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Certified insanity

Our obsession with giving students pieces of paper has twisted our educational priorities, says Professor Stephen Gorard

Ask a group of educators what is wrong with education today and you will get a variety of responses. What they will have in common, however, is a tendency to accept the traditional set-up of education and training, but to bemoan the lack of time and resources needed to make the system work properly.

The debate therefore tends to focus on funding: how many teachers, books or computers we need to bring about improvements. Such improvements tend to be costly, leading to a greater tax burden or greater private investment which tends, in turn, to raise expectations further.

Education appears to be in a gruelling spiral of demands and expectations. The demand is always for more: for earlier and universal pre-schooling, longer school days, smaller classes, more homework, assessment, summer schools, more auditing and inspection, greater participation in higher education. With these increases, and the funding they entail, come higher expectations on the part of politicians.

Unlike health or law and order, education policy has also become an economic issue - apparently determining our productivity, and international competitiveness - and a social inclusion policy, apparently deciding people's life chances.

To be educated, unlike being healthy or crime-free, is no longer seen as desirable in itself. For a variety of reasons, but perhaps principally because they are visible and apparently easy to measure, public exam results - from key stage tests to NVQs - have become the main goal and indicator for learning.

Certification of learning is seen by politicians and many practitioners as the key to progress, and these views are reinforced by the setting of targets.

For example, by 2010, 98 per cent of 16-year-olds will be expected to be qualified to NVQ level 1, or its equivalent. Skill, thus, becomes equated with certification despite the fact that everyone privately agrees that these are not the same thing at all. We all know people who are qualified but incompetent and, more importantly, people who are unqualified but wonderfully competent. Our emphasis on formal qualification is in fact leading to a paradox. As we approach 100 per cent of 16-year-olds with NVQ Level 1, the certificate becomes irrelevant as a means of selecting people for further education, or for a skilled post. All applicants have one, and so the decision is made on other grounds, making the qualification worthless in exchange-value. The situation for those with the qualification is worse than it was before (when there were fewer of them).

For the few people still without the qualification, the situation is also worse since they are, by definition, a more extreme group. These people will be seen as not simply unqualified but unqualifiable.

Now, I do not mean to suggest that education is a waste of time or money. Far from it. I want to point out that we do not always need more and more of it. Nor should we always expect more and more from it.

If we begin to consider education as valuable in itself, and treat qualifications with greater caution, we can break this cycle of economic and social pressure.

This pressure comes from the drive for certification, to improve our human capital, to create a flexible workforce, to compete in international comparisons, and to attract inward investment in an increasingly globalised economy.

What is missing, and what is desperately needed if we are to have a society with a true love of lifelong learning, is fun.

Children enjoy learning, and some continue to enjoy doing so even after education. But most enter formal schooling as superb learning machines, and leave it equating learning with its very antithesis - docility, lack of curiosity, and an unsustainable certainty about the truth of selected propositions.

Our system teaches them that education is a generally dull punishment inflicted by the old on the young.

Stephen Gorard is professor of social sciences at Cardiff University

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