Stop playing silly burgers

8th September 2000 at 01:00
THE latest version of the national curriculum starts this week. It was announced while you were away in August.

There will be five new subjects: jelly babies, constructive capitalism, paper doll cutting, navel contemplating, and bouncing around on those big rubber balloony things from the 1970s. There will be a literacy and numeracy fortnight every week and tough, tough, tough targets have been set for, well, absolutely everything.

What is more, 96.25 per cent of the population achieved three grade As at A-level, so standards fell yet again, for the hundredth year running, and not one boy got a GCSE.

Actually I dreamed it all. Having been at home for the whole of August I kept waking up to bizarre education stories, so dream and reality eventually became inseparable. People with any sense head for the Gobi desert at midnight on July 31 and return to these shores when the silly season officially closes at dawn on September 1.

The "single explanation, single cure" school of thought came into its own when girls outperformed boys in both A-levels and GCSE. There are serious issues here, but they are not amenable to one miracle cure.

Much of what passes for analysis is crude stereotyping.

Back in the 1970s when girls did less well people would cheerfully explain it away as something inescapable. "You know girls," someone would say, "as soon as they get a boyfriend they lose interest in school, just want to get married."

Fortunately, many schools began to ignore these streetwise tips and set about persuading girls to break the stereotype. Programmes like GIST (girls into science and technology) and WISE (women into science and engineering) were among many initiatives to give girls more confidence in their own ability.

Now we hear similar talk about boys. "You know boys," the streetwise ones say, "just want a kickabout with their mates, no interest in school." When the genes were being doled out, apparently, boys missed out on the one for coursework, so they are genetically incapable of doing their homework.

It is socially constructed tosh to suggest that one groupor another is fundamentally flawed. Society cheerfully confirms the stereotype and these low expectations become self-fulfilling. The quest is then launched for one big miracle cure.

This is entirely futile. The "single solution" merchants might as well include the same question in every examination, no matter what the subject. "Have you got a willy?" The answer "yes" scores an additional 10 per cent. That should do the trick.

The improvement in girls' achievements over the past 20 years is one of the triumphs in education. Girls have done well because most schools set about improving opportunities for them to use their ability, so they became better qualified than their equally talented mothers and grandmothers.

Another August event was Chris Woodhead's annual sneer at vocational degrees. A few are not terribly good, but it is strange how snobbish we are in this country, compared with others, reluctant to esteem practical intelligence, or give due respect to education that is related to earning a living.

Perhaps it is because of the stereotype of the "hamburger university" run by one of the fast-food companies in America, where sales people have to stand up and shout in unison something like "we will sell more big cheesy whoppers".

The conclusion drawn is that a vocational degree is like a fast- food meal: you get your modules, consume them at tables fixed to the floor, and finally stack your tray in a pile, having tipped all your essays into a big bin. Yet many vocational degrees are extremely exacting and some employers, like the Ford motor company, are able to offer the finest automobile engineers in the world as tutors.

In truth, however, I partially agree with old Wooders. Why waste three years working for a vocational qualification at a university and all the bother that involves: taking out a student loan, living in a cesspit, sweating over assignments, modules, professional field placements, exams, building up a huge financial debt?

It is utter folly when, after a mere five days in a nice hotel, you could become a fully-qualified OFSTED inspector.

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