Young children in art class

There’s a telling article by Laura McInerney in Tuesday’s Guardian contrasting the recent Pisa report on the attainment of school children with the policies of the British Government. According to the Report Britain is middle-ranking and not climbing up the scale at all, despite all the trumpeted policy changes.

Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister Liz Truss have blamed poor standards on ‘progressivist’ methods: child-centred learning, group work, allowing students to express opinions and share in decision-making. Instead, they want more rigour, especially memorising facts and ‘disciplined’ learning.

The Pisa results tell a different story. The countries with the highest scores have more ‘progressive’ methods. British students are more, not less, likely to learn materials by heart and be told what to do in every lesson. There is an exception: the progressivist methods the ministers so despise are more common in private schools!

The article shows that there are a lot of contradictions in current attitudes to what children need to be taught, and why. So what is the purpose of schools? What are we trying to do with children, and why do we think they are the right things to do?

Behind the confusion there is a deep division between an affirming approach and a transformative approach. Do we value children as they are, and try to bring out the best in them, or do we train them to become different?

There is a long tradition of treating schools as places to change children. Since 1870, when the state accepted responsibility for schools, it has been possible to think of children as servants of the state; the case for state schools was, after all, part of a tradition of social engineering. If children are left with their parents they will be no better than their parents. Schools can train them to do better. This of course leaves open whether ‘better’ means ‘better for themselves’ or ‘more effective servants of the state’.

In 1910 G K Chesterton wrote that ‘In the lower classes the schoolmaster does not work for the parent but against the parent. Modern education means handing down the customs of the minority, and rooting out the customs of the majority’ (What’s Wrong with the World, p. 248). That is the point of social engineering: ‘we’, the enlightened, can make ‘people’ better. Hitler and Stalin agreed. So do those today who think the point of schools is to produce efficient workers for the economy. Fascism and communism have been replaced by capitalism, but the purpose of the individual is still to serve the state. Just as we train dogs to behave in artificial ways to suit our lifestyles, so also we train our children for an artificial lifestyle which ‘we’ consider better. From this perspective schooling is about training children out of their natural inclinations, to behave in ways considered ‘better’. It is only to be expected that they won’t like it, so discipline will need imposing.

All this is credible so long as ‘we’ remain unchallenged. ‘We’ turn out to be the ruling classes with their own vested interests. But what if ‘we’ are not the highest authority? What if children are more complex, with greater potential and purpose, designed by a greater mind, than ‘we’ understand? In that case we should be in less of a hurry to turn children into something of our own devising. We should instead take more trouble to discover what they have within them anyway, and encourage it to flourish.

The ‘conservative’, more disciplinarian approach to education has its roots in a tradition of social engineering which was openly discussed in Chesterton’s day, when eugenics and racism were respectable scientific theories. It is rarely expressed in public these days because it is so morally obnoxious to treat individuals as nothing but servants of the state. However it is still influential: government policies are still heavily influenced by the idea that education should produce effective contributors to the economy. 

Here’s the irony. According to the Pisa findings, the countries with the more ‘progressive’ educational policies are better at producing the results the ‘conservatives’ want. From a faith perspective, this is only to be expected. If you try to turn children into something other than what they are, you are bound to build up tensions and resistance. If you abandon the attempt to turn them into something different, and instead value what they are anyway, they will be happier and more willing to cooperate.

God has made us what we are. No education regime is going to improve on that. The best we can do is to let the potential be released.