Womb for improvement

A student told me that her pregnant friend's midwife had suggested that, when her unborn baby kicks, she should tap back to encourage mother-child communication. Her midwife may have a long-term strategy to produce a future Roy Keanes for Man U, but I suspect this sort of thing is the norm.

With all those "listen and learn in the womb" tapes available, the possibility arises that foetal learning could, like pre-school learning, be subjected to regulation and "standards" and when baby finally appears, little Jake or Sara could be presented with a Foetal Learning Diploma (FLD) of achievements in the womb.

Britain could be an educational world leader with British babies qualified to a minimum of level one of the FLD. Inspections and leagues tables could be produced and no doubt employers would soon discover an infant "skills gap" caused by poor parental teaching that is costing the economy billions just because "x" per cent of babies were not achieving FLD level two.

Credentials from the moment of birth could be the beginning of a credentialed life. Citizenship qualifications and practical citizenship record keeping are already with us. Parenting courses are being developed and someone is probably designing a "ready to die" certificate to ensure that we approach the pearly gates in a therapeutic bliss. We're being credentialed until death if not beyond!

The anxiety that business and government have about skills is part of what has created the increase in the number of qualifications available.

Lifelong learning now means lifelong credentialism.

The value that credentials have is that when, like many policy makers, we don't quite know what we want in terms of human knowledge and ability so the safe route is to produce a certificate.

Lecturers are complicit in this. They no longer explore problems and teach people how to think, they teach to the criteria that will ensure students gain certificates. That's why employers and businesses like certificates as well. They also lack confidence about what they want from employees and therefore go for pieces of paper. Credentialism is what has replaced thinking, skills, and judgement about aptitudes for a particular job.

The first time I came across the sort of course that went further and credentialed people for doing a normal everyday thing was a pre-retirement course run by a motherly part-time lecturer.

At that time, seeing all my soon-to-be former colleagues who'd got good early retirement deals sitting in a room with eyes glazed, as they listened to banalities about housework and finding a new hobby, I thought the course was a final punishment inflicted by management before they finally escaped.

Now these courses cover all aspects of our lives, often with glossy paper credentials.

It would be wrong to see credentialism as an irritation produced by the bureaucratisation of learning. It is much more sinister. The daughter of a friend of mine received a certificate for effort just two weeks after starting school. When the mother received one for 'volunteering' - as she is a school parent governor - her daughter laughed and asked why she had got a certificate when certificates were for children? Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom, and she is right. When we get certificates for just doing what people normally do we are being treated like babies. It goes along with all the patronising restrictions on behaviour, the bans on smoking, eating the wrong foods, drinking too much, making too much noise, touching children and making passes at colleagues you fancy. For some you get punished; but for being dull, compliant and taking no risks, you get a certificate. My intuition is that behind the bans that treat us like naughty children, and the gratuitous awarding of certificates for being good children, is a fear and loathing of ordinary people and, therefore, an obsession with controlling every aspect of our lives.

Even where credentialism might be thought to have a place it is destructive of education.

One example is the French for Business course I attended last year which was funded by the Kent and Medway LSC. The tutor was pleasant enough, and the class more than eager to spend several lunchtimes talking French. What killed all our enthusiasm for learning was the banal portfolio of worksheets and exercises we had to fill in to get a certificate that we neither wanted nor needed. The result was we kept meeting and talking on our own but the course collapsed. Why couldn't we just enjoy learning?

A New Year's resolution that would do us all good would be to reject credentialism and only do a course because we want to learn something. We could encourage friends and students to ring up their local college or adult education centre, and swamp the learndirect help line with demands for courses with no assessment possibilities and that definitely did not contribute to any qualification. If anyone finds such a course, it will probably be something worth doing.

Dennis Hayes is the head of the centre for professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church university

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