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An Interview with Chris Woodhead: Is this the Education Our Children Deserve?

Cover of  by Chris Woodhead

An Interview with Chris Woodhead: Is this the Education Our Children Deserve?

Michael F. Shaughnessy - June 10, 2009
Senior Columnist
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

Chris Woodhead is the author of the newly published book 'A Desolation of Learning: Is this the Education Our children Deserve?? published by Pencil-Sharp Publishing, UK. In this interview he reflects on education and the current state of education.

1) Chris, you have just written a book entitled "A Desolation of Learning". What prompted this?

Three things, Michael. First, because problems in state schools in England are worse even than they were in 2001 when I wrote my last book, Class War. The story of how the Labour Government has failed since 1997 and what this failure has meant for millions of children needed, I thought, to be told. Second, there is soon to be a General Election in the UK and may therefore be an opportunity to effect change. The Leader of the Conservative Party, Mr Cameron, has no doubt drawn his own conclusions from the failures of the last 12 years.

Those concerns need, however, to be translated into a genuinely Conservative education policy, which as yet we do not have. I have sought to outline such a policy. Third, I have Motor Neurone Disease.

This is the last throw of the dice.

2) Let's talk about "the education our children deserve". At bottom line, what do you think a high school graduate should be able to do in terms of reading, writing, spelling and reading- what should that high school diploma indicate?

It depends, as your subsequent questions acknowledge, on the intelligence of the high school graduate. Every high school graduate should qualify with a basic competence in literacy and numeracy. They should know something, if not very much, about the world in which they live - science, history, music, literature and so on.

3) Now, let's talk about really intelligent gifted kids- I.Q. above 130. What kind of education do they deserve and how should the schools go about providing it?

Gifted students need an education with is truly challenging and inspiring. I am not so much interested in the development of 'thinking skills' and their personal opinions on the subjects they are studying. I want them to understand ideas that are genuinely difficult and fascinating because they are difficult. Take my own subject, English Literature; the gifted student should leave high school knowing a significant amount about English Literature from Chaucer to the current day. This happened when I was at school in the 1960s. It no longer does in England. The curriculum and examinations have been dumbed down so that all can win prizes, and what matters now is the 'relevance' and 'accessibility' of what is taught to the experience and concerns of the students.

4) Do you favor any kind of curriculum? I am thinking here of E.D. Hirsch's Core Curriculum. Is that a good ruler or standard to go by?

I very much approve of E D Hirsch's core curriculum, but the experience of the last 12 years in England tells me there is a problem. In the early 1990s, we tried to introduce a national curriculum that was similar to that Hirsch has proposed. The teachers hated it, of course. And, in the face of their opposition, increasingly pusillanimous politicians have removed core knowledge and substituted so called 'skills' and 'cross-curricular dimensions'.

Anything, in fact, other than subject knowledge. I have come to feel that we cannot trust the politicians and that a national curriculum, however sensible in its initial concept, can very quickly become a part of the problem.

5) Chris, I hope you won't avoid this question, but I just see more and more children in the schools who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, deaf/blind, and some who are diagnosed with autism and traumatic brain injury. What kind of education ( or training ) do they deserve and how do parents go about making sure that they get the education they deserve?

This is the case, Michael, in England too. Our Labour Government has been committed to a policy of 'inclusion', which means that many special schools dedicated to the education of children with serious learning difficulties have been shut down. Their parents have objected. Teachers in mainstream schools admit that they do not have the expertise or resource to deal with the individual disabled child.

It has, nonetheless, happened. I think all children should receive an education that allows them to fulfill their potential, whatever it is, but we have to recognize that children have very different potentials and that teachers are not magicians.

6) A basic statistical fact is the half the population is below average in "intelligence" no matter how you personally define "intelligence". How do we properly, correctly educate these two groups- the group above and the group below "average"?

It is a basic statistical fact, but it is a deeply controversial issue in both our countries. In A Desolation of Learning I quote the English novelist D H Lawrence (who lived for a while, of course, in New Mexico!). He wrote, in The Education of the People, 1918:

'We have assumed that we could educate Jimmy Shepherd and make him a Shelley or an Isaac Newton. At the very least we were sure we could make him a highly intelligent being. And we're just beginning to find our mistake. We can't make a highly intelligent being out of Jimmy Shepherd. Why should we, if the Lord created him only moderately intelligent? Why do we want always to go one better than the Creator?'

The three main political parties in England are now committed to the notion of a comprehensive school and, to a greater or lesser degree, to a comprehensive currriculum. They cannot admit (see my answer to question 10 below) that in secondary schools children of different intelligence need a radically different education. Those who are not academically gifted should have the opportunity to follow vocational courses which allow them to fulfil the potential they do have. At the moment they are failed and humiliated by a system which refuses to acknowledge human reality. The dumbing down of the curriculum in the hope that all can make progress means, of course, that our brightest children are failed too.

7) Let's talk about grade retention- should kids be held back when they don't seem to be making progress? Should they receive summer school or after school tutoring?

Yes, they should. It is crazy to move children up through school when they haven't mastered the ideas taught in the previous term or year. The problem, as is so often the case, is a pathetic sentimentality that, in not wanting to embarrass any student, ends up in humiliating them and damaging their education.

8) Some people criticize education saying it is just learning " a bunch of facts". Others critique it saying that we are teaching to the test. What is your biggest criticism?

Facts, as E D Hirsch has been saying for so long, matter. In the UK, we now expect children who have been taught no scientific fact to have their personal opinions about climate change and sustainability.

If teaching to the test means drilling a child in a curriculum that has no meaning then it is a bad thing. If it means, as it should mean, preparing a child for an examination that tests their grip of a rich, humane curriculum, then what is the problem? My biggest criticism is that educationalists and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic no longer see education as a conversation between the generations in which the young are initiated into the forms of knowledge that enrich our humanity. What matters now is what contributes to our ability to compete in the global economy. We have imposed a bleakly utilitarian view of education upon our young, and in so doing we have denied them the cultural inheritance which should matter more than anything else to them.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

It's implicit in what I have said, but let me be clear. Our governments have failed to reform education. Indeed, they have made things worse. The only solution therefore is to introduce market-based reforms that allow parents to choose between and amongst schools, increase competition between schools and encourage new providers into the market. You have travelled significantly further down this road than we have in England, but you clearly have a lot further to go.

We have a Labour Government that is committed to state monopoly and control and a Conservative opposition that is too politically timorous to present a genuinely radical alternative.

10) Tell us more about your book and where people can get a copy and if you have a web site. THANKS!

Mike, The book is available on Amazon: Deserve/dp/0956257305/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1244210035&sr=1-1

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