9 May 2014

Off-topic: UK Education

Education is a contentious subject in any developed country. This is for a number of different reasons: it co-mingles children of all classes in the same environment; it costs a lot of money; and it is integral to the very future of a country.

This post will be centred on UK education. The reason for this is simple: I don’t know enough about other countries to comment. And yes, there are statistics; but these don’t give you the full picture—and as I shall elaborate on next, they’re often inaccurate.

Here’s another thing: this post will be anecdotal. Don’t expect to see wonderfully coloured pie charts anywhere; don’t expect numbers and algebra; don’t look for the bureaucrats’ report. (There are enough of those in the world.)

Of course, any anecdotal argument will—by definition—be less empirically sound than one based on statistics and ‘fact’ (however that may be determined). But: an argument that has no personal basis will not be complete. It will not tell you about the quality (or otherwise) of the mark schemes; it will not tell you what the pupils are actually learning; what they’re gaining. It will not even tell you much about the money.

Teachers—and pupils, who play along—will always put on a good show for the bureaucrat. They will always plan lessons in advance, and use all of the technology on offer.

Likewise, a bureaucrat may not always see the class at their best. They won’t know about the ingenious solutions teachers have to circumvent problems in their students’ learning, desire for sucess, or for those dealing with material constraints.

This post will not show a rainbow-filled, dancing unicorns version of education; neither will it present education as this dark, unpleasant place where everyone cheats and no one actually learns anything.

The reality is that education in any UK school will generally fall somewhere in between; and yes, this varies from school to school. (Though not as much as you’d think.)

My Background: And Why You Should Keep Reading

I am a sixteen year old student. My GCSE exams are next week. So yes: I have a deeply personal view on this. Perhaps it will interest you.

I am now studying at a grammar school; previously, I was in a comprehensive. I have a dual background, therefore: I have seen the best; I have seen the worst; and I know of everything in between.

I have also studied in the Netherlands and Romania. Both have given me an interesting perspective. In the case of the former, I saw that education does not have to be segregated—either through grammar schools or sets. I saw that anyone can get a reasonable grade. I saw that widespread bilinguality is perfectly possible... under the right cirumstances.

Being a native Romanian, I have some familiarity with my own system. Would I call it good? Probably not. Would I call it bad? No. My system has taught me that it is possible to learn a subject in real depth, even early on; but likewise, it has taught me that hard exams will often dissuade the less determined and interested pupils to the point of failiure.

As far as I can say, the Dutch system is the best out of these three. It is well-funded, first of all—that does help, though how the money is spent matters as well—and, moreover, it is fair, well set-up, considerate of different pupils’ needs; and it teaches the pupils a thing or two.

The Romanian system will give you the most in-depth knowledge out of these three, without a doubt. However, its disservice to the lower-grade pupils is detestable; and it is also, unquestionably, stressful.

The UK system won’t teach you a great deal. It will give you some useful skills—mainly in exam technique, literacy, and dealing with people. (Most of which is down to the teachers, not the spec.) It is reasonably well funded. It is good; it isn’t great. It can be an easy ride; but it depends hugely on the school. In my school, we do 11 GCSEs. It’s stressful, tiring and depressing. The school is thinking of cutting one.

Let’s go into more detail...

The UK System: Good, Bad, or Mediocre?

Let me start by saying that the Dutch system is one of the best in Europe—and by association, the world, since the only real competition comes from Australia and Canada. (No, Asian countries aren’t comparable. I’ll go into that later.)

The UK system isn’t far behind.

But this isn’t saying much. African countries are poor as peasants; and all that war, violence, disease, religiosity and social repression does them no good. Arab countries are plagued by religious fanaticism, a contempt of literature (aside from that damn book of theirs, of course), disturbing hatred of anyone who is different—whether they wish it or not—and a lack of free speech.

I could go on and on. The point is: the world-wide standard is pretty damn low.

And, objectively, the UK standard is pretty average.

So there you go. Now as to the why...

The Purpose of Education: And How the UK Fares

There is a fair amount of philosophy and debate around that question. Should education teach you life lessons? Should it give you skills that are valuable, or that employers specifically seek? Should it impart knowledge—and what kind of knowledge? Knowledge of intellectual merit; or knowledge that allows you to do something?

My answer to all the preceding: yes. Education should do every one of those... though of course, some are more important than others.

Teaching students to be good people; to think critically, objectively and without depth; to consider other people’s feelings; and to possess deep or very general knowledge—that is more important than anything else.

Sure, teaching them more maths or science or employability skills might give the economy a small boost; but these things can be learned in the course of time. And judging by the huge number of atrocities that go on in the world—mutinies, perfunctory trials, the imprisonment of innocent people—teaching people to be human beings is a pretty damn good idea, in my view.

However, education must be tempered by realism. Teaching pupils philosophy is all well and good; but realistically, many will not truly learn this until they have lived in the real world for a while. And of course, not preparing children for the world of work would inflict a great deal of stress and (righteous) anger towards their school.

So, there are two things to learn here: humanity is more important than employer skills or facts; but there is a limit to how much the former can be practically taught. Plus, skills and facts are pretty useful.

Okay, Okay, But What About Good Ol’ Britain?

Right... where to start.

One major weakness of the UK is that it does not impart deep knowledge. A GCSE in something won’t mean much to you; it’ll only mean something to universities, employers, and gov’t—will you be a shop assistant, plumber or banker. Marxian classism to the very best.

This is not entirely without benefit: you get to study lots of subjects. However, the amount of depth is so low that it really doesn’t mean much.

