Is education improving?  If not, why not?

by Irina Tyk, Head of Holland  House School 

Education is said to have improved in the last few years. Good schools continue to do good work and failing schools are being turned around. There is an accepted view that the world of education is moving forward positively, parental concerns continue to be voiced and heeded. The general perception is that educational matters are on the up!

I would like to suggest that this is not the case. Despite the consensus of parents, experts and the educational establishment, I believe that this popular and generally accepted view is wrong.

This is not, of course, to denigrate the good work which continues to be done by authors, like Michael Morpurgo and Philip Pullman who raise their voices about the importance of values and morality in literature, or by brave journalists who continue to despair when they uncover deficiencies, or by employers who no longer trust paper qualifications of their new recruits or by parents who opt out of the system altogether. Fortunately, they all speak with their individual voice and will surely continue to do so. 

However, education is based on certain premises which, I believe, have remained unchanged and are now taken for granted. These premises are buried so deeply and have been accepted so widely they are no longer even articulated, let alone challenged! If they are mentioned, a certain disbelief or automatic censure greets them. As the polemicist, George Mikes has written with regard to refusing a cup of tea in England, 'You are judged an exotic and barbarous bird without any hope of ever being able to take your place in civilised society.' 

So it is in education. The day education was placed firmly on the political agenda and drawn into the framework of politics, it lost a certain freedom. It now has to deliver society's expectations and fulfil society's needs rather than concern itself with training the mind and equipping children with tools of language and the necessary framework which will allow them to develop freedom of thought and an intellectual dimension. There used to be a firm belief in intellectual freedom, hard-won over the centuries. The school room was not expected to deliver according to the prescribed views of an establishment wedded to politics and power. Objective standards were respected and education did not, on the whole, follow anyone or anything blindly.

This is no longer the case. I would like to outline below those negative features that impede real progress and prevent good practice in schools from flourishing despite all that is said to the contrary.

In brief, they may be listed as follows:

1. The feel-good factor

2. The belief that all forms of struggle are wrong

3. Judgment and criticism, unless it is positive, is bad for children

4. The 'psychologising' of education

5. The idea that 'to try' is the moral equivalent of  'to succeed'

6. Education is of practical significance only; employability is its goal

7. Competition is bad

8. No one fails and no one is responsible for their own success or failure


1. The feel-good factor

The feel-good factor predominates and lies at the root of many well-intentioned classroom strategies. It results in a refusal to mark work with reference to objective standards, it leads to lying about pupils' results, it means that work must not be marked with a red pen and it makes the classroom a space for socialising rather than for learning.

2. Struggle is bad for children

Following from the notion that one must feel good about oneself and about life in general comes the idea that any form of difficulty, any struggle will, by its very nature, cause unhappiness. Hence the commonly held view that a child must not struggle. Struggle involves difficulty, effort and may lead to failure. Therefore, the way must be cleared so that the child may continue to live in a paradise where the feel-good factor prevails at all costs. People have forgotten that real feelings of happiness can only follow real achievement; real achievement usually follows mastery of something difficult and demanding. What is not understood is that the cost is far higher when a child has not learned to struggle for either personal happiness or worldly success. A child will not achieve if he is taught to believe that struggle is damaging to his happiness and is to be avoided at all costs!

3. Judgment and criticism are counter-productive

Judgment and criticism are the tools of teaching. A good and serious teacher has earned the right to correct, to judge and to support his corrections and judgments so that they are clear for all to see – to the child, to the parent and to any outside body. Demands should be made of children and a teacher may use a red pen if only to ensure that his comments may be distinguished from his pupil's work. Marks, the shorthand of a teacher's judgment, should be given.

Antagonism to such direct assessment comes from the belief that the feel-good factor will be dented! And if a child feels negative, he will collapse psychologically. A child must never feel offended or be reprimanded. That is perceived to be too heavy a burden for a young child. Such a patronising attitude is insulting to a child who is quite capable of seeing the difference between right and wrong, good work and bad work. There is no reason why a child should not be held responsible for what he says and does.

