Hysteria and cakes please

21st January 2005 at 00:00
League-tables week always produces a pleasing flurry of hysteria. We connoisseurs of educational brouhaha particularly enjoyed this year's outbreak, heralded by the London Evening Standard headline: "Cookery exams outrank physics".

The story was even more luscious than it looked, since the paper - followed by a posse of others, yelping in pursuit of the fox of dumbing-down - revealed that while physics GCSE at A grade gets 52 points for your school, a distinction in cake-decorating level 2 gets 55.

Fabulous. The harrumphing was deafening. Alan Smithers raised the spectre of students being "nudged" on to vocational courses to raise a school's rating, opening up the delicious vision of a young Faraday or Newton weeping tears of frustration as a sinister director of studies locks away the gas chromatograph and sombrely hands him an icing-bag.

The Department for Education and Skills waffled about "old-fashioned educational snobbery" and said that "the world has moved on", though it did not make it clear whether it believes cake-decorating has moved it on faster than physics.

Perhaps there has been an outbreak of pacifism up there at the ministry, with some Old Labour CND firebrand leaping on the table and setting hearts aflame with a cry of: "Look, if Einstein had only stuck to making delicate pink sugar roses, there would have been no bomb."

Meanwhile, of course, nobody looked at the small print and pointed out that if the notional GCSE physicist gets an A* rather than an A, he or she acquires 58 points, a score not available to even the most inspired and distinguished creator of marzipan bridegrooms and symmetrical faux-velvet sugar swags. So that is all right then. Maybe.

Some of us might mutter that anything which undermines the credibility of league tables is good news anyway. Perhaps now we can go back to choosing schools by looking rather closer at them, and asking actual questions about subject success and teaching methods.

But my mind ran off at a tangent, reflecting on the whole business of school subjects angd the esteem in which we hold them.

A lot of it, I fear, depends on the degree of dishonesty with which they are named. People seem woundingly ready to insult cookery and cake-decorating, for instance - fine and practical subjects with edible results - whereas only a few of us take the trouble to insult the vapidities and dishonesties and enslavement to the food industry of the GCSE "food tech" syllabus.

Perhaps if they had called the cake-decorating qualification something like "sucrose technology", it would have been less readily dissed by the papers.

But there have always been oddities, snobberies and illogicalities in our view of subjects. A medieval child of the aristocracy was expected to study astrolabe, rhetoric and Petrus of Spain's summulae logicales.

Useful vocational subjects like archery rubbed along with fantastical balderdash, dutifully noted down on wax tablets by the students, about how hyenas can change their sex at will, geese grow out of barnacles which in turn grow from fruit which fell off shoreside trees, and how an elephant's only fear is of dragons.

In the era of Tom Brown's Schooldays, Dr Arnold's boys wasted hours every day on their "construe", translating dim Latin texts (or more likely buying translations of them off older boys for crumpets, sexual favours or whatever the currency was at the time).

The idea was that a "grounding in the classics" would produce a gentlemanly boy, even if he knew nothing of the remotest usefulness and got ripped off for the rest of his life by his more mathematically-adept estate manager.

Glance at education under various dictatorships and you find fantastical elements in the core curriculum, involving everything from "gymnastic and military exercises" to Communist morality and Kim Il Sung studies.

Nearer to home, it is not hard to find barking-mad approaches to subjects enduring right into the modern era. In my husband's 1960s grammar school it was ordained that German was a "boy's language" and French was for girls.

How they thought Marlene Dietrich and General de Gaulle got by is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile, just as Miss Prism instructed Gwendolen to omit the chapter on the fall of the rupee as too sensational, a girls' school of reasonable reputation, right up to the mid-1960s, used bowdlerized Shakespeare texts and would not allow the word "womb" to be uttered in Macbeth. Macduff was, nonsensically, "from his mother's arms untimely ripped".

Future generations may look back and giggle at our curriculum contents. I revere physicists and cake-decorators too. Let a thousand sugar flowers bloom.

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