There's (probably) nothing wrong with your child

Our education system is in desperate need of a dramatic overhaul. There are so many ways in which its failing students that it`s hard to write them all in one article. And in my experience it doesn`t have much to do with the teaching staff. There are of course exceptions but in the main I think most teachers work very hard and have good intentions. The problem we've got is that the entire orientation of the education system is incorrect. It is, in effect, a giant, state-funded CV filtering system. Let me justify that comment if you will.

One example I cite to back that claim up is the concept of "grade inflation". This is a concern from (presumably government officials, although I`ve never actually seen anyone campaigning strongly on this issue) some people that grades constantly creep up higher and higher. This would only be a problem if you were concerned about the ability of the schools to differentiate between student`s intelligence and ability. In actual fact the grade you get is not based exactly on the score you receive on the paper, but in where you stack up in relation to the rest of the country that year. So if you`re in the top 10% of scores, you get an A* (or level 9), and so forth. The entire system is geared towards differentiating between "the smart" students, and the, well... not so "smart" ones (apparently).

Compare that to something like, the driving test. The driving test is designed to get students up to a certain level of competence, and those that make the grade pass the test and those that don`t fail. THAT is true education. We have a level of ability we want to attain, and we let the students know what that is, then we educate them until they reach that standard and then we give them a certificate when they`ve achieved it. They are then a qualified driver. Why shouldn`t it be the same for Mathematics? We should decide on what level of maths we require as a society, then set that standard, let the students know what it is, and educate them until they reach that standard. Once that`s all done we should pat them on the back and give them a certificate showing they have the required ability in mathematics. Job Done.

In other words we should be aiming to get every student up to an A* / Level 9. We should be getting 100% of students get the top grade, or at least target that. But whenever schools get anywhere close there are cries of "Grade Inflation", and "Exams are getting too easy" etc. and the goal posts get moved once again and all the work teachers invested into teaching students certain things is thrown on the garbage heap and they are forced to start again. Imagine, that. Imagine in your job, right now, every time you start producing good work, and hitting your targets, your boss decides to arbitrarily make your job more difficult, removes all the tools you developed for doing the current job, and makes you start from scratch. AND THEN claims that it`s because your job was too easy anyway and had nothing to do with what you did. I mean, a salesperson, after having made millions in sales, is forced to give up his address book, throw away all the product information he`s collected over the years, burn his sales pitch and learn a new admin system. Not because he was doing anything wrong, but because he was doing too well at doing what he had already been asked to do.

It is really quite staggering. There`s a second problem here, and that is even if we moved over to this type of education system, we`re still far from being optimum. For starters there needs to be a decision made as to what skills people really need, and why we are educating them. Of course there is the general stuff around having a wider understanding of the adult world and being a good citizen, but mainly I think the government spends billions each year to try and make more productive workers that can earn more money and pay more tax. It would be an unsustainable system if they didn`t. So what then, has inverse trigonometry got to do with anything? I love maths and very much enjoyed studying it, (and to be honest I wouldn`t stop anyone studying it if they were interested as it is such a fascinating subject), but we don`t really need people to know most of it to be productive workers in the economy. Really we don`t.

I`ve tried in the past to convince students there is some value in this stuff (when they`ve asked me the standard "what`s the point in this stuff?" question), and the more I think about it, the more I think they`re right. There is no real point, except that it`s interesting. There is no other reason. Unless you specifically need it for a job, but then that should be vocational training like any other job (accountancy for example). So you wind up with students not interested in the subject, being forced to learn something they`ll never need (and forget immediately after the exam), changing every 5-10 years how it`s taught anyway so the teachers have to constantly re-do work they`ve already done, all for what? It costs billions and there is absolutely no point whatsoever. It achieves nothing. We need a total rethink of what skills people actually need in the work place, and base the courses around that. And then just train people to get those skills so that employers see that if they`ve got what`s required to do the job (rather than trying to infer it abstractly from someone`s academic scores). And we should leave people free to study academic subjects if they wish (the ones that are interested will do it anyway).

What we`ve got now is totally bananas. So if your child is struggling, it might be in part because they are caught in a completely nutty system. Nevertheless, the system is there and you need to play the game. The grades do matter and that still is important (even if only because everyone agrees that they are!). So my approach to tutoring is very much, if they`ve got to do it anyway I try to make it as interesting as possible. I try to show the students the inherent beauty of the subject so they can get a glimpse of what I see when I look at Mathematics. I don`t try and con them into believing that there`s any point in it other than that. And I do take the grades very seriously, ultimately after the years of toil if you haven`t got the piece of paper to show for it then it really has been a waste of time.

(Published on 7 Jul 2016)