Students of all ages need to develop a critical faculty to enable them to challenge the hype of advertisers, the excessive claims of expertsresearchers, the pretentious promises of politicians or the latest educational or business buzzword. They should have questions to help them detect bullshit. Developing independent, critical thought will hereafter be called bull-shit education or BSE for short.
Here are some questions that students should get used to asking: says who? Based on what evidence? Who benefits from this proposal and who will suffer? What contrary evidence exists? Who finds it a problem? Is this a private trouble or a public issue? What other options are there? What is missing from this argument? Who has been consulted and who hasn't?
In case anyone believes that critical literacy is unnecessary, here are two prime examples of bull-shit, taken from a growing collection and heard by the writer at public meetings in the past few months. A conference was told: "This is the most important and exciting initiative in education or industry in our lifetime. It will deliver an instant and satisfying response." What could the speaker have been referring to? The Open University? The invention of the transistor? Neither. He was introducing the University for Industry.
What lies at the heart of the UFI is not the learner, as its proponents claim, but the market. Such hyperbole, which may be suitable for selling toasters or tea cups, alienated people like me who were originally well disposed to the idea and now struggle to remain so.
The second example comes from the debate about additional funding for Oxbridge colleges. "It may be an unfashionable phrase nowadays but it is vitally important for the future of this country that we educate for leadership." Leadership is a code word used by the establishment who wish to preserve their position and their children's in the elite, those educated separately at private schools and Oxbridge in order to lead the "followers" from comprehensive schools and the "ordinary" universities. Because they are our future leaders, they, of course, deserve extra funding, one-to-one tutorials and our grateful thanks for assuming the onerous (but lucrative) burden of leadership.
A prosperous and cohesive democracy is most unlikely to result from the two segregated educational systems in England. The new knowledge economies require all citizen workers to be (and to remain) as highly educated as possible and to be able to ask pertinent (and impertinent) questions of the powerful.
But how many 16-year-olds, after 11 years of schooling, are independent, critical thinkers or lifelong learners? The first requisite of a school is that it should not turn students off learning. It would not be difficult to find out if schools do and what young people think.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is currently considering the advice it should offer the Secretary of State on the proposed revision of the national curriculum for five to 16-year-olds. One way of testing the adequacy of the current curriculum would be to issue a brief questionnaire to a representative sample of 16-year-olds before any of them leave school and ask them:
* what knowledge have you learned at school that you want to retain?
* what does the term "learning to learn" mean to you?
* what helps you to learn and what prevents you?
* how has assessment helped you to learn?
* what are your strengths and weaknesses as a learner?
* do you know how to manage your own learning?
* what skills have you developed at school which will enable you to go on learning throughout life?
* what would you have liked to have learned at school but haven't?
This is the type of information that Education Secretary David Blunkett needs to review the national curriculum. If he is also going to respond appropriately to the lifelong learning agenda, he needs to reconsider not only the knowledge, skills and attitudes which all 16-year-olds should possess, but also the structures and processes of compulsory schooling. Meanwhile, I suggest that comprehensive schools wait to see if Eton, Harrow and Oxbridge begin teaching their students problem-solving, communications and team work before incorporating these "key skills" into their own work. Instead, BSE, previously reserved for the elite, should become the staple diet of us all.
Frank Coffield is professor of education at Newcastle University and director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Learning Society programme. He writes here in a personal capacity