Diploma-tic Immunity

By | 1 November 2007

Ever since the league tables arrived, schools have channelled their energies into getting the best examination results for the most children.
Of course, schools should produce the best examination performance possible from every child, because a basic education for all, up to GCSE at least, is, ultimately, what schools and education are for. It may be easier if the children are academic on entry, or come from homes in which education is valued and success expected, but league tables do not really show that.
So, we may be agreed that the league table culture has worked in reminding schools of their primary responsibilities for realising the academic potential of every child.
The problem is: what to do with (or for) those children who honestly, really and unequivocally have less academic potential than others? Or than we would wish? Or than would suit our brave new technological world, in which there will be fewer opportunities for those who come to the work place illiterate and innumerate?
One device schools have used is to adopt courses that are “worth” four GCSEs not because they are academic but because of the time they take, sometimes up to half a week. Then a youngster only has to pass one other GCSE to hit the magic five required for decency and to keep the school open. And sustain the student’s self-esteem, it must be said. For if the world values only these academic passes, then how sad to feel worthless at 16.
Actually, that is not so unlike feeling worthless at 11, as was the case for 70 per cent of the population in the old grammar school days, when failing was like receiving a stamp of “stupid” on your forehead. True, it happened seldomly, but that is how it felt, and people to whom it happened do not forget it lightly.
If it was a bad idea at 11, it is still a bad idea at 16, and productive of a substantial number of school leavers not only unable academically but also frustrated and angry at how their other talents – for they will certainly have them – are disregarded, cast aside in the general worship of a talent for words, and reading, and remembering, and regurgitating neatly and appropriately for an examiner in timed conditions.
At a time when we welcome diversity in every other part of our lives, can we not embrace and celebrate diversity in the talents children bring to school? Maybe the new Diplomas are the answer?
What “other talents” have long needed is an acceptable – and accepted – way of measuring them which acknowledges not just that these talents are different from academic ones, but also that they are just as valuable. The way in a family you might have one blonde child and one brunette child – different, but no less valuable.
Deep down inside – and sometimes not so very deep – we know this is true. Any time you hear the fable of the parts of the body, vying for supremacy, with the head saying how important he is and the feet saying, “you’d go nowhere without me, mate”, you know that while it must be lovely to be a professor of ancient Greek, if the professor lives in London, he is going to need a driver on the tube train.
By the same token, you probably do not need a degree at all to work in waste disposal, but civilisation grinds to a halt if there is no one who will do the dirty jobs, even if in our mechanised world there are fewer of them.
Talents in art and drama were converted years ago into academic currency on GCSE and A level courses that included more written work than an artist or actor would really wish to produce.
There is a limit to how far you can go in these conversions if, at the heart of it all, there is a real problem that some people are not, and never will be, academic. They may have different intelligence or talent – such as the oomph and charisma of a market trader, or a deft touch with a sewing machine that creates a fabulous frock.
And maybe the Diplomas will help us to recognise and value those talents, if only because they establish a new and different currency – dollars not pounds, but just as valuable.
After all, every City whiz kid wants a superb suit, and I never knew a high-powered woman who would not kill for a really good hairdresser.
Gordon Brown is not the only one who should be looking to include all the talents. If we are to value all our children, it is high time education did it too.

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