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The Department for Education and Skills appears to be channelling for some of Charles Dicken's more grotesque characters. Gradgrind Gove has long been preaching his gospel of 'facts' and rote learning. Now he has decided that children and teachers are not working hard enough and has called for longer school days and shorter holidays. His sidekick M'Choakumchild Truss, not to be outdone in ensuring that our youngest citizens should not be permitted to slack, has this week criticised nurseries which allow toddlers to “run around with no sense of purpose.”
The impoverished view of education, the nurture of imagination and the gradual unfolding of the young mind and spirit which is on display here should worry us all. Of course children and young people must gradually acquire the self-discipline which will enable them to learn and develop. Of course they must learn the practical, intellectual, emotional and social skills through which they may know themselves to be valued members of society. Of course, they must learn how to work hard at the times when that is appropriate. But to treat them as small Stakhanovites upon whose long and tightly regulated hours our country's future competitiveness depends, is both cruel and stupid.
In the UK, children receive 925 instructional hours a year. In Finland (a nation whose education system is much admired), the figure is 777 hours. Japan and Korea – often held up as exemplars of oriental industry and application – have their children under formal instruction for 868 and 867 hours respectively. I imagine that these rather more humane dispensations will not produce the levels of exhaustion and stress found in UK teachers who – despite a prescriptive curriculum, constant carping from politicians and a ludicrous level of bureaucratic requirements – still strive to nurture the imagination and love of learning which is native to childhood.
This perversion of what is often described as the Protestant work ethic cannot go unchallenged. It suits our government to repeat the trope of “hard working families” ad nauseam. We are fed the not so subliminal message that the government's definition of dutiful work is the only show in town. It is a profoundly damaging piece of propaganda.
To have every moment regulated and audited is destructive to everything which makes us human. Who will not recall nourishing childhood hours spent in unsupervised play and reflection? It is in these times that we learn self-reliance, wonder and creativity. I count my childhood blessed despite certain privations and sorrows. I am an only surviving child and spent much time lying on my bed, reading, reflecting, discovering radio and poetry. It was on the dank and mossy steps leading down to the gate of the neighbouring yard that I sat long, Eeyore-like, wondering in a childish way about why I was here and not somewhere else; why I occupied this body and not another; what might be the nature of 'nothing', and “how ever and ever did God begin?” I was not chivvied between the multiple activities which modern parenting has been taught are essential if children are not to be left behind in the race. The rules of that race are written more with an eye for status and material gain than for holistic nurture and should be challenged by all who have learned that we are more than cogs for the machinery of capitalism.
The negative, unimaginative approach to education displayed by Gove and Truss appears both punitive and ridiculous. If they cannot understand the relationship between quality and quantity or free themselves from an obsession that the politically motivated structuring of the activities of children as young as two will produce well-adjusted citizens, one might question what they have gained from their own education. It would not appear to be the generosity of spirit and largeness of vision which is essential to the 'leading forth' of our young people.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet