagers that ‘gave up’ in our early teens. With hindsight I don’t think we gave up. I think we were one of many generations collectively failed by the culture of institutionalised classical music, whether the Royal Schools, exam boards, and local music society.

One of the other things I learnt from a very early age was not to question authority – because at a young age back in those decades if you did, bloody hell you knew about it and I didn’t like the consequences. So I kept my head low throughout and simply tried to do as I was told. Whenever I had ‘choices’ I would choose whatever I thought would make whoever was in authority content if not happy. Questioning authority was…out of the question.

When I got to sixth form college, I got quite a major part in the first musical of my first term. Because I had always associated the singing that I got involved with, with church and choir boy singing, I took a big step away from it as I described in the blogpost on Dr Bull’s work. So when the director of music said I might be interested in joining the college chorus, I ignored her because I thought it would just be a small group of us singing religious music – which by that time I had already grown to hate – and still do.

Again, this was because of the inflammatory and bigoted statements that I had started to notice coming out from religious institutions that I had issues with. Remember this was a time when the Conservative Party were still in government under John Major, and when the Church of England was still regarded as the Conservative Party at Prayer. So when a Conservative Secretary of State for Social Security comes out with a speech like this…

…I started to wonder why he and they hated everyone.

I struggled with depression and isolation, neglected any activities that didn’t contribute towards ‘grades’ or attainment for my A-levels, and came out wondering what it had all been for.

Moving to Brighton in late summer 1999

One of the reasons for picking Brighton as a city was that it was ever so different to Cambridge. What no one also knew was that all of the places I chose were in the south – I didn’t want to go to a northern city that was cold, rainy, and had race-relations issues. This was the late 1990s. Brighton at the time was full of people who were hated by the Conservatives of the day – think of all of the people on Peter Lilley’s list. They were there. And they created the most exciting, energised and buzzing culture on the south coast that even the Tories wanted to have their share of Bohemian coolness. But it could not hide the dreadful social problems the city faced following two decades of cuts. The state of housing in the city was particularly bad.

Trying to diversify beyond my core subjects

I spent most of my first year reading about history because so much of the course re-covered much of my A-level. I tore a shred out of the academics at the end of my first year, saying academically it had been a waste of money, and then same again to a more sympathetic academic at the end of my degree course when she asked me to give an honest take of the course. She was horrified when I told her I had used my revision notes from my A-level in economics as the basis for those of my finals. I still got a 2:1 /Upper Second despite missing most of the first term of that final year due to a mental health crisis. Accordingly due to health and housing issues, I never got to take part in or become part of the institution. In an era of tuition fees, universities have got to go that extra mile for their students – especially when they are in need of support. With me I had a different personal tutor every year – the same as at school and college. So no one tracked my progress let alone got to know me. The mentor I could have done with throughout those years, was conspicuous by their absence.

There was only one module I found useful – one of the first modules of my first term on colonialism and after. The message at the very start was profound: Question Everything. In particular, question authority. You can imagine the culture shock for all of us who had otherwise been at high pressure, high exam results-scoring schools and colleges. You did as you were told, studies hard, and you got high exam results. That was how it was, wasn’t it? With hindsight none of us were ever educated, mentored, or counselled on how to deal with failure.

Living, working, and socialising with kind, friendly people who had been condemned by the church I spent my childhood at. 

In my previous blogpost I wrote:

“I want my childhood back from the church, but I can’t have it back;”

This relates to the point about not being prepared for the real world outside that Ellie also mentioned in her quotation. When one of the priests went off on a rant about pro-choice protesters at one service in the late 1990s I remember thinking that I didn’t agree with a word of it and wondered what I was doing there. At the same time, I had no idea of the struggles that single parents had to go through, or the fight that LGBTQ+ people had to go through to stop being criminalised, discriminated against, and even subjected to violence because of their orientation. My generation was part of the Section 28 generation – and the present Government owes it to that generation to fund a public health campaign to undo the damage their policy did to so many people.

Inevitably it caused problems back home

Breaking away from a religious institution, learning the curricula and the resources you had vs others were political decisions, even the lack of education in awareness of my own physical and mental health, and more, hit me like a ton of bricks. How does one restart and reset? Exactly.

Fast forward to today – and the shambles of the A-Level Results.

The system has already been creaking all over the place. What the past few days have revealed is a whole host of shortcomings about how cohorts are graded, and the use of algorithms in automated decision-making. Accordingly, there are now a series of legal challenges being prepared by a number of law firms against OfQual the regulator, and the Secretary of State for Education – who should have resigned over this.

The statement of 13 August 2020 from the Children’s Commissioner for England is particularly powerful.

“In England, a child’s attainment and future prospects are determined almost entirely by exams taken at just two points in their education. This is an inherently fragile system that is easily thrown into turmoil. It has also created considerable anxiety for children and young people ever since their exams were cancelled. Once the immediate crisis is over, the government should take a long, hard look at the nation’s exam system and whether it does right by children.”

I’d say the same is true for lifelong learning. We’re living in a world where the advances not just in science but in life in general are so great that sometimes I feel I *want* to go back into education but to do something that involves a refresher of the things that have been discovered since, or to do things that I never had the chance do to at school for whatever reason. This could be as simple as the school not having the resources and facilities say for engineering, through to women and girls not being allowed to play football. A bit of me is still proud that in the late 1990s it was a particularly passionate and talented group of new Year 7s that persuaded PE teachers to form a girls football team – which contained a group that played football with us on one of the greens in our neighbourhood. By the time they got to secondary school and onto the school team, they demolished everyone who came across their path. Even in the 1990s the concept of excluding people from playing football with us simply because of gender did not occur to us.

‘Your generation will not have a job for life like our one’

This was the repeated message we got in the late 1990s from teachers and people in authority. Which makes me wonder why the costs of retraining in a high-skilled economy was taken away from firms and dumped on the individual employees – surely it should have been the other way around if the needs of the economy changed to require a ‘flexible workforce’ for profit-making firms? This is explored in much greater detail by the economist Frances Coppola here. Essentially employers want the benefit of a skilled workforce but don’t want to pay the costs for creating and sustaining it. Think the pressure for low corporate and low wealth taxes, along with massive tax avoidance.

With all of these in mind, this then comes back to who pays for adult education, and also the purpose of the university, which Dr Jana Bacevic, formerly of this parish, has been writing about on her blog.








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