The real dope on the Sixties

While I am glad that education features so highly on the electoral agendas of both main parties, I remain distinctly uneasy about their ability to get to the heart of the problems which bedevil schools.

Everyone blames the Sixties - they're right, but they don't know why they're right. There wasn't much wrong with the basic liberalism of that era; it wasn't free expression behind the bike sheds that started the rot, or even teachers who may or may not have smoked dope in front of their pupils, but, rather, the gross mismanagement of the raising of the school-leaving age (ROSLA) in 1972.

I should know. I belong to the last generation which had the option of leaving at 15. I chose not to because I wanted to take O and A-levels, but some of my less academic friends were persuaded to stay on by the promise of exciting vocational courses, tailored to their needs. The bait was tempting - a couple of rusty pre-war cars appeared outside the metalwork shop, and my friends were assured that they would be given the chance to restore them and drive them round the playing field.

It may have happened once, but not thereafter. Stroppy fourth-year leavers simply became unteachable fifth-year leavers. When I started teaching myself I was horrified to discover that they were all being forced through the same academic mill, regardless of aptitude. The old-style CSE, which had been quite properly conceived as the non-academic equivalent of the GCE, had come to be regarded (by schools and employers alike) as an inferior qualification. The GCSE, which replaced both exams, merely exacerbated the problem. Formerly respectable CSE passes now look like GCSE failures, which is grossly unfair.

The brutal reality is that children who were never expected to even try for the glittering prizes of academia are now penalised for failing to win them, creating the false impression that standards are falling. Pre-ROSLA, there was still water to be drawn and wood to be hewn. Now there isn't; but whose fault is that? Certainly not the children thrown on the scrapheap because they can barely read or write. Once upon a time they didn't need to.

ROSLA was not a bad thing, but its potential has been frittered away. Whatever became of education for life? Or even education for leisure? Until and unless we have a government which has the courage to undertake a radical reappraisal of the whole question of what it means simply to be, we will continue to sell our children short and crucify our teachers.

J E MULDOWNEY 17 Second Avenue Heworth York

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