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Thursday, February 18, 2021

Decimalisation and rotten education

We're seeing articles commemorating fifty years of UK decimal currency (but nothing yet on the Great Revolution in education), so I thought I'd take you 'back to the future' with some comments I left on Peter Hitchens' blog in 2007

I have read Steve Dalton's comments on education (, as Peter has urged, and while I agree with him I think I can furnish some additional information. I was a little closer to the epicentre of the British Cultural Revolution, since I trained as an English teacher in 1975. So I can confirm that education has been betrayed quite as much from within as from without.

A generation of intelligent, idealistic but very misguided people came into teaching in the late 60s and 70s, and just like New Labour more recently, proceeded to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I have spoken to at least three teachers from different schools, who each told me that their respective Heads of English in the early 70s threw out all the coursebooks, to make sure that such dull teaching would not be possible in future. One firebrand in a major comprehensive in Birmingham actually put them all in a skip in the playground and burned them, as his Parthian shot before leaving for another school - I assume that he had got a promotion. Odd that they all did it around the same time - or maybe not so odd.

At a time of falling secondary school rolls, some of that generation - presumably including some of those zealots - were given early retirement on now-unobtainable terms, and/or subsequently reappeared as inspectors, advisers and consultants. Such people will have been able to influence policy and practices in their subjects, and even promotion, so that like-minded individuals (or pragmatic careerists) of the next generation would carry the same baton.

I believe that this "heritage" is a reason why, when it is clear that (in some cases) old teaching methods worked better, the return to them has only been partial - a full reinstatement would be a candid admission of failure. To give an example - chanting times tables does work, and without a knowledge of them you are seriously hampered in many number manipulations. But the modern return to this has a new and debilitating twist - the child is expected simply to remember a sequence (e.g. "7, 14, 21, 28...") rather than "one times seven is seven, two times seven is fourteen...". So ask a modern child what is 7 times 9, and you get a long and painful mumbling, and often the wrong answer, because the table was never learned in a way that connected the two numbers, so missteps and omitted steps are almost inevitable. A minor point, you may think, but it means that nine-year-olds are struggling with sums that my class did when I was 5 - and we had the (technically superior) duodecimal monetary system then, including farthings! This theme of the half-hearted prodigal son's return is further illustrated by the issues of synthetic phonics, reading schemes etc.

Currently, schools are so concerned to keep up with the ever-changing National Curriculum that they are constantly driving children on from one half-learned thing to another. In itself, innovation is not all bad - but there's never time to consolidate.

Not that fashion-following started with the baby boomers. I could give anecdotes of useless one-off shows for visiting VIPs in the late 50s, at my primary school near Chatham. Politicians and eager-to-please teachers have always made a mess of education, they've just done it with a vengeance in the last 30 years.

And then there is the general cultural and moral deterioration. TV (especially the soaps, of which many children will follow several) is a training in despair. There is much fashionable talk of healthy eating, but none of healthy viewing, listening, speaking and thinking. If you think cheery positive thinkers are a pain, you haven't looked closely at the suffering caused by abandoning children's imaginations to the worst that skilful nihilists can do.

I am not a Bible-basher, but I've witnessed with disbelief (you may say) the decline of hymns in assemblies, then prayers, then all religion. RE (once the ONLY subject that was compulsory in all schools!) was eventually replaced by PSME (personal, social and moral education), then PSHE (the H signifies the substitution of Health for Moral). The underlying assumption is that there is such common agreement on all practical issues that morality, theology and philosophy are only airy-fairy approaches to simple political decisions - usually, the spending of public money in the pursuit of social equality (ironically, itself an abstract and ill-defined notion). Chairman Mao praised Pol Pot because he got rid of all classes in one blow, and one feels the same insane anti-human dogmatism at work behind modern political thinking today.

If I had children I should do what a friend did, and home-educate them all to 16, just to keep them away from the madness. I continue to teach, but sanity is only possible because I no longer expect the system to work properly, or indeed to be working in the right direction. If you dislike the products of British education and upbringing, please remember that you cannot blame the children for the lunacy of their elders and betters.

Another reader comments:

Rolf Norfolk, above, claims a duodecimal monetary system is technically superior to the decimal system we use now. How so? Simple calculations (addition and multiplication) are much easier when our measurement systems have the same radix as our counting system.

I reply:

You've commented on a rather minor aside, but it's a fair question. As a monetary system the 240 pence /960 farthing pound was technically superior because it could be divided lots more ways. I grant you that this had greater significance when one pound was worth more than a day's pay, though as it happens the greatest damage to the value of the pound happened after decimalisation, not before. (Inflation doubled in the 20 years before 1971, but increased more than sixfold over the next 20 years). Obviously I'm not proposing a return - except perhaps to linking the currency to gold, so the politicians can't use inflation to steal from us.

As to the simplicity argument, after a long time in teaching I've found that the easier you make things for people, the stupider they become.


A K Haart said...

Very interesting. It matches my impressions from the outside watching the education of our children then grandchildren, trying to do what we could without ever clearly understanding what schools were trying to achieve.

I still have a suspicion that my negative impressions of modern education are at least partly an age effect and education doesn't make that much difference compared to innate ability and social advantages.

Paddington said...

Your last sentence is the one that matters the most.

In my view, the mistake that scientists and technicians made was to make technology accessible. That gave too many the illusion that they actually understood what was going on, and didn't need the scientists. You can see the effects on a simple level with the social scientists' abuse of statistical software, and with teachers using calculators instead of teaching.

Sackerson said...

@AKH: I read something long ago that said the use of education to abolish inequality fails; children who enter the system with and advantage (esp. supportive parents) leave it with a bigger one.