Review - Nothing like a good debate

31st August 2012 at 01:00

Everyone, I think, knows the drill by now. A group of people with insider knowledge of the education system - a headteacher, an academic and a politician, say - gather together and discuss what it is that makes schools wrong and what it is that would make them right again.

We have heard it before. We will hear it again. And, right now, we are hearing it in the form of the three-part BBC Radio 4 series The Education Debates, hosted by John Humphrys (pictured).

In the first programme, the panel is asked what education is for. This is immediately followed by pearls of prepubescent wisdom. "I come to school to learn," says one child.

His classmate's answer is far better thought-out: "I think socialising with people is quite important, because if you have to move house and there's something you can't afford, and your friend can afford it, they can buy it for you." Now there is something worth going to school for.

Next, the entire panel agrees that the point of education should not be to pass tests. "Teach them eternal values," says Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College: kindness, honour, integrity, loyalty and an enquiring mind. A member of the audience suggests that this would transform education into an extended therapy session. "Ommm," says Seldon.

Then the debate turns to the role of vocational education. When one panellist points out that it is often disadvantaged pupils who end up discovering a true vocation as carpenter or hairdresser, some wag suggests that middle-class children are being denied opportunities to build houses.

By the end of the first programme, no one has said very much at all. And so onwards to the second, in which the panel discusses how children should be taught.

This, too, begins with a chorus of competitive test-hating. "Giving children grades is counterproductive," says Alison Peacock, head of the Wroxham School in Hertfordshire. "What matters is giving them high-quality feedback." No one disagrees, so Humphrys does a token piece of spluttering.

Cognitive scientist Guy Claxton puts the splutterers' minds at rest by pointing out that children can still learn Shakespeare or simultaneous equations. "Use simultaneous equations as a way of strengthening children's minds to be persistent," he says.

Finally, everyone insists that teachers are great, and that they are not about to be replaced by robots.

If you are not a teacher, and you do not work with teachers, and you have no children currently at school, there is probably something new for you here. But, mostly, I suspect The Education Debates are intended for anyone who enjoys a good splutter. No grades? No tests? Eternal values? Whatever is the modern world coming to?

BBC Radio 4's The Education Debates are available on BBC iPlayer.

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