Britain: Poor kids take 'soft subjects'

Worthless qualifications in “soft subjects” such as media studies are fooling low-income British students into thinking they’re prepared for higher education and good careers, a Harrow headmaster tells The Guardian.

State schools risk producing students like “those girls in the first round of the X Factor” who tell the judges they want to be the next Britney Spears but cannot sing a note, Barnaby Lenon said.

Bright children from poor backgrounds are being short-changed by those who lead them to believe that “high grades in soft subjects” and going to “any old university to read any subject” were the route to prosperity, he told a conference of leading private and state school headteachers.

Michael Gove, the shadow (Tory) education secretary, said state schools encourage students to take media studies because it inflates the pass rate, making the school look better.

“More children who were eligible for free school meals sat GCSEs in media ­studies than in physics, chemistry and biology combined,” Gove said.

“The Tories are planning a return to more academically driven schooling, including setting by ability and traditional subject-based classes, if elected this year,” reports The Guardian.

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  1. “Subject-based classes.” As if there were something else classes could be based on. Gah.

  2. Student of History says:

    Careful. There’s a lot of ed school writings out there on both sides of the pond that propose socialization skills as the primary obligation of schools in our 21st century, “Just Google it” world.

    Such statements always remind me of the classic Tree Octopus satire.

  3. The educational systems that stand in any society are (except in exceptional circumstances) there because that is what society demands of the educational system. Without fundamental changes to society, you aren’t going to change the educational system with a few declarations.

    It seems pretty evident to me that barring the exceptional, standards X completion-rate is pretty much a constant. We can up the standards, but the completion rate (% students successfully graduating high school) falls, and vice-versa.

    Moreover, the non-completes are heavily concentrated in the lower-SES areas.

    Do the Conservatives truly feel they can enact standards that will cause the graduation rates to plummet in low-SES schools? It would be seen as a declaration of war on the lower classes (and it would be: given a completion of a low standards degree is worth more than an incomplete high-standards degree, it would essentially be sacrificing a lot of the low-SES crowd for the benefit of a few in the low SES and a lot more more among the middle and upper classes.)

    That success can be achieved in lower-SES schools is beyond a doubt (see Our School), but it takes a commitment that, realistically, we will not see spread over the entire system. There simply aren’t that many super-dedicated teachers, parents, and administrators.

    Unless a Conservative victory unleashes as social revolution along with it (which *can* happen, but is unlikely), the British educational system in unlikely to substantively change.

  4. Oh, let’s not go blaming all of society quite so reflexively.

    The people who work in public education have personal lives and aspirations of their own. Those personal lives and aspirations may not necessarily be especially supportive of the ends of public education so it’s worthwhile to ensure that the hired help is doing the job they’re supposed to be doing.

    That seems like a rather more manageable task then remaking society.

  5. Math Teacher says:

    This seems off-topic, but is Allen saying that educators (teachers?) should not have personal lives (or “aspirations”) of their own? If your aspiration is to be a teacher, does that mean you therefore must give up your personal life? In what other job/profession is that the expectation? Just curious…

  6. My personal aspirations including sleeping and eating, which certainly aren’t compatible with my work sometimes.

  7. worthwhile to ensure that the hired help is doing the job they’re supposed to be doing.

    “doing the job they’re supposed to be doing” = doing what the customer wants.

    Allen, the educational system exists to serve the customer. In the long-term, failure to do that gets you replaced by someone who *is* willing to serve the customer. The customer in this case, are the parents. They are the ones that will eventually end someone’s career for failing to deliver. Standards that are achievable with minimal effort *are* what what the customers want (not what they *say* they want, but what they’ll punish you for not delivering).

    “Real” standards mean real failures. People who worked hard, and despite their best effort, failed.

    Until we’re at a stage were the customer is not going to punish educators or administrators for this real cost of upholding “real” standards, it just isn’t going to happen, and blaming the workers is, in my opinion, a somewhat cowardly way of making them pay for society’s choices.

  8. Parents are not the customer in public schools. The taxpayers are. They are represented by politicians, who depend upon union support to be reelected.

    “The customer in this case, are the parents. They are the ones that will eventually end someone’s career for failing to deliver.”

    That might happen in some private schools. Some teachers without tenure might not be re-hired in public schools. With tenure and seniority, though, there’s nothing parents can do to “end (a) career,” unless the teacher’s committed a crime.

  9. While the taxpayer may be the customer in theory, it’s the parents who are actually willing to do the work to make enough bad press to end a political career that re the real customer. In the end, they’re the customers you have to satisfy.

    Likewise, a classroom of angry parents is usually enough to sideline a teacher’s career with the administration willing to do what it takes to keep the heat down.

    And yes, a school full of angry parents usually means the end of a principal’s career.

    And yes, when I talk about ending a career, I’m not usually talking about getting fired. For politicians, it can mean not getting re-elected. For administrators and educators, it means getting dumped somewhere out of the public eye.

    Note, organizations are usually unwilling to spend a lot of effort to defend those who *purposely* cause trouble. If you’re not preparing to teach, then you’ve got problems and the system will defend you. If you’re *choosing* to anger parents by making extra effort and thus failing good numbers of students, then you’re purposely inflicting trouble on those around you.

    Realistically, it’s not that swimming against the system *can’t* be done. You just have to be willing to put in super-human effort and expect to be vilified for that effort.

  10. Tom West – the UK, at least back before the 1970s, had at least two sets of standards. There were grammar schools, which were state-funded, and aimed to prepare their students for university, and other high schools aimed at a vocational degree. Entry was determined by an exam at age 11. This was unpopular with the Labour party, and generally the grammar schools were converted to “comprehensives” over the decades, unless an area happened to have the Conservative party continually winning the local body elections. Having two sets of standards can increase the completion rate.

    Of course, as this brief history indicates, the multiple-sets-of-standards system is not immune to political pressures either. I don’t see a good solution here.


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