Return of the sage on the stage

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Monday, November 28, 2016
Jane Kelly


Traditional teaching is essential for improving social mobility, says Jane Kelly

For the Left, the failure of British people to better themselves, rather than live on benefits, can be blamed on the existence of the Bullingdon Club. Over the last few years, it seems, evil young toffs have somehow done us down and destroyed a meritocracy.

A recent report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, based on a study of 4,000 business, political, media and public sector leaders, showed that although only seven percent of the population are privately educated, nearly two-thirds of senior army officers and over half of permanent secretaries and senior diplomats went to private schools.

Frances O’Grady , leader of the TUC, at the start of their recent conference, claimed that we now live in a ‘Downton Abbey society’ . She quoted the kind of statistic long loved by the Left, “the five richest families own more wealth than the poorest twelve million”, and in so doing, deliberately conflated the swelling ranks of the elite with current pay freezes in the public sector.

But arguments about elitism deliberately miss the point, because for some the truth is strangely unpalatable. To restart social mobility we need to change our education system, not from the top but from the bottom.

In 2013, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found England was the only wealthy country where schoolleavers are worse at maths and reading than their grandparents. I first saw this astonishing failure in our education system in 2007 when I began teaching literacy in HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

Forty five percent of the prisoners were foreign, from Nigeria, Jamaica, Somalia, Ireland and Poland. I was astonished at how well educated they were. Even Africans who had often had no formal secondary education were functionally literate. They read papers, enjoyed political discussion, could listen to me, the teacher, and, in fact, behaved as if I was worthy of huge respect - if not even fear. They loved learning new things.

Not so the English lads. They would put their heads on the desk and whine, “It’s too hard, miss. Why are you using those funny old words?” The English couldn’t listen or learn, had a tiny vocabulary and seemed to know nothing. Some were illiterate, others had no interest in anything but football. Some of the black Britons were slightly more aspiring, but many of them were obsessed with music and drugs.

I was shocked that Africans, often educated in dire poverty, could learn, but white boys, from schools with all the latest technology, could not. It was also noticeable that unlike the Africans, the teacher meant nothing to them, and was an object of irritation at best.

Teacher and writer Daisy Christodoulou has identified the prevailing myths in English education which she believes are letting children down badly. These include the idea that knowing how to look facts up on line is a ‘skill’ more important than retaining information, that facts prevent understanding, teaching knowledge equals indoctrination, and teachers standing up and teaching is a sign of classroom ‘passivity’ .

A few years ago Christodoulou led her Warwick University team to victory on University Challenge. A second generation immigrant from Cyrus, brought up in a tower block in Stepney Green where her parents were market traders, she has the daring idea that all children should get the chance to become brainboxes like her.

Based on her experience as a teacher, Christodoulou, who attended private school under the assisted places scheme just before it was abolished by Labour, believes young people in state schools now have vast gaps in their knowledge and understanding, and that traditional fact-based lessons would serve them better. For her, skills depend on facts, not the other way around.

She studied nine recent Ofsted reports on different subjects, analysing 228 lessons in total. In all of them children were busy on Google while the teacher remained a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’. Christodoulou wants teachers to pour facts onto children in the classroom and believes that direct instruction from a teacher is highly effective. As an English teacher, she saw pupils struggling to write essays without any knowledge of grammar or sentence structure, looking up words, unable to understand the definitions. They displayed what she called a “shaky grasp of the fundamentals”.

Christodoulou has been widely attacked for her views, which until recently, like immigration and sex abuse, could not be mentioned in polite society. What she says is heresy to most teachers in the NUT, the people who vilified Michael Gove. They refer to children in South Korea having to memorise a hundred pages of facts per subject, as if that were akin to child abuse. Their dislike of learning facts for their own sake is shared by Ofsted inspectors.

A new paradigm is slowly emerging which shows the importance of teaching facts in class and changing the long term memory. Modern myths in education have led to essential cultural capital increasingly going to a privileged few. One piece of research tested the amount of historical, geographical and literary knowledge needed to read one copy of the New York Times. Another study, by E D Hirsch, demonstrated the need for facts which are stored in our long term memory. If such knowledge is not there, a person is excluded from cultural understanding and cannot advance.

The Conservatives must continue to explode those educational myths which have done the most to prevent the growth of a meritocracy in Britain.

Jane Kelly wrote features for the Daily Mail for 15 years, and is now a freelance writer and artist

This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Conference 2014 on 27/09/2014. Published online 28/11/2016