Those crocodile tears

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Critics of standards in schools are the very people who pressed for the changes they are now so eager to condemn, says Henry Maitles

There is a delightful Yiddish word - "chutzpah". It is best defined through the joke about the man who murders his parents and demands mercy from the court as he is an orphan. I am reminded of it as the debate about standards in schools and universities rages on. As the exam results come out, with increases in passes for Standard grade and Higher in Scotland and GCSEs and A-levels in England, there is much wringing of hands by the very politicians, education managers and tabloid journalists who demanded the changes in schools that have led to the circumstances they now condemn.

For years, they complained that pupils don't work hard enough, that teachers use "trendy" methods without giving thought to exam passes and that teachers don't teach properly. It was always nonsense, but none the less pupils and teachers developed strategies so that more and more pupils could jump the hurdle of the exams, irrespective of the impact on other aspects of learning. And, when the exam results shoot up, they continue to complain that the exams must be too easy.

The same people indeed have presided over rote-learning, memory-type exams, which they demanded and which others involved in education (particularly English teachers) complained killed off the excitement of subjects and any interest in them. Pupils can remember the answers and parrot them back to get good grades without any deep understanding of the issues involved, a model of shallow learning.

Schools are measured by society on these exam results and, in a situation where this becomes the de facto be-all and end-all of success, we should not be surprised that teachers and schools do this at the expense of other things and, indeed, do it very well.

The hypocrisy of the learning model, the chutzpah, continues into the universities. There are complaints that students don't read widely enough (unlike the older generation when they were at university 30 years ago) or study as hard (as they used to all those years ago) - or even socialise as well as they did when the critics were at university.

Yet, the answer is really quite simple. When people of my generation went to university 30 years ago, we had grants and no fees. Yes, we certainly worked during holidays to augment our income, but nowadays many, indeed most, students have to work many hours a week, often in low-paid, dull jobs, and still end up heavily in debt at the end of their time at university.

Of course, they don't read as much; of course, they can't study as hard; certainly, you can't socialise or join clubs if you are working all the non-university hours that there are.

I'm not 100 per cent certain whether the exams are easier or not; there are arguments to suggest that exams with aspects of continuous assessment in them are as hard as those that only use external exams, even if the final exam is not as testing. Recently, working for the Scottish Qualifications Authority on standards in exams over time in Scotland, I found general agreement that there had been no reduction in standards over the past 15 years and that there was a general equivalence between the standard the pupils needed now for Higher Still courses and the standards of the old Higher and Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, at least in modern studies.

Yet we do need to understand what has happened to education. And what it means is that, when crocodile tears are shed over standards by the very people who benefited by the old system, we should take their tears with a pinch of salt. They are responsible for the general decline in learning.

The solutions are deceptively simple but would need a sea change in policy terms.

First, devise assessment strategies that do not rely on rote shallow learning. Ensure that pupils learn in (relatively) small classes, perhaps no bigger than 20, where the kinds of interaction that lead to deeper learning can take place and flourish. We could successfully learn something from the private sector here.

For university students, scrap the fees and return to grants which will help our students get the best out of their university education. Not much chance from new Labour? Probably not, but that's why chutzpah is such a marvellous word.

Henry Maitles is head of the department of curricular studies at Strathclyde University's education faculty.

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