Sunday 10 April 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

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.

© 2011

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)


  1. Ah, the old conundrum, how to follow your passion and still be employable, how to prepare for tomorrows that will be nothing like our todays.

    I've been in many of these discussions and it pains me to see how we discard so much of our past curriculum because it does not seem relevant today.

    With budget cuts everywhere, these discussions will get ugly.

  2. A post like this makes me glad (a) I'm not young in today's world and (b) I don't have children to worry about.

    It's a sad world where art in all its beautiful guises is considered less worthy than a "money earning degree". But I suppose it's always been so (the starving artist isn't a new phenomenon). But it's annoying when people don't respect art degrees. (When I left an accountant career to study a Bachelor of Arts, the Managing Partner - when I told him why I was resigning - said "Well, that's pretty useless isn't it?" I wasn't impressed!

    Enjoy your Easter break - hope your spring weather brings lovely sunshine!
    Judy (South Africa)

  3. La situación con la educación en UK es complicada, y desde luego que estoy de acuerdo contigo. Es verdad que hay que modernizar y adaptar el curriculum pero no me gusta que se releguen las materias de "arts" y "humanities" como algo del pasado. Las futuras generaciones tendrán toda los conocimientos tecnológicos pero estará vacíos en temas de letras y de espíritu!

  4. Technology is a tool; it enables us to do the things we've always done (like having this kind of fabulous debate), in new and different ways.

    If it were up to me, schools would teach computer-literacy at the same time as normal literacy ... but not instead. I certainly don't believe it should replace the subjects which have actual content... and I don't believe education should be about "getting a job" directly, but I know that can be an unpopular belief!

  5. I think there should be MORE education of all kinds, not less. Let's have less money for bombs and more for kids, environment and money - but then, I'm a SF liberal and I know that is not going to happen in this world. Years and years ago, I worked like ..heck... to get my BA. I was older than most students and cherished every minute of every class. I desperately wanted to be a history/humanities teacher but had to give up that dream because even then (1982), there were no jobs and no prospects for jobs. It breaks my heart to see the situation get worse and worse, for the Peters and Janes of the world. It looks like you might as well get to the back of the bus unless you are born with a lot of money in the bank. Dickens wrote about this 100 years ago. How sad that we are going back to the era which he portrayed, with it's vicious class distinctions, harsh economic climate and brutality.

  6. Both my sons question the logic of going to college. They both want to go out and work.

    I support their opinion. But as a mom, my advise to them, go to college, they are young and their brain is still able to learn engineering and technical know-how. And, if they can, because they might still cannot, get that degree. For whatever it is worth, it would at least not limit their eligibility to get a wife.

  7. And hola Cuban, I do not understand fully your comment about the "female bit". Are we not from one male and one female? Or is O Men! not same as O Mankind!? A classic case of living in a bilingual world.

  8. Sigh. I'm afraid that this debate rages on both sides of the Atlantic and it will be around for awhile. The American education system is outdated at best and even though computer literacy is taught in schools, regular literacy rates are plummeting. My daughter often questions why she's the only one out of her group of 6 friends who likes to read. It's because she grew up in an environment where literacy was valued and I'm afraid that is growing rare. On the other hand, I always tell my arts college students that although traditional jobs are shrinking, there's a host of non-traditional jobs like blogging and social media training, that are waiting for them. So I think the job market is adjusting to the changing focus of students . It's just the best prepared and in demand students will have an education thats rooted in traditional and technological learning. Have a happy holiday!

  9. You’ve brought up some very good points. I’d like to think that education would teach the Janes to write in complete sentences and the Peters to get some real world skills. We are also facing school cuts here.

    That’s great that your kids are pursuing the arts. Childhood should be a time for exploration, discovery and joy. My kids have been taking piano since they were each 6, and although they will never be professional musicians, it gives us all pleasure.

  10. I do think it's a good idea to move back to a more holitic approach to education, with a stress on the humanities and foreign languages. That's really good news because it's giving the children an opportunity to learn skills and subjects that will expand their world and give them a broader perspective. That's just as important to surviving in this world (if not more) as being able to solve maths problems and knowing what the periodic table is.


  11. Many thanks for your kind comments. Just popping in before heading off to the park with my daughter.:-)

    Greetings from London.



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