A right ding-dong of a festive feast

11th January 2008 at 00:00

`Twas the season to be jolly. Goodwill to all men - not to mention the women. The generations were gathered. The blinds down. The thermostat up. Now all we had to do was stand by for laughter, joy and unbridled merriment.

If only.

The problem is that when your festivities are spent with teachers, it might be Christmas but they're still, well, teachers. At least four out of the six were, or had been in the past. The other two qualified by virtue of being the offspring of teachers.

So what precisely was on the menu in the Jones house this December 25th? Forget sex, politics, religion - the so-called taboo subjects. This was real battleground stuff: education.

Hors d'oeuvre, or Topic 1, was that old chestnut (sadly not a roasted one): standards. The opening salvo was fired by one of the older generation: education today was being progressively dumbed down. The evidence? Lots of it. And it all showed that what was needed for the top grades, or even to pass today, was far less than that required in the past.

Ah yes, chimed in a more youthful voice, but can you really extend to all a system designed for only a tiny minority of the population and still expect it to remain the same?

Now many voices were raised all at the same time. Umbrage (but little sustenance) was taken in large portions. If expectations were low, came the retort, so too would be achievements. Soon we had divided into two implacably opposed camps: the optimists and the pessimists. Words like "betrayal" and "utopian" were zinging about the table.

No one had time for the crackers.

Now we were ready for the main course, or Topic 2: education and social class. This was served with generous helpings of scorn and exaggeration, washed down with lashings of passionate sauce.

What lit the blue touch-paper on this issue was research showing that the gap between the educational achievements of rich and poor students continued to widen. Trigger a series of examples that seemed to show just the opposite: people from poor homes who had risen to the top of the educational tree. Aha, said the other side (for this debate the two camps had morphed into the sceptics and the realists), but these are mere exceptions. Look at the figures. No amount of individual cases can gainsay those.

Pandemonium. Wasn't this a gross insult to every poor family that had made sacrifices in order to help their children succeed? Somehow the Encyclopaedia Britannica made an appearance, volumes of which (luckily only metaphorical ones) were thrown at heads all round the table.

The turkey stayed on the bone. The sprouts degenerated into grey sludge. The stuffing stayed unstuffed.

Now, everyone was nicely warmed up, we were ready to move on to the "sweet" cours. Topic 3: why were we doing so badly compared with every other country in the world?

At this stage, it should be pointed out that actually all of us were pretty much in agreement about 97 per cent of what happens in education. But then it's that 3 per cent that makes all the difference. Put a righty and a lefty together and, after a few half-hearted slaps, they'll agree to differ and open a bottle. Put two righties or lefties in the ring and you've got a fight to the death on your hands.

So, let battle commence! This time we took as our text recent reports suggesting that, if we worked really hard, Britain might be up to the educational standard of Albania by 2020. By this point no one really knew, or cared, who was on which side, but somehow language and language teaching were centre stage. English as a world language (celebrated and lamented in equal measure) came and went.

All agreed that we needed to be better at teaching foreign languages. No one agreed on how this was to be done. Meanwhile, the pudding boiled dry; the custard curdled; the port stayed in Portugal.

As we emerged, famished but enlightened, from the steamy room, there was just one thought on six minds: roll on Easter!

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