Beyond the new horizons

The Policy Analyst

Learning Beyond the Classroom, to be published tomorrow, is being hailed as one of the key education books of the decade. The 25-year-old author, Tom Bentley, adviser to Education Secretary David Blunkett, puts the case for schools without walls, arguing that learning that best equips children for life takes place outside a curriculum-based system. Here, four educationists give their views

This book brings to mind Churchill's remarks on Northern Ireland: "Though the boundaries of the world may change, none the less through the mist one sees rising inexorably after the deluge the dreary spires of Fermanagh and Tyrone. " Bentley's analysis brings before us the old, tribal ideologies that refuse to give way. In education, as in Northern Ireland, these are the stuff of belief, if not fanaticism. They concern the nature of education.

The House of Cool Britannia, Demos, of which Bentley is an unusually thoughtful persuader, has had its triumphs in rebranding Britain. Though the packaging here is upmarket, the substance is depressingly similar. For all its on-message positiveness, the diagnosis remains sectarian. The objection is to an education that fails to meet the needs of an information society, to develop the right values, or to inculcate self-reliance. The many forms of intelligence are neglected by restrictive curricula. The result, Bentley contends, is low attainers and a cycle of truancy, delinquency, unemployability and the disillusion of the young with school. Education, he concludes, must become more community-based and collaborative.

The problem with this diagnosis is that it starts from a set of social problems - alienation, unemployment, lack of cultural integration, delinquency - and demands that education be reshaped to tackle them. In doing so, it ignores the value and benefits of education as it has traditionally been conceived.

First, many have held that gaining systematic knowledge of civilisation and its history, of the natural world and of maths, is an end in itself. Second, practical and widely beneficial advances in science are made by people with a deep theoretical knowledge, of the impractical sort, unrelated to everyday life. Third, by wishing to abandon the traditional teaching of academic subjects, Bentley may be giving up one way of solving the social problems that worry him.

Does not the discipline needed in assimilating such subjects, in analysing and judging, inculcate the moral qualities Bentley wishes the young to acquire - patience, humility, self-restraint and a sense of right and wrong?

Sheila Lawlor is director of the thinktank, Politeia

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