The new divided society

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Sean Coughlan and Gillian Macdonald report on a TESBFI conference on education and the moving image

Is Murdoch or Arnold to be the guiding light - or will neither do on his own?" If Rupert or Matthew had heard their names drawn together in this polarisation of technology versus culture, they might have winced at the extent of darkness surrounding the second day's debate.

Darkness in the sense of gloom about the national curriculum and the ways it is hampering innovation; darkness too in the sense of confusion about the relationship of the new media to education.

If the first day of the conference was about new technologies, the second was about culture, literacy, standards and how to effect change in the classroom. The debate which ensued among Nick Tate of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Colin McCabe of the British Film Institute, Margaret Maden of the Centre for Successful Schools, Carol Fox of the University of Brighton was remarkable for its consensus.

Yes, the term "literacy" needs to be re-written to embrace the media and IT. Only Nick Tate demurred on this one: "Whether it is helpful to call them literacies, I'm not so sure. When you begin to blur the distinctions, you reduce the ability to say what you want to say."

Yes, there's a "perceived" decline in standards of literacy. "With 12 to 13 per cent not achieving a bottom grade GCSE, we have a national problem, " said Nick Tate. "We need to look at ways the new technologies can help us to tackle it."

But the risk, warned Colin McCabe, is that we're about to enter a divided society - "those with full access to the Internet as well as other competencies and skills, and those who just consume audio-visual messages and don't read and write in the traditional sense".

Something needed to be done to recognise the popular culture and expressive skills of working class kids like the Ducie boys, whose trenchant video at the beginning of the day tore into press coverage of the Moss Side estate on which they lived - judge for yourselves how literate the Ducie boys are, said Cary Bazalgette, director of the conference.

What emerged, as Margaret Maden spelt out, is that "there's another them and us" - on the one hand, young people like the Ducie boys, whose culture is now excluded by the national curriculum; on the other, girls like those at a Somerset independent school whose teacher said the message from exam boards now is that if you want to do well you ought to adopt a traditional approach.

Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, considered Inset to be the best method of adapting to the new technologies and media.

Eric Bolton, professor at the Institute of Education and former Senior Chief Inspector of Schools, detected a deep-rooted political problem: "We have a very tight curriculum that looks back rather than forward, that looks at using new technology to do old things. The exam system is related to that curriculum, and the inspection system. So we have a closed circle."

Doom and gloom indeed, but his views were endorsed by the audience.

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