Let me give you an example: the English Language GCSE is totally meaningless. You learn absolutely nothing about creating good prose; and the analysis is so low-level that how well you do on it lies mainly on your exam technique. (You have to answer the questions in a very specific manner, not like you would in normal life or even in higher education.)

So, my first recommendation would be to beef up the GCSE syllabi.

The second problem I have with the UK system is autonomy. Schools get too much of the damn stuff. While every school is different—a true one size-fits-all is impractical—at the current stage, a school can teach religious bull**** or make their students do 11 GCSEs, or make them do GCSEs they aren’t any good at, or make them do GCSEs that they hate and do them early...

Schools don’t always know best. I encountered these problems both in my comprehensive and in my grammar; both of whom are top in the league tables (if we take those to be any good).

So, yeah. Let’s put some reasonable limits on autonomy. Don’t allow schools to make mandatory subjects outside the national curriculum. Don’t allow schools to force their pupils to do more than 9 GCSEs. (Unless they want to.) And for God’s sake, look at what they actually teach!

However, I must admit that UK schools have excellent teachers; and that the GCSE curriculi—in particular, the RE one—do open the road to critical thought and understanding. And in fairness, exam technique is a useful skill.

But don’t evaluate students solely on it. Or even primarily on it. Knowledge and understanding is far more important.


I won’t say much on this. The man is an idiot living in the 20th century. Get rid of him.

Modern Foreign Languages

This is a topic of great annoyance for me. I hate learning languages in school. (And this is coming from someone who has native-speaker fluency in two languages.)

It shouldn’t be like this. Learning a language gives you insight into another culture; it gives you perspective, and forces you to question your own beliefs. Plus, it’s useful.

But MFL teachers are obsessed with grammar. Absolutely, fucking obsessed. We do grammar in every lesson. I hate it.

Grammar is boring; and it’s not how a language works. I don’t come up with all the rules in a tense and use that to write something. That’s stupid. You will get nothing but boring, lifeless word vomit.

The entire pedagogy in this subject should be overhauled. The only people who like it are the grammar geeks: everyone else can’t stand it. You can keep repeating it all you like; we’ll never understand it.

It is of no surprise to me that the UK is very monolingual. And to a degree, I don’t actually care: this language is the world-standard; and every hour not spent learning a language is an hour spent learning how to build an engine, or a computer, or thinking about why we exist.

The UK will never have the linguistic skills of a country like Holland. It doesn’t need it: and that’s a real benefit. Moreover, we have nowhere near enough exposure to do so even if we wanted to.

But for the people who genuinely like and want to learn a language, the MFL course is a failiure. It’s bad enough forcing people who don’t like languages to go through the arduous process of obtaining a GCSE in it; but blocking the option for non-grammar Nazis?

That’s criminal.

(I’m doing French though, which is a particularly unintuitive language. It might not be so bad for other ones.)

What Do You Suggest We Do?

Make the language focused on speaking, reading, and listening; writing a language is incredibly difficult, and beyond what a secondary school student should reasonably be expected to achieve. (I’m talking about more than ‘Je joue le foot’ here.)

Make us watch French films. Make us read French books. Give us a taste of the real thing—you never know. We might just like it.

Information Technology and Bullshit

In my grammar school, I am doing IGCSE Computer Studies. It’s a great course: there’s programming; there’s networks and systems; there’s a focus on practicality and business; and it’s a useful, all round course.

I did GCSE IT at my old school. It was crap.

All we did was Microsoft Excel—oh God, the spreadsheets!—and a tiny bit of audio editing. It was incredibly dull, boring and unintellectual.

So why the discrepancy?

I really think the IT courses in this country should get some serious quality control, preferably from people who work in the industry. The current state of affairs in this subject is frankly unacceptable.


The OECD has released a funny little education benchmark called PISA; it compares the performance of international students.

According to it, we should all be like China.

Of course, the OECD also predicted that the financial crisis of 2007–2014 (and beyond) would never have happened:

Our central forecast remains indeed quite benign: a soft landing in the United States, a strong and sustained recovery in Europe, a solid trajectory in Japan and buoyant activity in China and India. In line with recent trends, sustained growth in OECD economies would be underpinned by strong job creation and falling unemployment.

—OECD, 2007.

Frankly, the organisation is full of idiot economists and bureaucrats. I wouldn’t believe a word they say.

Besides, the report is wrong on so many levels it seems barely worth my time to debunk it. But in short: the report only tests maths, science and literacy, completely ignoring the fact that students can study more broadly or concentrate in other subjects; the report took a top school in Shanghai, completely ignoring the poorly funded Chinese schools outside of the city; and Asian education in general is extremely stressful for the students, causes real psychological problems, and treats art with contempt.

Also, the history classes in China present an inaccurate and politically-skewed picture. And their country has an atrocious human rights record. And it’s poor. Not the signs of the world’s greatest education system, eh?


I’ve talked a lot. I have probably bored you with all the detail; but I hope you understand my point.

Education is not about memorising facts and learning how to do exams. Neither can it be all discussion, because those skills are necessary in the real world. It must be a combination of both.

Most of all though, I’d like to see some more common sense. Few people can learn 11 subjects meaningfully with 25 hours of lessons a week; even fewer can gain insight and do well on an exam.

IT is not Word. A language isn’t about forming tenses.

We, as a society, should have a long, in-depth think about what our education system aims to do; and whether it is any good.

Success in this department will save us young people a great deal of stress, effort and depression.

Perhaps it is too much to hope for. Or perhaps we might actually begin to solve the problems that have corrupted us for so long.

1 comment:

  1. Ironically, you are the type of student that school officials love to point to and parade around as an example of all the things they are doing right.
    Thank you for your insights into education in several countries. I'd give you the U.S. version, but that's a comedy routine for another day.