4. The 'psychologising' of education

The feel-good factor predominates to such an extent that all kinds of strategies have been devised to support it. The feel-good factor has become a psychological ploy: never mind the truth so long as we feel good about ourselves! We have, indeed, entered the realm of pseudo-psychology. To encourage this feeling and to escape responsibility on all sides, we have developed a comfortable 'psychobabble' which now replaces clear thinking and rational judgment. As the novelist, Isaac Bashevis-Singer said in his Nobel Prize-winning Speech in 1978 when giving reasons as to why he writes for children:

'Children don't read to find their identity. They don't read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation. They have no use for psychology. They detest sociology. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff. They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes. When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority. They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only adults have such childish illusions.'

Education would improve dramatically if teachers in the classroom took some of this wonderful writer's comments on board!

5. 'To try' is 'to succeed'

In our topsy-turvy world where relative values hold sway, 'trying' and 'succeeding' have become synonymous. The notion of excellence, the wish to strive and better one's understanding of the world and reap a just reward are old-fashioned concepts that have become increasingly irrelevant in contemporary educational thinking.

6. Education is a pragmatic and purely practical exercise

So what happens to education? It turns into a purely practical exercise and the school room becomes a place for acquiring a minimal fitness certificate for a future job. Languages become exercises in tourism. Music means passing grades. Children are not introduced to the language of art. The grammar of language is all but lost. The introduction of good literature is minimal; and this at a time when writing for children is at a peak!

7. Competition is bad

Competition sharpens the mind and teaches the child that they cannot always win. It demonstrates that there is an objective standard according to which the best should win and be seen to win. This, in turn, introduces the notion of an ideal worth struggling for. Furthermore, it suggests that others may do better than oneself and their success is to be applauded generously. It teaches a child not to be selfish about the achievements of others, whereas the ubiquitous feel-good factor is for oneself alone! It is truly self-centered.

8. No one fails

At the end-of-the-road paved with the feel-good factor of today's mind-set stands the comforting and wholly false suggestion that no one fails. No one is blamed and all may feel good about themselves. Furthermore, if we become unhappy in this fools' paradise, we need not worry, the doctor will prescribe the happy pills, those wonderful anti-depressants to keep us going if, of course, we haven't had recourse to them already in the guise of mind-enhancing drugs or alcohol. It is regrettable and dangerous when the response to unhappiness or discontent or boredom involves going to the doctor and swallowing tablets. We run to the magic and mystery of the irrational and sacrifice a rational approach that allows mastery of the exciting and extraordinary real world around us. What a pity!

The attitudes outlined above and the attempt to make the classroom a happy place above all other considerations have resulted in the dismissal of those very tools which will allow a child to cope independently. Their substitution with nice feelings couched in woolly language, however well-intentioned, have brought about a decline that is all but irreversible.

Is there anything one can do?

Education will only improve when individuals recognise the falseness and hypocrisy of many of the premises that underlie our current educational system. Such premises have become embedded in our thinking and have acquired the stamp of convention and political correctness. It is well to remember that the state, through its schools and the educational establishment, can neither legislate for our happiness nor can it tell individuals how to live or what to think. Fortunately, we continue to live in a democracy. For this democracy to survive, education must free itself from a debilitating and cloying sentimentality which seems to have received a stamp of official approval from our education experts.

Parents must rely only on themselves to set an example and to steer a separate path while their children are of school age. As always, those universal ideas of honesty, truthfulness and sincerity go a long way in the fight against the tyranny of feel-good factors, psychobabble, a lack of generosity towards greatness and a mindless repetition of what is supposed to be good but is, as we all know deep down, simply the easy option of allowing others to think for us and set standards which are designed for a lowest common denominator. Furthermore, a healthy scepticism on all fronts would do wonders for all!

Practically speaking, parents should do their utmost to encourage the development of language skills and self-expression. They should introduce their children to wonderful literature, good stories and clear thinking even about the most mundane of daily activities. Society may appear to be greater and stronger than the individual. However, while we continue to live in a democracy it is the individual who can agree or disagree with what is happening in that society and can make a choice to live or not live according to society's dictates.

Parents do not actually have to pay the dues required by the educational establishment. We will get the education we deserve only as and when we, as private individuals, bring up our children differently and without help from the state.

/Campaign for Real Education, July 2006


Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 07757 715145.  Email: [email protected]
Vice-Chairman: Katie Ivens.  Tel: 07990 997215
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman. Email: [email protected]
Secretary: Alison McRobb. Email: [email protected]