Let's lighten up lessons

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Let me open this week with a short pub quiz.

Q: Which famous children's author coined the term gremlin?

A: Roald Dahl.

Q: Which famous Roman was once captured by pirates?

A: Julius Caesar.

Q: Which football nation won the first World Cup?

A: Uruguay.

Q: What was Walt Disney's first name for the character who became Mickey Mouse?

A: Mortimer Mouse.

OK, how did you do? Are you excited by eggheads? Do you eulogise University Challenge? Do you marvel at Mastermind, flip at Fifteen To One or howl at the screen during Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I do all that. I adore quizzes. I'm elated when I know the answer, dejected when I don't. General knowledge definitely tickles my fancy. I only draw the line at one, the ego-fest known as The Weakest Link. Maybe it's because of the ludicrous kerfuffle over diminutive dominatrix Anne Robinson. Maybe it's just because I tend to like Welsh people. (That's another of my quirks; I like words like kerfuffle, charabanc and mither, the kind of lovely homely words with which you can cuddle up on a winter's night.) I don't mind people calling me a boffin or a nerd. I like knowing stuff.

And you know what? Once upon a time, I was educated in a junior school in Crewe, Cheshire, that just loved quizzes. Mr Finch tested us on the Beatles, Hereward the Wake, Leif Eriksson, the history of Tottenham Hotspur and the capital of Albania. Mrs Kruger asked us about catkins, coracles and Coral Island.

Maybe you're now expecting a rant about the way kids these days think Robbie Williams was the first British Prime Minister or Paris is the capital of Hilton. Well, maybe I am a bit of an old curmudgeon. But there is a serious point here. It's one of those questions you only seem to ask during teacher training: what is education for?

It seems pretty obvious what Tony Blair, the late unlamented Test Torquemada Ruth Kelly and a whole stack of supporting apparatchiks think education is for. It's about standards, isn't it? It's about Sats results and GCSE grades, and that theatre of the absurd, league tables.

It's about tracking and testing, monitoring and levelling; it's about border lines and baselines. It's also about a kind of neo-Stalinist command structure. I always had this uncanny feeling that what both Kenneth Baker and a succession of New Labour education secretaries wanted was a kind of Napoleonic Code, directing every teacher to be doing pie-charts at 11.30am on Tuesday, October 10, each with an identical, nationally approved smile on their faces.

As a result, our youngsters are on a perpetual conveyor belt. Education becomes functional, standardised and policed by advisers who are inspectors, and inspectors who are, yes, inspectors. Everyone inspects. No one teaches. Such a system creates uniformity, conformity and narrowed horizons. There is always a new initiative, a new drive. Teachers whirl like spinning tops, cramming yet another "support pack" that gives about as much support as a bra made of paper tissue.

Which is where my love of quizzes comes in. As late as 1999, I was still stubbornly conducting fun quizzes with my junior classes. The reward for knowing lots of interesting and not very useful facts was (whisper it) an unscheduled half hour of games on the field.

Of course we need our kids to do as well as they can. Of course we have to be serious about qualifications. But surely education doesn't stop there? Even the Government has been forced to start talking about excellence and enjoyment (even though it has to publish another lousy support pack). I've even seen senior management teams trying to assess enjoyment.

In short, schools shouldn't just be result factories. They should be about the whole person. There's a wonderful world to explore. Jamie Oliver was turned into a secular saint for suggesting we feed our children properly.

It follows that we should also feed their minds properly, and not everything fits in neat subject boundaries.

I think it's high time we took the logical step of excellence and enjoyment. It goes like this: Step one: cut the burden of tests by 30-40 per cent; Step two: give teachers a brief list of things kids should know and trust them to deliver it by any means necessary; Step three: recycle all those support packs; Step four: recognise that knowledge of your subject, humour and imagination are by far the strongest teaching tools.

The trouble is, I can imagine Uncle Tony doing a Chris Tarrant and saying:

"We don't want to give you that!"

Alan Gibbons' latest novel, Rise of the Blood Moon, is published by Orion

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