>> 29 Jan 2004

The Friday Essay

We don’t need no Education.

Tallulah Bankhead once said “I read Shakespeare and the Bible and I can shoot dice. That what I call a liberal education.” Increasingly Shakespeare and the Bible are marginal to a liberal education. But what is central to it?

Several years ago, when the Burns Commission came to my town seeking to hear contributions on post-primary education in Northern Ireland, I went along and told the luminaries involved that I did not accept for one moment the ludicrous contention that their commission was Independent.

I carefully explained that it was my view that this allegedly “Independent” Burns Commission would follow a pre-determined agenda serving their political masters that would result in the eventual abolition of the 11+ exam and with it, the de facto ending of our successful grammar school system. In that regard, I compared them to another independent Commission that had toured Northern Ireland headed by Mr. Chris Patten. My comments were listened to in stony silence! I hadn’t gone there to win friends, nor had the Commission gone there to take on board anything that would distract them from the act of educational vandalism they were in situ to deliver.

At that evening meeting were a number of Head Masters from local Grammar schools. Some had taught me in my younger days and had risen high in their profession. I anticipated that at least some of them would find the necessary character to stand up and argue for the retention of the 11+, albeit in some amended format. (Since every other form of examination structure has changed, it seemed rational to conclude that the 11+ could also change.) But not one of them did. Instead, like Judas, they wrung their hands, agreed the 11+ was a modern evil, and then begged the Commission to ensure that their individual schools did not have to change too much. I walked out of the meeting, shocked at the pusillanimity of these - the great and the good from my local Grammar schools. Hopeless turkeys wishing that the farmer would postpone Christmas if they were good.

I came home certain that the Grammar School system was doomed. Self confessed IRA commander Martin McGuinness would achieve his dream of being the man who destroyed the academic backbone of Northern Ireland. It was now a question of when, not if.

Fast forward in time to this week and the decision announced by Jane Kennedy, the Minister for Education, that….surprise surprise! …the 11+ would be axed and academic based selection abandoned! De facto comprehensive education is to be introduced and will be mandatory by 2009. The Commission had listened very carefully, and the Costello report had provided additional depth. Who on earth could argue with that?

The impact this delinquent decision will have on the future education of Northern Ireland children cannot be exaggerated. The Comprehensive education system that is now destined for Northern Ireland is the same rotten system that has failed so cataclysmically in England. Indeed it is the “bog standard” system that Tony Blair refuses to expose his own children to. But hey, it’s good enough for the plebs.

Such was Jane Kennedy’s enthusiasm that within a few days of her announcement, out in the post came a colourful leaflet explaining what was really happening – just in case some people didn’t implicitly trust Labour to tell the truth.

Minister Kennedy assures us that “our education system must change to meet the needs of the 21st Century.” Fair enough. So why does that mean adopting a system introduced by the egalitarian social engineers in the 1970’s in England which has been proven to have failed the children, the teachers, the parents, the employers, failed everybody in fact? It’s not comprehensive education that being introduced because Labour says it not comprehensive education that’s being introduced.

However no one can say that Labour avoids the tough questions. Why on earth is this happening to our Education system? The answer is clear; it is because “the changes put the interests of the child over all other interests.” In other words, the philistine notion of child-centric education is the new guiding principle. Children will know best.

But Minister Jane is quick to offer reassurance to the odd doubting Thomas! When the question is posed “Will academic courses still be available” – the answer is…Yes. What a relief! The slightly troubling notion that the Minister may have considered abolishing all academic courses remains. Mind, she is also quick to point it that pupils following academic subjects will also be able to now follow “vocational” courses. It is not clear if these exciting “vocational” courses that the former Grammar Schools will be forced to introduce will be mandatory, at least not straight away.

Then comes the killer question! “What will the changes mean for academic standards?” Not a problem. “The purpose of the changes is to raise standards for all children” What could be more reasonable, more decent that that? Every child will be exposed to higher standards – leading to better GCSE’s, more numerous A levels, and broader Degrees. In truth we will have the most educated populace in our history. Except for one tiny detail. Many children will lack the rudimentary ability to spell, or add up, or to discuss their nation’s history.

Labour is pursuing its bitter agenda of destroying every aspect of meritocratic based education. This is the Dodo principle in full flight. Everyone is going to be a winner, and all must have prizes.

Lifting the stone and peering at the awful reality of the Labour agenda brings to mind the wisdom of Lord Broughton. “Education makes people easy to lead but difficult to drive, easy to govern but impossible to enslave!” But what if you dumb them down - and all in the name of egalitarianism?


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