Jane (not her real name) is a gadget freak and serious social networker. She has the obligatory iPhone and iPad (she recently queued up in the small hours in London's West End, to buy the newly released iPad 2), plus a Blackberry. She is on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and has just joined Groupme. Her (old) iPod lies in the bottom of a drawer in her bedroom. She's thinking of passing it on to her brother. But there's a small problem: Jane's younger sibling already has a smartphone. Jane used to have a page on myspace, but she hasn't updated it for yonks because the once-leading entertainment site has lost its cachet. Even her profile on Bebo is not attractive anymore. Jane, who is in her mid-to-late teens, talks in rapid-fire, slang-filled, short sentences and writes in text-speak. She wants to go to university to study digital media. Her dream job is to work for Apple, or a similar big corporation. Will she succeed?
The answer to that question depends on whether Michael Gove, our current Education Secretary, can win the battle to revamp - some people call it overhaul - the national curriculum. Under new guidelines, the government is intent on bringing a more 'traditional' approach to the content taught in British classrooms. Latin has been mentioned once again. History will be given a higher profile. That should, ideally, suit Peter.
Peter (not his real name) is passionate about the classics. Although not a technophobe, his gadgets trove pales in comparison to Jane's: just an old mobile and a 2GB mp3 player. He spends most of his time - and money - on researching ancient history and reading and analysing classical literature. His short-term goal is to study Humanities, preferably at a top British university. His long-term ambition is to become a historian à la Simon Schama, presenting television programmes on the subjects he loves.
In an ideal world, Peter would be a shoo-in for Michael Gove's English baccalaureate. If he gets good grades in maths and at least one science he'll probably laugh through his GCSEs because the other three elements that make up the bulk of the E-bac, as it's commonly known (a foreign language, English and one humanities subject) are the topics in which Peter is chiefly interested. So, he won't find it hard to get good results. However, Peter's future looks more ominous than Jane's.
At this moment, and before I carry on, I must own up to a certain bias. I like the English baccaulaureate. I know it's fashionable nowadays amongst my compadres and comadres in the liberal and progressive media to indulge in a little bit of Gove-bashing, but at least the guy is acknowledging that the belles lettres have as much a role to play in contemporary Britain as physics and chemistry. And he's also recognising foreign languages' contribution to our globalised economy, an approach that goes some way to ameliorate New Labour's mistake in getting rid of the compulsory modern foreign language GCSE. The problem is that this whole revolution comes at a time when we're playing catch-up with technology.
In terms of employability, Jane is in a much better position than Peter. Should she want to branch out into music, for instance, when she finishes her degree, there's nothing to stop her from doing so. Worldwide technology, business and the creative sector have almost merged into one single entity driving global economies forward. Peter, on the other hand, is passionate about subjects that no longer engage the student population as they once did. The 'shuffling' bit of what I've come to label 'the shuffling generation' (©™) accepts the contributions of language, history and literature as long as they don't exceed the one-hundred and forty characters limit and can be mixed and re-mixed. Gove's ideas, though laudable, place him next to the T-Rex and Brontosaurus in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. He is looking for purity in a world where the word 'cross' has taken permanent residence in most terms to do with education. We speak of 'cross-curricular' activities with the same ease with which we describe spring blossoms.
You'll probably wonder if this column is a déjà vu moment, but rest assured, it isn't. I have written about education before and will continue to do so because a) I work at a school, albeit one involved in primary education and b) both my children are growing up and in my son's case he will be sitting his GCSEs in a couple of years. As I mentioned before, the E-bac looks tantalising, but my main preoccupation is whether my children will be able to find employment in an ever-increasingly uncertain job market. Furthermore, given their proclivity towards the arts - my son plays piano, saxophone and has been attending a street-dance class for over a term now; my daughter plays piano, cello and practises ballet and tap every week - the scope for them to find work that is both fulfilling and well-remunerated will be narrower, not wider.
At this moment in time, I don't know whether in the UK we're moving towards a more employment-orientated curriculum or a more 'holistic' one. Sometimes it feels as if it's the former. Relevance of one's qualifications is still paramount, especially where the practical is linked to the theoretical. In that respect this digital age continues to satisfy a generation with a short attention span and a truncated language bank. On the other hand, progression is still rooted in academic achievement, namely, the combination of subjects studied (come back History, please, do not walk away Maths, where do you think you're going French?). A CV written in text-speak is put at the bottom of the pile, if not given the heave-ho straight away.
My ideal case scenario would be a curriculum where the likes of Peter are convinced of the need to embrace new, cutting-edge techonology fully without seeing it as a threat to traditional forms of teaching and learning. In Jane's case, I would try to make her see how her job prospects would increase tenfold were she able to spell correctly and speak coherently. However, under current government guidelines, neither scenario will be likely to materialise because what we have right now is a political divide along the lines of traditional versus new. Unsurprisingly, the questions of what is to be taught, how it is to be taught, to whom it is to be taught, when and where, are not being asked. Rather than a both/and solution, the coalition and the opposition are locked in an either/or battle. Add tuition fees to the mix, social mobility at an all-time low and unemployment amongst the young on the increase, and Jane and Peter are the real losers. And no smartphone or History Channel will counteract that.
And this is 'see you later' from me. I will be away during the Easter break and it's very unlikely that I will be in touch with you, my cyber-friends. But I promise to visit your blogs as much as I can. In the meantime, I will either be uploading music clips on Sunday or re-posting old columns, so stick around and keep the virtual conversation flowing. Have a brilliant holiday!
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee and Music', to be published on Sunday 17th April at 10am (GMT)