I’ve often heard the remark from teachers that our methods in school fail to prepare pupils for university. The usual whipping boy for their criticism is ‘too much spoon feeding.’
The idea is that we should have been developing more independence of mind in our pupils. They have just been drilled for test after test, and have never really had the chance therefore to develop a proper grasp of the subject. The next step is to start attacking our factory schooling, and trot out progressive slogans in favour of creativity and opposed to testing.
But the real reason that our pupils are not ready for university is that they have been doing the wrong kind of drill for the wrong kind of tests. They have been taught exam technique and a narrow range of subject matter. They have never been given a broad grounding in their subject, because that is not what our school exams require. Just like comprehensivisation, the 1987 GCSE reforms were hijacked by anti-subject matter progressives, who used their introduction to dumb down the curriculum. GCSEs are beginning to move back towards actually testing knowledge thanks to Gove, but we have a long, steep climb ahead of us.
A friend of my wife’s took some of her exams before the introduction of GCSEs and some afterwards. When preparing for her geography GCSE, she assumed that the test would cover more or less the same content as the O-level for which she had been studying. So she filled her mind with a large body of subject knowledge in readiness. But the GCSE exam was a bitter disappointment. She had been wasting her time. It was filled with questions that were little more than common sense.
Readiness for university depends upon having a good general grounding in academic subject-matter. It also depends on pupils being in the habit of putting in the effort to memorise this knowledge. The nonsense of open text exams failed to take hold in our best universities. Moreover, as E D Hirsch points out, ‘the only consistent correlative of academic achievement is effort’ (The Schools We Need, p101).
The problem isn’t spoon feeding: it’s hoop jumping. Pupils are trained to perform peculiar tricks for the benefit of examiners, while schools neglect to give them a proper grounding in the academic subjects.
In fact, our pupils are not being fed enough. They are intellectually malnourished. But this is not inevitable, even within the current exam system. There are brave schools that are bucking the trend and focusing on core knowledge. They will find that their GCSE results are very good as well, because they will go far beyond the impoverished requirements of the GCSE curriculum.