Tuesday, 3 April 2012

3 A* Stars in Being Lovely, Punting and Jack Wills Studies

The latest wheeze designed by Pob Michael Gove, whose post as Secretary of State for Education must be some kind of public school jape, is to hand control over the A-level system to the Russell Group of élite universities. You know the ones: they're the institutions which largely cater for profitable overseas students and those from fee-paying schools. Oxford and Cambridge, for example, give over 50% of places to the rich kids whose parents have bought them high A-level grades through tiny class sizes and endless resources. Then the universities look good because these advantaged kids do well (interestingly, less well at degree-level than state school children).

Now I could make some cheap shots about the kind of A-level questions such places will pose. So I will (go here for a serious analysis by someone else).  'How long must Tarquin punt before landing a role in Peter's Friends?'. 'Why would one pursue Media Studies when an Oxbridge place leads inexorably to a Radio 4 sketch show?'. 'What should be the legal penalty for passing the port to the right'?

But jokes aside, I don't see why the A-level system is so broken that one particular bunch of universities should be handed control. There certainly are problems with the educational system: a lot of my bright and eager students aren't capable of reading analytically, critiquing a text or writing an essay. It's not their fault. The Tory educational system (damaged too by New Labour's reductive obsession with league tables) means that students are spoon-fed by terrified teachers. I've been told that some novels aren't read - instead, they concentrate on 'key chapters', and students are sometimes given 'essay skeletons' telling them what goes in each paragraph. That's not education - it's a coping strategy.

It's also the case that A-levels aren't just a university entrance qualification - they're good for all sorts of jobs. Handing them over to universities will narrow their focus and purpose to the detriment of those excellent students who feel that university isn't for them.

Will Russell Group control change this? Maybe, but I don't see why those universities should be privileged. I suspect you'll find that the really innovative curriculae and theoretical approaches are generated by the less traditional students. Shaping the curriculum to the preferences of a small and unrepresentative universities won't prepare them for the innovative, exciting work we do here and at other modern universities. Furthermore, they are likely to disdain subjects which they don't teach: you might laugh at Media Studies, but post-hacking and swimming in social media, isn't it important to understand and critique our media landscape? I certainly didn't discover Gramsci, Baudrillard and Jameson through my English degree: teaching Cultural Studies and Media has widened my literary perspectives too.

Nor do I think that university academics are particularly equipped to dictate school-level exams. Instead, I suspect that they'll form another private company and outsource the work required, using Russell Group as a brand. Conversely, they might harness the considerable talent of our educationalists only to have Gove - who is a rather pedestrian reactionary - to reject their suggestions. He's got a bit of a bee in his bonnet about Oxbridge being Paradise, but he thinks that all other academics are bearded Trotskyist subversives. Well I haven't got a beard!


Alex said...

For all our quibbling over Galloway, surely we can agree that Gove might be one of the worst "humans" alive today.

The Plashing Vole said...

We certainly can. Sinister, arrogant, not nearly as bright as he thinks he is, limited and relentlessly tactical: a pimple on the face of public life.